Tennessee Williams claimed that he only wrote two violet plays: Suddenly Last Summer (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), though the one before those two, Orpheus Descending (1957) also ends violently. Suddenly Last Summer is a concentrated dose of Southern Gothic with the horrors of psychiatric violence mixed in with cannibalism and a kind of incest.
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The play begins in a New Orleans Garden District mansion's jungle-like garden, where a rich old woman, Mrs. Venable, is attempting to buy a psychiatrist to shut up Catharine Holly, a niece who was with Mrs. Venable's son when he was killed in a Mexican beach resort town the previous summer. Mrs. Venable offers to support Dr. Cukrowicz's lobotomy research if he does her bidding. She also has what can only be described as an aria on birds swooping down on freshly hatched sea turtles that fascinated her son on one of the annual trips he and she took.
The next two brief scenes show Catharine being managed by a nurse-nun and Catherine's family pleading with her not to repeat her story of Cousin Sebastian's end. (Humoring ogres in hopes of inheriting their lucre is a leitmotif in Williams, notably in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Period of Adjustment, and Kingdom of Earth.)
The climactic scene begins with the doctor injecting truth serum and eliciting the story of Sebastian's last vacation. Catharine tells the doctor that Sebastian used her to attract boys for her cousin to ravage, as he had used his mother until a stroke disfigured so she could no longer draw them. (That a visibly affluent American man would need his mother to draw male meat for him to consume then and there is laughable.) Mrs. Venable protests, but the story continues to the end heavily foreshadowed by the frigate birds slaughtering the turtle hatchlings. 1950s audiences probably thought that it was a case of justifiable homicide. Along with Small Craft Warning and Kingdom of Earth, it shows Williams's deeply internalized homophobia.
Mrs. Venable is a no-holds-barred monster, an epic hypocrite willing to go to extreme lengths to maintain her delusional presentation of her precious son and the family name. Catherine is unsteady from a regiment of psychotropic drugs paid for by Mrs. Venable and has a horrible memory that comes across as more credible than Mrs. Venable's. Mrs. Venable wants to discredit Catharine, but, instead, is discredited by her (poetic justice).
In many Williams plays, facing the truth provides relief and, often, reconciliation. There is no reconciliation here, and no clear relief.
Even though I haven't seen the movie version directed by Joseph Manckiewcz in decades, it's impossible to read the play without seeing the villainous and supercilious Katharine Hepburn and the traumatized incredibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor in the white one-piece swimming suit Catharine only describes in the play. (The doctor is bland and Montgomery Clift's performance is not indelibly stamped in my brain.) The play has way too much exposition with the drama mostly recalled, whereas the movie version has vivid visual flashbacks. The movie is more baroque, the play more concentrated, with de facto monologues (Mrs. Venable's in the first scene, Catharine's in the last) and practically no action. Perhaps imagining what Catharine describes is more sinister than what viewers of the movie see? (My imagination is boxed in by what I remember seeing in the movie adaptation.)
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