Suddenly Last Summer: You can cut the tension with a knife

Of all the books I have reviewed for this column, I have never reviewed or analyzed a drama selection. I came close when writing an analysis of T.S. Eliot’s famed, Murder In The Cathedral, which can be read as having both elements of a poetic work and of a dramatic work. Having never analyzed strictly a work of drama for this column, I wanted to begin with the classic, Suddenly Last Summer composed by Tennessee Williams.

Most everyone, even if they are not steeped in the literary community, has at least heard of Tennessee Williams, thus making his works some of the most popular and enduring of our time. Williams lists of productions and awards are almost too numerous to count. I selected Suddenly Last Summer  due to Williams’ ability to create dialogue and actions which jump from the page. This can be said about any of Williams’ work. Personally, it seems Suddenly Last Summer gets caught between Williams’ other classics especially; Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and of course A Streetcar Named Desire. Therefore, I wanted to discuss a text which was not included in “the big three” of Williams’ works but is still a well-known text.

Williams has been a personal favorite since I first read and watched A Streetcar Named Desire many years ago. The popularity of Williams’ plays prevails as not only literary classics, but as Broadway plays and film classics as well. Some of the most classic, influential films stem from Williams’ dramatic works and feature some of the greatest actors and actresses the cinema has to offer. Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando have all starred in film versions of Williams’ most popular plays. The cinematic version of Suddenly Last Summer stars Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. Suddenly Last Summer standouts among Williams’ other classics as Williams uses this text to reflect societal actions. Williams’ dialogue and the reflection of the fear of society jump from the page and grabs hold of the reader.

When diving into Suddenly Last Summer, a reader encounters a tangled web of family secrets. Mrs. Venable requests Dr. Cukrowicz to perform a lobotomy on her niece, Catharine, in order to keep the secrets surrounding Mrs. Venable’s son Sebastian’s death from seeing the light of day. Catharine is the last to see Sebastian alive as she accompanies him on a summer vacation. The reader learns Sebastian used Catharine as bait to lure his future male lovers. While I will not reveal the cause of Sebastian’s death and the ending of the play, Mrs. Venable requests Catharine’s lobotomy in order to quell her story of attracting Sebastian’s love interests before it becomes public knowledge.

The technique in which Williams composes his dialogue sees Catharine’s words leap from the page as she uses diction such as “attract,” “attention,” “made contacts” and “procuring.” Mrs. Venable is shocked and outraged so much so that she is willing to “cut this hideous story out of her brain!” Williams designed the work so every word and action leads up to Catharine’s big reveal and when Williams adds a greater number of words to Catharine’s dialogue, her speech quickens and the reader needs a minute to recover from the shocking news that has been delivered. Thus, when the truth is revealed, the reader feels Mrs. Venable’s shock. In sharing in Mrs. Venable’s shock, the reader does not share Mrs. Venable’s maiming tendencies to destroy Catharine but instead are shocked that Sebastian is someone other than the person his mother has been portraying.

Just as Mrs. Venable has no idea of her son’s true objectives for bringing Catharine on vacation, the reader has also been left in the dark. When Catharine declares the real reason for her presence, it is the first time Sebastian and Catharine can be seen as their genuine selves. Catharine is seen not as an untruthful, disturbed patient and Sebastian is not viewed as the poetic, honest son.

Further, it is only after Williams allows Catharine to make this shocking declaration can Mrs. Venable also be seen for whom she really is and her less than honorable motives revealed. It is with Catharine’s declaration the characters are cleansed of their hidden agendas and concealed selves. Williams entraps the reader in the double-sided nature of each character, thus ensnaring the reader in the double-sided nature of society itself.

The mark of a great playwright is even without actors and actresses performing the work visually, a reader can feel the palpable tension and tangible sentiment as they read. In Suddenly Last Summer, the tension and the emotion is so perceptibly thick it can be cut with Dr. Cukrowicz’s knife.