“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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
“I know it’s a hideous story but it’s a true story of our time and the world we live in”- Catherine Holly
Suddenly, Last Summer was a one-act play by Tennessee Williams. It opened off Broadway on January 7, 1958. It was part of a double bill with another one-act play of Williams’ called Something Unspoken. Suddenly, Last Summer is considered one of Williams’ starkest and most poetic works, and I tend to agree.
While writing this post, I discovered the same story surfacing about the working atmosphere on the set of the film, concerning the tensions between film stars Katharine Hepburn as well as Liz Taylor toward Mankiewicz’s abominable treatment of actor Monty Clift who had been struggling on the set with alcohol and drug use due to a car accident that disfigured his face. The actors had grown increasingly disgusted with the director’s blatant homophobic abuse of Clift who was openly gay.
Apparently this tension culminated into a moment of rebellion by Ms. Hepburn, who waited til the final scene was shot, and then proceeded to spit in Mankiewicz’s face. I have to say, that while Hepburn is not on my list of actors that I idolize nor whose film career I follow closely, I commend her intrepid defense, and would have expected more of a face slap with a long white linen glove. I am saddened by the revelation, if it is accurate that Mankiewicz was a homophobe. I just finished watching his film, Letter to Three Wives 1949 with 3 of my best loved actresses Ann Southern, Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell. Not to mention his contribution to All About Eve 1950. It’s often hard to separate the person from the work, and while I will always admire his work as a director, it does taint the waters to think that Mankiewicz could be a neanderthal in his thinking.
Producer Sam Spiegel submitted Gore Vidal’s screenplay to the MPAA’s review board before production began, the board having expressed objections to the stories subject matter. Spiegel wanted to let Joseph Mankiewicz shoot the film as it was intended. Although the board first refused to approve the film, they gave the go ahead, after a few minor changes were made. Thus, the word homosexual never materialized at any time in the film.
The movie supposedly differs from the stage version, using added scenes, and characters. Also adding a few subplots. Due to the strict Hollywood Production Codes that were enforced, they had to cut out any explicit references to homosexuality.
Elizabeth Taylor conjures the psychically injured Catherine Holly with a volatile poignancy , Katharine Hepburn icy and filled with misconstructions about the relationship with her son Sebastian, emerges from her gilded elevator like a throne, as Mrs.Violet Venable. Both stars were up for Academy Awards for Best Actress in A Leading Role that year, but both lost to Simone Signoret for her role in Room at The Top (1959).
Montgomery Clift is the kindly and ruminating Dr. Cukrowicz Albert Dekker is head of Lion’s View Sanitarium Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader, who is in desperate need of an endowment to overhaul his crumbling hospital.
Mercedes McCambridge plays Mrs Grace Holly, Violet’s opportunistic mother, and Gary Raymond plays Violet’s self absorbed brother George Holly. Mavis Villiers is Mrs Foxhill, Violet Venable’s dutiful assistant.
With a dynamic soundtrack by Buxton Orr, (usually working on Sci-Fi films like Fiend Without A Face 1958,First Man Into Space 1959) and Malcolm Arnold. Film editing by William Hornbeck and Thomas Stanford. And cinematography by Jack Hildyard.
Brooks Atkinson of the NY times writes “Mr Williams is at his peak as the poet of the damned” and “his most decisive denial of the values by which most people live, his most devastating statement about corruption in the world.”
In Donald Spoto’s biography – The Kindness of Strangers-The Life of Tennessee Williams, Williams underwent intense psychotherapy in mid 1957 frequently visiting his sister Rose who was institutionalized , eventually completing the play against the advice of Dr Kubie. ” I think if this analysis works” he said as the year drew to a close, “It will open some doors for me. If I am no longer disturbed myself, I will deal less with disturbed people and with violent material…It would be good If I could write with serenity” -Tennessee Williams
The intense therapy that Williams underwent with Dr. Kubie, actually triggered an even more violent self purgative exposition of his life’s journey, staying true to himself as a writer who would contribute something more visceral to the American stage. Spoto goes on to say “Williams had hoped at the beginning of his therapy to conform to the prevailing theatrical and cultural coziness of 1958 but the play was neither safe nor easy nor would it be for his audience.”
Suddenly, Last Summer essentially acts as confessional, partly out of the guilt he felt about his sister Rose’s treatment, and self reflection of the demons that were made manifest due to his intensive psychoanalysis.
Throughout Suddenly, Last Summer, there are threads of autobiographical allusions to his private life.Williams struggled with the sadness over his own sister Rose who was forced to undergo a lobotomy at the urging of their own domineering mother, not unlike Violet. During the time Williams started writing Suddenly, Last Summer, he began his psychoanalysis before finishing the play.
One of the narrative’s main arteries is the looming threat of lobotomy to Catherine Holly mirroring William’s sister Rose’s imposed surgery. Sebastian Venable’s pattern of exploitation was something that he wrestled with about his own behavior. “Yes” says Catherine, “We all use each other and that’s what we think of as love.”
“and for Sebastian/Williams sexual exploitation had masqueraded as love, and had become a kind of human devouring. The final horror of “Desire and the Black Masseur” was at last narrated in the extreme: “We were going to blonds…that’s how he talked about people, as if they were items on the menu. ‘That one’s delicious- looking, that one is appetizing.’ or ‘that one is not appetizing’ – I think because he was really nearly half starved from living on pills and salads.”- Donald Spoto
Apparently the connection between Williams and Sebastian was even made evident using the reference to “popping little white pills” And although Violet claims that Sebastian like the author , “dreaded, abhorred false values that come from being publicly known from fame, from personal exploitation,” she admitted “Time after time my son would let people go, dismiss them.”
As it often reveals itself with many of Tennessee Williams plays, the story uses elements from his own personal life acting as semi-confessional. Sebastian’s persona is one of a counterfeit poet, parasite and exploiter of people, such as his delicate cousin Catherine, ultimately being devoured by street urchins in Spain, literally and metaphorically consumed by the object of his own desire, setting the tone for Williams reflexive portrait of self condemnation and remorse. Suddenly, Last Summer as Donald Spoto once again states, “the perception of derailed creative energies and the abuse of love as any moralist could ever proclaim.” “Obsessed with what the play calls ‘the trails of debris’ that he believed had characterized so much of his life in the 1940s and 50s.”
Joseph L Mankiewicz had said, “There is something not only of confession in the play, but of wish-fulfillment too. Tennessee might have liked to have a garden with statues like Sebastian’s, a study with paintings like Sebastians’. If he had a distaste for anything, it was for his own aging, and his own humble background and circumstances. Suddenly Last Summer enabled him to have what he despised, in a way. And Mrs Venable is certainly a composite of the women who defended and accompanied him all over the world.”
It’s 1937 Montgomery Clift plays the sympathetic Dr. John Cukrowicz an upcoming neurosurgeon from Chicago, who has been summoned to the palatial Venable estate an old Victorian Mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans, by the sovereign widow, and wealthy matriarch Violet Venable inhabited imposingly by Katharine Hepburn who portrays Violet’s character like a Dragon Lady in a starched white exoskeleton. Violet is prepared to donate a large sum of money to fund the doctor’s research at the state mental hospital Lion’s View Asylum, with the stipulation that he perform a lobotomy on her supposedly insane niece and poor relation, Catherine Holly portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in one of her most volatile roles.
Suddenly, Last Summer, harnesses integral visions and symbols of a predatory natural world. Overgrown plant life that seems to inhabit the ancient spirits of the forest, statues resembling an Angel of Death, and somewhat like that of a winged maternal bird of prey, a flesh eating bird as mentioned in the story Violet relates to Dr. Cukrowicz. We see Violet in several frames set against the figure of the skeletal harbinger. Violet is the embodiment of The Devouring Mother, as she escorts the gentleman doctor around her dead son Sebastian’s primordial jungle evoking the garden of earthly delights by Hieronymus Bosch.
Williams intended the environment to be a Savage place, the natural world. A domain where human frailty and compulsion breed a ravaging force that consumes not only the spirit, but essentially arouses the carnal, primal need to consume the weaker of the species not only to prevail as the unbounded agency of dominance, but to satiate oneself infinitely.