Places: Suddenly Last Summer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1958

First produced: 1958 (with Something Unspoken, under the collective title Garden District), at the York Theatre, New York City

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1936

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New Orleans

*New Suddenly Last SummerOrleans. Louisiana city at the mouth of the Mississippi, on the Gulf of Mexico. Although for the young Williams, it exerted a liberating influence, nevertheless he was aware of sinister and malign elements in the old French city. One factor contributing to Blanche DuBois’s mental collapse in A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947) is the casual decadence of the French Quarter, which is almost a living entity in the drama. In this play it is the uptown Garden District of New Orleans, home to wealthy nonbohemian residents, which is a metaphor for oppression. The topography and people of the Garden District stand in sharp contrast to the more easygoing lifestyle of the old Quarter.

Garden District mansion

Garden District mansion. House in which all the action of this short play occurs. The mansion is described in Williams’s stage directions as a house in the Gothic style. The word gothic is of particular significance, since the setting, the action, and at least one of the characters put the play in the tradition of Southern gothic literature. Its strange configuration as described by the playwright–a house with a tropical garden–is the perfect setting for the disturbing story and story-within-the-story that unfolds in the drama. There is a decadent and terrifying air about the place, its steamy unworldly atmosphere filled with carnivorous plants such as the Venus flytrap.

This eerie and menacing setting, which according to Williams was inspired by the movie The Big Sleep (1946), a film noir detective story, is meant to underscore the horror of what has happened to Sebastian Venable and Catherine and what fate may await Catherine. It is also the perfect backdrop for the character Violet Venable, a society matron seemingly lacking in compassion for anyone other than her son and herself and willing to sacrifice her niece to prevent the truth’s being told. There are also lengthy references to other sinister locales: the Encantadas, to which Sebastian and his mother traveled; Cabeza de Lobo, where Sebastian died; and Lion’s View, the psychiatric hospital where lobotomies are performed.

*Garden District

*Garden District. Section of New Orleans founded by the American settlers early in the nineteenth century after the United States had purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. The area was inhabited mostly by descendants of British immigrants and so was at odds with the old French Quarter, inhabited by Creoles, the descendants of French and Spanish settlers. An immediate animosity between the Creoles and the Americans developed at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, and the two areas were always disparate in architecture and the character of their inhabitants. The name “Garden District” derives from the fact that the American settlers wanted front yards, which were virtually nonexistent in the Quarter. Often they turned those yards into gardens, though probably none like the one in this play.

In later years, the Garden District became the center of the socially elite New Orleanians, and the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, after an exodus of the Creoles, became more or less a slum before it was taken over by artists and writers in the 1920’s and became a bohemian enclave. Thus when Catherine says that she came out in the French Quarter before she made her debut in uptown society, she is identifying herself with that raffish area and its outcast population and distancing herself from the social world of Violet Venable.

The importance of the Garden District in this play is indicated by the fact that Suddenly Last Summer was printed with another play, Something Unspoken, under the combined title Garden District (1959), and the two plays are often performed in tandem.

BibliographyBloom, Harold. Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of essays that gives the reader a sense of how Suddenly Last Summer fits into the scope of Williams’ oeuvre.Bruhm, Steven. “Blackmailed by Sex: Tennessee Williams and the Economics of Desire.” Modern Drama 34, no. 4 (December, 1991): 528-537. Argues that Sebastian is in a system of power relations that he cannot control. For critics of the play, the incident in the Encantadas foreshadows Sebastian’s death at Cabeza de Lobo.Clum, John M. “Something Cloudy, Something Clear’: Homophobic Discourse in Tennessee Williams.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no.1 (Winter, 1989): 161-179. Notes that Suddenly Last Summer weaves an interesting set of variations on the theme of exposure of the artist as homosexual. Sebastian’s carnivorous sense of life is linked with homosexuality.Debusscher, Gilbert. “Minting Their Separate Wills: Tennessee Williams and Hart Crane.” Modern Drama 26, no. 4 (December, 1983): 455-476. Examines the influence of Hart Crane on Tennessee Williams and the writing of Suddenly Last Summer.Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. An accessible, accurate biography of Tennessee Williams that discusses Williams’ homosexuality and its influence on his life and works.
Categories: Places