“Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”
—The Glass Menagerie
You could probably make a pretty good sketch comedy skit, if classic plays were well-known enough for sketch comedies, about making your own Tennessee Williams’ play from two to four central themes, easily picked out of a fishbowl: homosexuality, Southern belles, heat, madness… Suddenly, Last Summer has most of them: shimmering heat, a controlling, slightly hysterical mother, homosexuality, trauma, madness and even cannibalism (not a new theme for Williams, who insisted the play’s cannibalism was a metaphor…your mileage may vary).
The play is a slow, intense simmer, ready to boil over as the curtain rises. Elderly, rich widow Violet Venable invites a psychiatrist into her home to diagnose her young, traumatized niece Catherine—and give her a lobotomy, in hopes of stopping Catherine from continuing to share her “delusions.” She’s bribed the psychiatrist with the promise of a hefty donation to his research, and he in turn is pleased at the opportunity. Everything seems to be quite straightforward, until Catherine is brought to the mansion from her asylum, the psychiatrist tries truth serum, and the truth — or a truth, at any rate — comes out.
Violet and Catherine are both traumatized by the death of Violet’s spoiled, world-traveling son Sebastian, who died the previous summer under mysterious circumstances. Catherine was a witness to Sebastian’s last moments, and as the play continues, it becomes obvious that Violet is pursuing Catherine’s lobotomy mostly to stop her from “babbling” about not just her trauma or mental illness, but about Sebastian. Violet wants to retreat into silence and secrecy, but Catherine just won’t stop talking.
The relationship between Catherine and her cousin also becomes more obvious as the play continues. Catherine was young, vivacious, pretty and female; she became Sebastian’s traveling companion after Violet suffered a stroke and became visibly older and less attractive.
Catherine, in short, was bait for shy Sebastian’s desires. “Don’t you understand?” she asks at one point, in frustration. “I was procuring for him.” Procuring young men, perhaps too young, to feed Sebastian’s sexual appetites. Like his mother, Sebastian seems to have seen money as a tool to get him exactly what he wanted, with little concern about the human costs.
Suddenly, Last Summer doesn’t flinch from Violet’s pain. She’s certainly the antagonist, angry and monstrous in her demand for Catherine’s lobotomy, but she’s also struggling with unimaginable loss and anguish. Catherine’s honesty lands like salt in her wounds, from the homosexuality she refuses to recognize to the true, ironic horror of her son’s death. At the end of the play, she’s dragged away screaming, while the psychiatrist muses aloud that Catherine’s absurd-sounding story might, in fact, be true. But Catherine’s minor triumph rings hollow; she might avoid the knife or the ice pick, but her mental health is still fragile. In the end, no one in the play has won.
In 1943, around a year before his breakout play The Glass Menagerie would debut in Chicago, Tennessee Williams learned that his sister Rose Williams, who had struggled with mental health for years, had been lobotomized; the final straw was when she accused her own father of rape. The surgery had been botched, and she would spend the rest of her life in an institution. Rose would appear, in thinly veiled form, in The Glass Menagerie, and in many plays after.
Suddenly, Last Summer opened off-Broadway, a double-bill with another one-act by Williams, Something Unspoken. Williams poured his own pain into the work, as he did with so many of his plays, from his breakthrough to his final work in the early 1980s. Beneath the dialogue — at times cutting, at times lyrical, often both — real emotions come through, and real fear: fear of aging, decay and death; fear of losing power; fear of change; fear of losing one’s self, one’s own memories and truth. One of the great tricks of Suddenly, Last Summer is how the beauty of the play itself, its language as lovely as the flowers in Violet’s greenhouse, is used to highlight, rather than diminish, the horror of Catherine’s circumstances and Sebastian’s violent death.
Catherine is the play’s most sympathetic character in a walk. She is guilty and clear-eyed about the role she served for Sebastian and still haunted by his death. She alone has lost any desire to profit from Violet or Sebastian’s fortunes, and her greatest loyalty appears to be to the truth. But this goodness gives her no power, and no happy ending.
The film version of Suddenly, Last Summer was released only a year after the play’s debut, with a steely Katherine Hepburn as Violet, a vibrant Elizabeth Taylor as the tortured Catherine, and Montgomery Clift as the young neurosurgeon foolish enough to think that he could help a young woman and raise money for his research without any strings attached. It was heavily censored, but it’s still well worth checking out. (This essay addresses the play and film, along with some of its criticisms, within a queer framework.)
Perhaps in keeping with Williams’ inability to leave her behind, Rose Williams outlived her brother by more than a decade, long after Suddenly, Last Summer debuted. The vast majority of his estate went to ensuring her continued care.
For more on Tennessee Williams, this piece by John Waters is well worth the read.