“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.”
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.
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?”
I think it’s such a seminal piece of work by Williams 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.
Party grotesque because of its 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.
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.
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 that Mother Violet carries around with her like the bible. She assaults Catherine with it, furiously, as a 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 are ‘ambiguous.’
In this story, Sebastian’s persona, his physical body haunts the narrative, veiled, disambiguate, 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 and 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 accouterments, 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 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.
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 procure, or a 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.”
In fact, William’s portrayal of mostly all the heterosexual characters in the story radiates 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.