Classics Club #20: ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ by Tennessee Williams ****

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I adore Tennesee Williams’ plays.  I was utterly captivated by A Streetcar Named Desire and Sweet Bird of Youth, and loved studying Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – my first foray into his work – at school.  A prolific playwright, I was thrilled to find that there were many of Williams’ works which I had not read, and decided to add the randomly chosen Suddenly Last Summer to my Classics Club list accordingly.

In 1958, Suddenly Last Summer was first presented at the York Theater in New York City along with Something Unspoken, under the collective title of Garden District.  The play in question here is relatively short, and contains just seven characters, two of whom hover on the periphery throughout.

Mrs Venable, one of the play’s protagonists, begins by speaking of her late son: ‘it still shocks me a little… to realize that Sebastian Venable the poet is still unknown outside of a small coterie of friends, including his mother’.  Much of the play then circles around her meeting with her niece, Catharine, whom she believes is responsible for his death.  When questioned by Doctor Sugar about whether such a meeting is a good idea, Mrs Venable says: ‘I won’t collapse!  She’ll collapse!  I mean her lies will collapse – not my truth – not the truth…’.  She goes on to say: ‘I had to make it clear to you that the world lost a great deal too when I lost my son last summer’.

As ever, when I began to read, I was struck immediately by Williams’ in-depth stage directions and settings.  Here, they begin: ‘The set may be as unrealistic as the decor of a dramatic ballet.  It represents part of a mansion of Victorian Gothic style in the Garden District of New Orleans on a late afternoon, between late summer and early fall.  The interior is blended with a fantastic garden which is more like a tropical jungle…  There are massive tree-flowers that suggest organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood…’.  The same masterful descriptions run to the initial introductions of his characters, too.  The first sight which we have of Mrs Venable, for example, is this: ‘A lady enters with the assistance of a silver-knobbed cane.  She has light orange or pink hair and wears a lavender lace dress, and over her withered bosom is pinned a starfish of diamonds’.  I love the way in which Williams makes good use of the senses to set scenes and build characters, and the original descriptions which he builds in – ‘the narrow beach, the color of caviar’, ‘each day we would – carve out each day of our lives like a piece of sculpture’, and the ‘quick, dancelike movement’ of Catharine smoking a cigarette.

One of my favourite elements of the play was the way in which, even though Sebastian has died, he is still ever-present; he is spoken about so often, and is such an intrinsic part of the plot, that it is as though he is there throughout proceedings.  The characters have such depth to them, even those who only appear in partial scenes or situations.  Williams has encompassed so many themes which come to the surface throughout, from madness, instability, and the veils of lies which have been drawn, to greed, loneliness, and the pain which can be wrought by knowledge.

Suddenly Last Summer held my interest from start to finish.  It is taut, clever and intriguing, and its vivid darkness particularly has been so well controlled.  As a character study alone, it is wonderful; as a psychological work, incredibly believable.  Suddenly Last Summer has been marvellously plotted, and I imagine that it would be fascinating to watch on the stage.

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