Professor Annette Saddik
» Spring 2007
When Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer premiered off-Broadway in 1958, audiences were shocked by its verbal violence and the homosexuality, pedophilia, cannibalism and mental illness portrayed in the story.
But, according Dr. Annette Saddik, Associate Professor of English, "It's an anti-realistic play, an allegory; you're not supposed to take it literally. The play is about language and desire that has gone out of control." She critiqued this and other Williams works during her April 2007 Scholar on Campus Lecture, "Transforming Madness into Meaning: The Tragicomic Vision of Tennessee Williams' Later Plays."
Saddik, an expert on 20th century drama, argued that despite Williams' early successful plays made into films with star-studded casts (Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Paul Newman and Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth), the critical establishment was later "brutal" to the playwright because it didn't understand his later work.
"He was moving into a different kind of dramatic style, with more reliance on visuals than language, very experimental," Saddik explained. "It was in step with the type of drama being done in the 1960s and 1970s by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee - more tragicomic, fragmented, minimalist. Williams said in a 1972 interview that these forms reflected 'societies going a bit mad.' He was very interested in translating both social and emotional chaos into these new forms."
Saddik also highlighted Williams' humor. "In the later plays, he's looking at the absurdities, madness and contradictions of life and laughing at them," she declared. "Even his early play, The Glass Menagerie, was not supposed to be so earnest, but most productions, including the original, have taken away the irony. His later plays more often celebrate survival rather than plead for understanding of the delicate souls who are destroyed by society."
Her talk also examined the effect of Williams' homosexuality on his work and its critical reception. Perhaps emboldened by New York City's Stonewall riots of 1969, in which gay men fought back against police brutality, as well as the more accepting social climate in general, Williams affirmed his sexuality in 1970. His subsequent plays were less self-censored.
"Part of the critical reaction to his work seemed to be rooted in homophobia, because he was being more direct rather than only engaging a homosexual subtext as he did in his earlier plays," she explained. In her lecture, Saddik read a letter Williams wrote in the late 1970s to author Truman Capote, who was dealing with similar issues. "Williams was sympathetic to Capote's situation, and basically told him not to despair and to keep his sense of humor," she said.
Suddenly Last Summer is a tale about Sebastian Venable, whose sexual obsession with under-age youths during a vacation in Cabeza de Lobo, using his cousin Catherine as bait, incites them to kill him after he dismisses their outcries for food. After witnessing the murder, Catherine descends into insanity and outbursts by means of which she insists Sebastian was dismembered and eaten by the mob. Sebastian's mother tries to manipulate a psychiatrist into performing a lobotomy on Catherine to "cut this hideous story out of her brain" and stop her from telling it.
"Williams hated the 1959 movie version of the play," said Saddik. "Even though he was involved with the making of the film, he was disturbed that it literally portrayed what he was writing about symbolically."
In a 2006 Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Suddenly Last Summer, the stage set featured a Venus Fly Trap plant, which was meant, according to Saddik, to convey the symbolism intended by Williams. "The hope was that the audience would see it as an allegory about the devouring power of Nature, the devouring power of desire, the need to shut up the truth."