Tennessee Williams: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)-Part II : The Kindness of Strangers -William’s Violent Romance with Human Wreakage or Lock Up Your Sons the Cannibals are Coming!

“Most people’s lives…what are they but trails of debris, each day, more debris… more debris… all long trails of debris. With nothing to clean it all up. Finally death.”

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To me no other playwright manifests more compelling characters, turns a phrase or extracts a poignant moment quite like Tennessee Williams. I want to continue discussing Suddenly, Last Summer, however sensationalist the films climax chooses to eradicate any trace of the central albeit unseen character’s transgression of homosexuality, Tennessee Williams the tormented, sensitive genius who’s homosexuality informed much of his work, also wrote short stories that explore isolation and disconnection within the  family dynamic and fringe collections of misfits and loners, somewhat comparative to the characterizations by Edgar Allan Poe or Robert Aldrich.

Tennessee Williams, Paris, 1959 photo by Gisèle Freund
Tennessee Williams, Paris, 1959 photo by Gisèle Freund

In a 1948 essay in The New York Times, Williams wrote about the questions that people would ask him about his plays and his characters: “Why do you always write about frustrated women?”

“To say that floored me is to put it mildly, because I would say that frustrated is almost exactly what the women I write about are not. What was frustrated about Amanda Wingfield? Circumstances, yes! But spirit? See Helen Hayes in London’s Glass Menagerie if you still think Amanda was a frustrated spirit! No, there is nothing interesting about frustration, per se. I could not write a line about it for the simple reason that I can’t write a line about anything that bores me. Was Blanche of A Streetcar Named Desire frustrated? About as frustrated as a beast of the jungle! And Alma Winemiller? (Summer and Smoke) What is frustrated about loving with such white hot intensity that it alters the whole direction of your life, and removes you from the parlor of the Episcopal rectory to a secret room above Moon Lake Casino?

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Geraldine Page as Alexandra Del Lago and Paul Newman as Chance Wayne in Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth 1962

I think it’s such a seminal piece of work by William’s because it places the conversation in the mainstream of a very culturally conservative 1957. So to continue with my thoughts and impressions about this nuanced melodrama that at times behaves like Grande Guignol.

Dr CUk and the statue of death angel

Party grotesque because of it’s dealings with American psychiatry and asylums, Williams’ struggle to embrace his homosexuality while entering into psychoanalysis with the famous Dr.Lawrence Kubie whose work included many closeted writers of that time period, it’s been said that it was playwright William Inge who actually made the introductions to Kubie who had also held a position as a military psychologist in the 1940s working to keep homosexuals out of the service.

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Tennessee Williams scaring the pigeons in Jackson Square New Orleans – thank god it’s not a flock of vicious devouring black birds going for the soft under belly!

It was during the arduous therapy sessions that Kubie urged Williams to not only give up his sexual proclivities but to abandon his writing as well. Williams ignored the advice of his analyst and remained with his long time lover Frank Merlo,  In fact as I stated in Part I, he actually finished Suddenly, Last Summer at the end of their work together. It was ultimately his writing that served as catharsis, than any prescribed deprivation by Kubie. The one positive by-product of their discussions about William’s dysfunctional family life helped spark a re-energized creative force that proved prolific.

Williams does seem to charge his story with a negative view of American psychiatry. Using the threat of a lobotomy as a weapon, is pivotal to the narrative. It is not only William’s condemnation of neurosurgery as a tool of eradicating the identity of the self, his sister Rose and Catherine Holly, but it goes to the argument that the mental health establishment was attacking homosexuality by wiping out the ‘desire’, his choice to live his life the way he wanted to, and was too comfortably supported by the norms of a society that would rather have ‘homosexuals’ just disappear, ‘the cure’ essentially being the same as wiping out the ‘disease’ from the soul. Violet insists that Sebastian was “chaste.” In death he could remain so.

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The incarnation of Sebastian Venable- A white silk suit with no face

Suddenly, Last Summer’s protagonist Sebastian is literally and figuratively absent. He has died before the film begins. There is something to the narrative that makes him somewhat of a blank page, not unlike or symbolically like the empty pages of his yearly poetry notebook mother Violet carries around with her like the bible. She assaults Catherine with it, furiously, as testimony to his inability to write his last Poem of Summer without his mother there to support his creative force. The very books of poetry themselves ‘ambiguous.’

In this story, Sebastian’s persona, his physical body haunts the narrative, veiled, disambiguated and elusive. As Violet describes him to Dr Cukrowicz it is as if she is discussing a ‘work of art’, almost unreal, inhuman, superlative and divine.

Sebastian Venable is not present as a stable or unifying entity,he merely represents the fragmented consequence of his desires, therefore you cannot assign any definitive boundaries around his identity. The one constant that is pervasive is that he is an absolute symbol of ‘desire’. He and it, are one in the same.-though veiled in secrecy and only revealed at the end. The only evidence or declaration of his existence is his white silk suit, cultured accoutrements and ob*je d’art cluttering his Atelier.

Since Williams did cease working with Kubie, and he continued to self identify as a queer man, it has to conflict with Williams’ detractors who claim, Suddenly, Last Summer was a condemnation of his own homosexuality. The film creates too much of a negative and sinister environment surrounding Lions View, demonizing lobotomies and it’s inherent medieval barbarism, and rallying against the self-denial of Violet Venable. All factors that explore how the world imposes it’s will on an individual’s personal freedom.

THE SELF LOATHING HOMOSEXUAL AND WILLIAM’S STORY OF THE VENABLES.

THE TRUE MONSTERS OF SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER. The Hollies, Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader: head of Lions View Sanitarium who seeks funding for barbaric surgeries, the Devouring Mother Violet Venable, the Natural World, the Lady Venus Fly Trap and God himself.

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Norman Bates mom. An archetypal devouring mother, based on historical serial killer from Wisconsin Ed Gein’s domineering yet stuffed mother.

So this leads to another lurking question about the play, the story, and the film’s adaptation. Is Suddenly, Last Summer the ultimate example of The Self Loathing Queer? While Sebastian Venable is a character who might be considered a predator, a parasite, a procurer or user, who ‘baits’ the objects of his desire with the women in his life. The truth is he is not the only focal point of the story, he is the impetus, the catalyst, with which the story sparks.

 “Blondes were next on the menu,” Catherine explains to Dr Cukrowicz, “He was fed up with the dark ones and was famished for blondes….that’s how he talked about people, as if they were – items on a menu. – ‘That one’s delicious looking, that one is appetizing’…”

He is also a figure manifested and manufactured by a devouring mother incestuous and domineering who taught her son well, how to use his social capital to manipulate, exploit and ultimately consume. Even to the exclusion of her deceased husband whom she abandoned while he was dying, just so she could be with her son when he had considered renouncing all his worldly possessions and becoming a Tibetan Monk. We see through a spectrum of maternal monologues the tenuous line between motherly love and oedipal internment. A devouring mother with a goddess complex who intones the ritualistic invocation of his name – “My son, Sebastian” – throughout the film setting forth a solid declaration of ownership to her son as well as giving him a place in the framework of her life’s meaning.

“Sebastian always said, ‘Mother when you descend it’s like the Goddess from the Machine’… it seems that the Emperor of Byzantium – when he received people in audience – had a throne which, during the conversation, would rise mysteriously into the air to the consternation of his visitors. But as we are living in a democracy, I reverse the procedure. I don’t rise, I come down.”

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In fact, William’s portrayal of mostly all the heterosexual characters in the story radiate a nature that can be qualified as reprehensible, greedy, vicious and downright morbid. Violet Venable is as much or more a grotesque character than Sebastian’s homosexuality, she is the striking monster of the story if you will.

Catherine Holly is literally raped surrounded by the wild Oaks, the image evoked as if it were a rite performed by evil spirits emanating from the ancient Oaks themselves, although she was violated by a married man of low stature in the community no less. Catherine’s violation itself is a monstrous aspect of the story, and might harken back to the accusation of rape that William’s sister Rose made toward her own father, the reason, Edwina wanted her daughter quieted.

Catherine’s own mother and brother easily tune out the reality of the invasive and irreversible brain damage that drilling into her skull would cause, just so they can grab their piece of the Venable fortune. The Hollies are all too eager and willing to sign commitment papers from the malevolent Aunt Violet not only to confine her to Lion’s View but subject her to a lobotomy in order to get their hands on Sebastian’s inheritance. Monstrous.

It’s like the Seven Deadly Sins, Catherine’s alleged Lust, Violet’s Pride, and The Hollie’s Avarice and Greed. They are the true monsters of the story, yet.

In the Book of Proverbs the verses associated with King Solomon  state that the Lord specifically regards “six things the Lord hateth, and the seventh His soul detesteth.”

  1. A proud look.
  2. A lying tongue.
  3. Hands that shed innocent blood.
  4. A heart that devises wicked plots.
  5. Feet that are swift to run into mischief.
  6. A deceitful witness that uttereth lies.
  7. Him that soweth discord among brethren.

You could say that between Mrs. Holly, Catherine’s brother, Mrs.Venable and Dr Hockstader are guilty of all seven.

The other predator of the story, the monster, is not only the frailty of human nature, the film depicts a dark and violent natural world, ordered by the cycle of preservation and regeneration.

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Dr. Cukrowicz and Violet Venable look out onto the primordial garden as the winged Angel of Death stands as sentry. The world is painted, a volatile and infinite realm, the essence of creation, chaos, quietus and destruction.

In the film’s universe nature is constructed as a cruel and unyielding mechanism that shows no mercy, and incorporates, destroys or consumes its ‘subject’ in order to re-affirm its own powerful divinity in the order of things. Simultaneously human social relationships also thrive on violence and mirror that same devouring force. Not only does it illustrate our relationship to each other, it reinforces our connection to the natural world.

As the ill fated sea turtles of the Galápagos Islands who’s bellies are ripped open and eaten by the great black birds, while trying to make it to sea, acts is an allegory for the struggle of mankind trying to survive in a world where the weaker are devoured by the stronger species. Nature is the monster of the story. Ultimately, it’s Sebastian who sees the face of God, and determines that it is God who is the monster of the story, and Sebastian the martyr, who must be sacrificed, because in the ‘normal’ world, he is the weaker, imperfect being, a transgressor, faltering by his driving desires, he is destroyed while seeking comforts and cravings. To Sebastian God revealed his savage face to his cruel cycle of  ‘creations’ as he saw this epiphany that is the horror of existence. Full circle, continuation, and the human connectedness to nature at times call for physical and destructive sacrifice. In his search for God and the Truth, he observes natures violence as a world filled with chaos, savagery and beyond human control.

Catharine describes her inability to “save” Sebastian from “completing – a sort of! – image! – he had of himself as a sort of! – sacrifice to a – terrible sort of a [God]”

Of course, gender scholars, gay activist, writers and social theorists will focus on the horror story being the unspoken ‘homosexuality’ that is an undercurrent of the story, and could be considered the fundamental monster of the piece. And I by no means wish to dismiss Sebastian as a predator himself.

BOUT-DE-ZAN STEALS AN ELEPHANT by Louis Feuillade
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM….

The boys who Sebastian lured were represented as young. And during that time period in Hollywood, Homosexuals were fast becoming the new fiend, freak or mentally unbalanced figure. The coded character of films in the 50s. That subject I’ll go into at another time in a post entitled, ‘Queers and Dykes in the Dark. Noir Cinema’s Coded Gay characters: The idolizing/objectifying male, and the obssessive/psychotic woman.”

Ultimately, their deeds and desires were their undoing. Either by their own hand, by fate, by the laws of justice or by an angry assailant. We know Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner, Mrs Danvers in Rebecca die violently, driven by their unsavory, unholy desires. And even Martha Dobie hangs herself at the end of Lillian Hellman’s A Children’s Hour. 

What makes Suddenly, Last Summer so grotesque, is that Sebastian dies so horrifically at the hands of brown skinned foreign young boys who sold their bodies for a few ‘tips’ ultimately avenging themselves by cannibalizing their consumer. I’ve discussed the fear of foreigners in other posts, and won’t yet add the other layer of ‘otherization’ in this work. The idea that Sebastian dies at the hands of swarthy brown skinned youths is a whole other level of selectivity and making anything non-American horrifying and mysterious.

Still, I feel certain that any hint at the self-loathing homosexual, is eclipsed by the auxiliary cast of characters who feed upon the rest of the people who inhabit the film’s environment.

Vito Russo referred to  Suddenly Last Summer, as the ultimate ‘psycho-sexual freak show’ in The Celluloid Closet. He accuses William’s of using his play as a vehicle to punish himself, as a self-loathing gay man.

The movie version of The Celluloid Closet 1995 actually edits the climactic scene of Sebastian’s death with images from James Whale’s The Bride Of Frankenstein to juxtapose the notion of the ‘monstrous’ Sebastian, to try and sufficiently equivocate his being a monster with that of Frankenstein’s creation. The frenzied throng of boys pursuing Sebastian being analogous to the angry villagers with their primitive rakes and flaming torches.

We know that he did struggle with his sexuality while in psychoanalysis with Kubie. But again, he was also writing as a way to come to terms with his sister’s mental illness and mother Edwina’s forced lobotomy.Something he felt profound guilt about, because he was away, while all this transpired.

It comes back to Violet who is the true monster of the piece. Like the feeding frenzy birds on the Island, she is the catalyst for all things being torn up and devoured. The flesh, bones, and even Catherine’s brain, Catherine’s identity and ultimately her sanity. Violet is the human counterbalance of the Lady Venus Flytrap, waiting to be fed.

Just an extra thought here, in Tennessee William’s other plays which later became screen adaptations, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, the gay male figure is dead before the film even starts rolling. Brick’s lover is neither clearly acknowledged as his lover or ever seen in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, the character was cut from the film. The revival of the play begins soon on Broadway, with Scarlett Johansson playing Maggie. You know I will be saving my pennies to see it when it opens.

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Paul-Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie-in Tennessee Williams Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Blanche Duboise relates an encounter with a young male suitor alluding to his being gay, but is merely a reflection of Blanche’s ravings, the character is never seen on camera, not even in flashback. Sebastian’s face is never seen. With all my chatter about self-loathing gayness,  Suddenly, Last Summer using a figure as a central theme in the film as I’ve said create a dialogue, whether for or against the story’s motivations. Considering the Code Restrictions that were loosening as the conservative 1950s drew to a close, it did open up an avenue for more gay characters to be screened. Still, screenwriter Gore Vidal had to meet several times with the Catholic Legion Of Decency before the script was approved. The ‘hideous story’ that occurs at the end, in the play version of Suddenly, Last Summer , is only related through Catherine’s and Violets story telling, the central figure is dead and removed before the play even begins.

 The Angel of Death is a pervasive motif as omnipresent in the film as if the statue attends Sebastian’s private garden Eden/Hell, which is the primordial breeding place from which all Venable moral tribulations are conveyed and which the convocations of birth, rites of ordeal and death have been engendered in one grandiose prehistoric world.

We see the effigy of the winged skeletal harbinger framed prominently, positioned by Violet and again at the end just before Sebastian is killed on the beach… like an ancient foretelling myth that he would be sacrificed…a martyr, something Catherine alluded to while reflecting back upon her cousin’s musings.

Angel of Death-francis conroy
Francis Conroy striking portrayal of the Angel of Death in FX’s American Horror Story:Asylum- She is the dark feminine embodiment-a winged benefactress of death.

Francis Conroy American Horror Story's Angel of Death

As Dr Cukrowicz and Violet enter Sebastian’s Atelier, Catherine Holly’s parasitic mother and egocentric brother are rifling through his belongings like looters, scavenger birds themselves. Grabbing at what ever crumb, or relic of Sebastian’s existence they can carry away with them.

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Dr. Cukrowicz: May I sit here?
Mrs. Venable: Sebastian’s seat.
Dr. Cukrowicz: Oh! Well…
Mrs. Venable: Oh, no no please, please. It’s a court jester’s chair, a rare one, five-hundred years old. Please, sit on it. Say something funny; make me stop wanting to cry. 

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True to what Williams was feeling about being a roaming poet himself, this monologue by Violet says it so eloquently-

“those sunshine days where it’s always noon and we cast no shadows”
the poets vocation is something that rests on something as fine as thin as the web of a spider, it’s all that holds him over out of destruction, few , a great few are ever able to do it alone. Great help is needed, I gave it, she didn’t.”-Violet

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Now at St. Mary’s where Catherine is watched over by ominous, bellicose nuns.

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The use of iconography of catholic images reinforces the resistance the film is creating about moral ambiguity and the struggle of human desire.

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the inception of Catherine’s hysteria is an externalized imposition, caused by her environment. She does not belong there, but it serves to create anxiety in her. The vicious cycle of the institutionalized ‘female’, eradicated by a moralizing society. And let’s face it, nuns are scarier, only second to clowns….

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Catherine Holly: Truth is the one thing I’ve never resisted.

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Catherine Holly:Is that what love is? Using people? And maybe that’s what hate is – not being able to use people.”

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Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader: She burnt a nun with a cigarette.
Dr. Cukrowicz: Yes she did, I was there, I saw it, she was provoked!
Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader: Provoked? Whover would provoke a mentally disturbed person?
Dr. Cukrowicz: You’d be surprised.

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Mrs. Venable: Sebastian said, ‘Truth is the bottom of a bottomless well.’
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The visual condemnation of the flawed and regressive mental institution, as Catherine stumbles into the den of the demented, the infernal nadir of Lion’s View, it all comes crashing in on her…

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Dr. Cukrowicz: Insane is such a meaningless term.
Catherine Holly: But lobotomy has only one meaning to it, doesn’t it?

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Catherine Holly: [being sedated] “Who was it that said we were all a bunch of kindergarteners trying to spell God’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks?”
To be continued in Part III- The Kindness of Strangers or Lock Up Your Sons, the Cannibals are Coming!

6 thoughts on “Tennessee Williams: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)-Part II : The Kindness of Strangers -William’s Violent Romance with Human Wreakage or Lock Up Your Sons the Cannibals are Coming!

  1. Jo, your SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER series is brilliantly conceived, with imagery more chilling than any Hollywood movie monster! You draw great parallels to characters like THE DARK CORNER’s Hardy Cathcart and PSYCHO’s “Mother”! I’m intrigued to see what you’ll do with future installments. Superb post, my friend!

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