Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly Last Summer

By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Roda Theatre
February 7–March 23, 2003

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

“It was a one-piece suit made of white lisle, the water made it transparent! I didn’t want to swim in it, but he’d grab my hand and drag me into the water, all the way in, and I’d come out looking naked…Don’t you understand? I was procuring for him!”

In an overgrown garden in New Orleans, Mrs. Venable tries to preserve the wholesome memory of her dead son Sebastian, but first she must overcome her niece Catherine who has been spreading a markedly different tale of Sebastian’s violent end. Mrs. Venable is relentless and will stop at nothing to silence the girl who dares to tarnish her son’s name. The incomparable Les Waters (Big Love) returns to direct Suddenly Last Summer, easily one of Williams’ most savage and explosively theatrical dramas.

Creative team

Les Waters · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Chris Parry · Lighting Design
Michael Roth · Composer / Sound Design
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Elisa Guthertz · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Elissa Myers Casting · New York Casting
Mei Ann Teo · Assistant Director

Cast

Deborah Black · Sister Felicity
Jeri Lynn Cohen · Miss Foxhill
Joey Collins · Dr. Sugar
Randy Danson · Mrs. Venable
Anne Darragh · Mrs. Holly
Michelle Duffy · Catharine
T. Edward Webster · George

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Welcome to Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams’ 1958 investigation of psychology and repression. Written during his first personal foray into psychoanalysis, the play embodies both society’s emerging understanding of therapy and his own cataclysmic guilt and conflict. There is a strange atmosphere at the heart of this play, an examination of a nightmarish world where truth is brutally repressed for reasons of vanity and contempt. Here a battle for control over reality is fought by two characters, one hopelessly masked in neuroses and the other trying to free herself from a legacy of indebtedness and submission. Williams is renowned for his highly charged poetic language and superheated emotional environments, characteristics that ignite Mrs. Venable and Catharine in this play just as they fuel Maggie the Cat, Blanche Dubois, and Laura and Amanda Wingfield in their own extraordinary dramatic worlds.

Tennessee Williams wrote Suddenly Last Summer after the plays generally considered to be his masterpieces (The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire). Having mastered the dramatic form, Williams became interested in experimenting with structure and a style of exposing the most interior aspects of his characters. Here, he breaks with dramatic tradition by creating an intensely distilled play, essentially two character arias connected by one scene. In this form, every moment feeds directly into the unalloyed conflict over who controls the truth. The formally unrelenting nature of this play is largely responsible for its reputation as one of Williams’ orneriest pieces, and though widely praised, it is infrequently performed. Like Shakespeare and O’Neill before him, Williams’ “problem plays” came after his masterpieces—but contained within those more difficult works are the seeds that emerge years later as new forms of drama. We are indebted to these great artists for the risks they took that galvanized and illuminated their forms anew through imagination and innovation.

As you are undoubtedly aware, the volatility of the economy is creating an environment in which we identify risk with danger rather than possibility. Yet I believe it is our mandate to continually challenge ourselves, be it through producing adventurous new work like Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul or rediscovering little-produced classics like Suddenly Last Summer. I think you’ll agree that this play, while less “neat” then some of his other works, is an important work in the American dramatic canon worthy of exploration. Our audience is our greatest asset and with your support and assistance, we will continue to produce plays that are both entertaining and meaningful. Thank you for coming.

Tony Taccone

Tennessee Williams: A life

By Enrique E. Urueta II

1909

Tennessee’s sister, Rose Isabel Williams was born, the first child of Cornelius and Edwina Dakin Williams. Rose, with whom Tennessee Williams was very close, would serve as the model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Catharine in Suddenly Last Summer.

1911

On March 26, Thomas Lanier Williams III was born in Columbus, Mississippi. To family and friends he was known as Tom. It would not be until much later that the world would know him as Tennessee.

1918

After living in various small towns in the South with grandparents Rosina Otte and the Rev. Walter Edwin Dakin, the family moved to St. Louis, where Tom’s father worked for the International Shoe Company.

1919

Walter Dakin Williams, Tom’s brother, was born. He would be the last of two direct bloodlines, as none of the Williams children had children of their own.

1929–1938

During this time Williams attended the University of Missouri and Washington University in St. Louis, but had to withdraw due to financial hardship. Between universities he worked for the International Shoe Company. He began attending the University of Iowa in 1936, where his play Spring Storm was presented despite unfavorable reactions from professors. In 1937, while Williams was in Iowa, Rose was institutionalized for schizophrenia. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938.

1939

Following his graduation, Williams moved to New York and wrote a group of one-act plays which he entitled American Blues and submitted to a playwriting contest sponsored by the Group Theatre, whose members such as Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, Stella Adler and Elia Kazan would go on to change the face of American theatre. He received a $100 prize from the Group Theatre and also a $1,000 Rockefeller Grant, both of which helped land him with noted literary agent Audrey Wood, who would become instrumental in Williams’ success as a playwright. He also began writing under the name of Tennessee Williams, adopting the nickname he earned in college for his Southern accent.

1940

His play Battle of Angels was produced in Boston and in New York by the Theatre Guild, but closed after two weeks in New York.

1943

After traveling, writing and surviving on odd jobs, Williams was hired as a writer at MGM studios in Los Angeles, a position secured for him by Audrey Wood. There he developed a screenplay, The Gentleman Caller, based on his short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” MGM ultimately turned it down, thereby ensuring him the rights to the work. Williams would revise the script into a play, The Glass Menagerie.

1945

After a successful run in Chicago the year before, The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway and ran for 563 performances. The play not only earned him numerous awards, but also assured his status as a playwright.

1947

While living in New Orleans, Williams met and fell in love with Frank Merlo, who would go on to become his personal caretaker and the love of his life. On December 3, A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski with Jessica Tandy as Blanche. The play ran for 855 performances. One reviewer wrote, “Williams is certainly the Eugene O’Neill of the present period.” The play earned Williams the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

1951

Elia Kazan directed the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, which popularized the play even further and earned Williams an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.

1953

Camino Real closed after less than two months on Broadway. Williams fell victim to the tyranny of public opinion, removing some of the more direct anti-fascist content after the Philadelphia premiere when Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan attacked the play as anti-American.

1955

Williams received a second Pulitzer Prize for his play about the moral decay of a Southern family, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, despite the controversy surrounding the implied homosexuality in the play. It would later be made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor.

1956

The film Baby Doll, written by Williams and directed by Kazan, triggered censorship battles worldwide, but brought Williams a second Oscar nomination for best screenplay. However, his once popular image was further tarnished, as he was reviled by the press as unhealthy, negative and un-American.

1957

Orpheus Descending was a critical and box-office failure on Broadway, driving an already unstable Williams further into depression. With the death of his father soon after opening, Williams puts himself in psychoanalysis and began writing Suddenly Last Summer.

1958

Suddenly Last Summer opened on January 7 and proved to be a major success for Williams. It would later be made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor as Catharine, Montgomery Clift as Dr. Sugar and Kathryn Hepburn as Mrs. Venable.

1959

Williams has another hit with Sweet Bird of Youth, which ran for 375 performances.

1961

The Night of the Iguana opened and would be his last stage success for over ten years, as his subsequent works struggled through short runs of two months or less.

1963

Frank Merlo died of lung cancer, sending Williams further on a downward spiral of depression and substance abuse.

1969

Williams suffered a nervous breakdown. His brother committed him to the psychiatric unit of the Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where he would also be treated for his pill and alcohol addictions.

1970

Williams came out on national television on an episode of the David Frost Show.

1972

Williams enjoyed his last commercial success with Small Craft Warnings. He would continue to write thirteen more plays before his death.

1983

On February 24, 1983, after a night of heavy drinking, Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle cap at his New York City residence at the Hotel Elysee.

Tennessee Williams and Suddenly Last Summer

By Enrique E. Urueta II

Tennessee Williams is widely recognized as one of the greatest playwrights of the modern American theatre. His path to literary and theatrical fame began with The Glass Menagerie, which opened on Broadway in 1945 and ran for 563 performances. It earned him several major awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, as well as critical acclaim. His reputation was assured and he was able to write with financial security due to this early achievement.

In general, Williams’ early plays were popular and critical successes. They include: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), directed by Elia Kazan, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award; Summer and Smoke (1948); The Rose Tattoo (1951); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which earned him a second Pulitzer Prize and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). Although he enjoyed much commercial success with these plays, he did endure his share of failures as well, such as Camino Real (1953), 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1955) and Orpheus Descending (1957). These failures, particularly that of Orpheus Descending, proved devastating to Williams’ psyche.

After the negative response to Orpheus Descending, Tennessee Williams became consumed by an intense fear of failure, a feeling he expressed openly in a New York Herald-Tribune interview: “With Orpheus Descending I felt I was no longer acceptable to the theatre public. Maybe, I thought, they’d had too much of a certain dish, and maybe they don’t want to eat any more.” The themes of the inherent violence of man and derailed sexuality combined with his manipulation of mythology for dramatic purposes drew scathing reviews from most critics who ultimately found the play confusing.

In 1957 Williams, depressed by the poor reception of Orpheus Descending and the death of his father only days after its opening, began psychoanalysis, in which he worked through his feelings of failure, his sometimes volatile relationship with long-time partner Frank Merlo, the death of his father and his growing dependencies on drugs and alcohol. Suffering from panic attacks since childhood and increasing anxiety, paranoia and hypochondria, Williams felt that psychotherapy was the only way to regain control of his life and hoped that it would open him up as a writer, as he suggested in a January 5, 1958 interview:

“I think if this analysis works, 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. I don’t regret having concerned myself with such people, because I think that most of us are disturbed. But I think I have pretty well explored that aspect of life and that I may be repeating myself as a writer. It would be good if I could write with serenity.”

Two days later, his next major work Suddenly Last Summer opened in New York—and although doors were indeed opened, the resulting autobiographical work can hardly be characterized as serene. Accused already of being too dark, violent and blatantly sexual, Williams feared that despite his attempts to write through the cultural mores of the time, the play’s suggestive dramatization of unspoken homosexual desire, lobotomy and cannibalism would again draw sharp criticism. Yet when it opened in New York alongside Something Unspoken under the collective title Garden District on January 7, 1958, it was met with glowing reviews from the most influential critics. Brooks Atkinson wrote that no other American playwright used “ordinary words with so much grace, allusiveness, sorcery and power…Suddenly Last Summer is further evidence of Mr. Williams’ genius.” Walter Kerr followed in form, calling the play “a serious and accomplished work.” It subsequently ran for 216 performances and had a successful life on the London stage as well. Tennessee Williams gave them the same dish on a different plate, and this time the critics ate it up.

Williams wrote Suddenly Last Summer soon after entering psychoanalysis in 1957, at around the same time he began to visit his sister Rose with increasing frequency. She had been hospitalized since 1937, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Subjected to insulin shock therapy, she later was lobotomized under the Freeman and Watts procedure on January 13, 1943. Having lost her violent outbursts and paranoia, Rose had lost much of her personality as well. Williams felt intense remorse and guilt for not being able to prevent the surgery from happening, and for some time harbored ill feelings toward his mother Edwina for allowing the surgery to happen. The play for Williams, at least in part, was an attempt to exorcise his own demons regarding his sense of responsibility for Rose.

Suddenly Last Summer was well into the rehearsal process in the autumn of 1957 when Edwina Williams, his mother, arrived in New York for a visit. In the play, the formidable Mrs. Violet Venable wants desperately to silence her niece Catharine, by lobotomy if need be, to “cut that horrible story out of her brain”—much as Williams felt his mother had done to Rose. Edwina was oblivious to the obvious autobiographical parallel: “Why don’t you write a lovely, long play again, Tom?” she asked repeatedly during her New York stay, referring to The Glass Menagerie, another largely autobiographical piece with characters drawn from himself, his mother and sister. Unlike The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer was a short, unabashedly unlovely play devoid of sentimentality, with Rose’s tragedy and his own personal guilt forming its center.

When considering the personal life of Williams in the 1950s, the parallels between Sebastian and himself become evident. Sebastian Venable’s pattern of exploitation mirrored that of Williams. “Yes,” says Catharine, “we all use each other and that’s what we think of as love.” For Williams, sexual exploitation, which at first had been a mask for his search for love, had eventually become a kind of lustful devouring of men. The similarities between Williams and Sebastian are further established in their mutual habit of “popping little white pills” because of a heart irregularity, as well as their shared desire of blond men. Drawing on his own life, his short story “Desire and the Black Masseur”—which deals directly with homosexual desire, sadomasochism and the search for atonement all masked under the metaphor of cannibalism—and Herman Melville’s series of travel sketches, “The Encantadas,” Williams created a portrait of himself through Sebastian.

Williams felt deep guilt over the destructive way he was living his life. He felt that he had abused the freedom that a successful artistic life had given him, and of life itself—both of which are shown in the extreme as Sebastian’s decadent yet creatively shallow life and his reckless abuse of love. Most of all he felt guilty for squandering what had been denied his sister Rose. He knew that the only thing that had kept him from sharing the same fate was merely accident, as he had suffered nervous breakdowns as well. According to a friend of Williams, the artist Vassilis Voglis:

“He was devoted to Rose, but in a way she was an extension of himself. He could have had the lobotomy. He felt the outsider, marred in some way. He really cared for her, and perhaps he never really cared for anyone else in this life, ever. And I think he knew it.”

Long consumed by guilt, fear and drug and alcohol abuse, Suddenly Last Summer was Williams’ attempt at personal catharsis. Obsessed with the destruction that had characterized much of his life in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Williams wrote a play that mourned for the debris.

Despite its critical success and its historical importance in the canon of Tennessee Williams, Suddenly Last Summer remains among the least produced of Williams’ major works, largely in part to Williams departure from more traditional dramatic structure. Regarding it as his most poetic work, Williams wrote the play as two long monologues, written with such lyricism that likens them to operatic arias, connected by dialogue. The careful crafting of the play in which everything builds up to Catharine’s final monologue shows how Williams wrote with almost an architectural control. A shift from the dominant theatrical forms of the time, the play’s success stands as a triumph of sheer writing over structure.

In this ninety-minute macabre fable of universal destructiveness, Williams successfully illustrates the destruction that can occur when one denies the truth. As well, it demonstrates the very essence of life, which Williams viewed as cannibalistic. About this metaphor of cannibalism, Williams said:

“Man devours man in a metaphorical sense. He feeds upon his fellow creatures, without the excuse of animals. Animals actually do it for survival, out of hunger…I use that metaphor to express my repulsion with this characteristic of man, the way people use each other without conscience.”

When doctors can be bought and our own relatives bribed, what value then does truth hold? With Suddenly Last Summer, Williams’ ultimate attempt was to create “a moral fable of our times,” showing mankind as egocentric beings with nothing more than their own best interests at heart.

The mind under the knife

By Enrique E. Urueta II

Psychosurgery is the scientific treatment of mental disorders by means of brain surgery, usually involving the destruction of brain tissue. Although the modern surgical techniques of psychosurgery were developed in the 20th century, they are not without historical antecedents. Forty thousand years ago, in Neolithic times, it is thought that people performed skull surgery, as archeological findings have unearthed thousands of skulls from the period with holes bored in them. According to anthropologists, this surgery, called trepanning, was most likely executed in order to release demons and evil spirits thought to be responsible for madness. In Medieval times, there was a period when doctors operated on the brains of people deemed mad in order to extract the “stone of madness,” which was believed to be the source of mental illness.

The first consistent technique for psychosurgery in modern times was developed by Portuguese neurologist Dr. Antonio Egas Moniz and performed for the first time in 1935 with his colleague, Almeida Lima. Several years prior it was discovered that certain neurotic symptoms induced in chimpanzees could be decreased by cutting the nerve fibers that connect the prefrontal cortex to the rest of the brain. Applying this to humans, Moniz developed a technique called leucotomy, more commonly referred to as lobotomy, which consisted of boring a hole through the top of the skull and severing fiber tracts between the thalamus and the frontal lobes using a special knife called a leucotome.

The results he achieved with mentally ill patients were considered so incredible that lobotomy began to be used as a final attempt to reduce psychosis, severe depression and violent behavior in patients that showed no response to the existing means of treatment. Heralded as a wonder of modern medicine, its practice soon spread far and later earned Moniz the Nobel prize in 1949.

Two American surgeons, Walter Freeman and James Watts, adopted Moniz’s procedure and sought to improve upon it. They developed a “quick and easy” surgical procedure called the transorbital lobotomy, which could be done in as little as a few minutes under local anesthesia in a medical office. It consisted of creating holes on both sides of the cranium using an ice pick-like instrument and severing the frontal lobes from the rest of the brain with a rapid movement of a narrow steel blade through the burr holes. Freeman traveled around the country, operating and lecturing wherever he went and popularizing the procedure in the nation’s insane asylums and psychiatric hospitals.

In the 1940s and 1950s, more than fifty-thousand people were subjected to lobotomy worldwide. It became apparent that although lobotomy was able to control severely agitated and violent behavior in psychotic patients, it was not without undesirable side effects. Many patients were reduced to emotionless beings without drive or initiative and also lost several important mental functions, such as socially adequate behavior and the capability to plan actions. In many instances the practice of lobotomy was abused, carried out on children and “unruly” women as an easy fix method of behavior control rather than as a last resort procedure for those truly mentally ill, as Moniz had intended. Because of its abuse and negative effects, and with the appearance of effective pshychoactive drugs in the ‘50s, the practice of lobotomy and other forms of psychosurgery were eventually abandoned and are rarely performed today, and in some states have been strictly regulated or outlawed altogether.

Don’t show don’t tell

Sebastian and homoerotic symbolism in Suddenly Last Summer

By Enrique E. Urueta II

Tennessee Williams’ artistic peak as a playwright was the conservative era of the late 1940s through the 1950s, a time when the hysteria of the Cold War augmented existing prejudices against homosexuals. Williams recognized that the public nature of performance during this time imposed certain limitations on the content of his plays. Yet despite the censors (or perhaps because of them), the specter of homosexuality haunts his work—quite literally in Suddenly Last Summer. Sebastian, the focus of the play, is dead, and his homosexuality is the core of the unspoken truth that Mrs. Venable wants to suppress. Although this is never overtly stated in the play, Williams conveys this symbolically, drawing on the artistic tradition of using Saint Sebastian as a symbol of homoerotic desire.

According to Christian belief, Sebastian, a favorite of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, was executed for secretly converting many people to the faith, leading to his reverence as a martyr and saint. Thereafter he became the subject of many works of Christian iconography, often depicted as a semi-nude man of gorgeous physique punctured by arrows. Along with the legends of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom, stories developed which led to him being appropriated as a homoerotic symbol. Some stories speculate that Diocletian made sexual advances upon Sebastian and became enraged when Sebastian rejected him on the grounds of his Christianity. Other stories actually refer to Sebastian as Diocletian’s lover. Regardless of the veracity of such claims, it cannot be denied that St. Sebastian’s image became linked to homoeroticism, the Belgian writer and critic Georges Eekhond being the first to note this connection in his 1909 article “Saint Sebastien Dans la Peinture.”

Other gay artists and critics have likewise responded to the homoerotic nature of Sebastian’s portrayal in art. In Yuko Mishimi’s autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, the narrator likens his homosexual awakening with his discovery of a copy of Reni’s “St. Sebastian.” Oscar Wilde, who regarded Reni’s “Sebastian” as the artist’s most beautiful work, used the name Sebastian as an alias while in France after his release from prison. Art critic James Saslow argues the implicit homoerotic nature of “Sebastian”, a painting by Giovanni Bazzi (the High Renaissance artist who became known as “Il Sodoma” for his proclivity for homoerotic painting and consorting with young men), noting that the saint “writhes in ostensibly religious ecstasy open to multiple personalized interpretations, from the epitome of sado-masochism to the artist’s comment on his own public ‘martyrdom.’” The use of St. Sebastian in gay iconography extends to the work of 20th century artists, most explicitly in the fetishistic depictions of the saint in Klaus Bodanze’s “St. Sebastian in Leather” and Alfred Courmes’ “St. Sebastian Sailor.”

Tennessee Williams, who came from an Episcopalian family and later converted to Catholicism, was familiar with both Sebastian’s religious iconography and its homoerotic parallels, as evidenced by his poem “San Sebastiano de Sodoma,” which simultaneously celebrates Sebastian’s martyrdom as well as the artistic tradition that made the saint a symbol of homosexual desire. By knowingly using this ironic dual symbolism of Saint Sebastian, Williams links homosexuality to both sacrifice and sexual consumption, thereby dramatizing the polarity of the sacred and the profane that lies at the core of Suddenly Last Summer. Working under the limitations placed on him as a writer in that era, Williams found a way to dramatize not only the unspoken homosexuality of Sebastian Venable, but also the social anxiety surrounding homosexuality in the 1950s.