Tennessee Williams: Too Strong For Broadway’s Duodenum


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January 8, 1958, Vol. III, No. 11

Theatre: Garden District

By Jerry Tallmer

Mr. Tennessee Williams, without much doubt America’s first true poet-playwright, has deliberately chosen to go off Broadway with his two latest works, for fear that one of them at least is too strong a dose for Broadway’s tender duodenum. He is right. The plays, presented at the York Theatre under the over-all title of “Garden District,” a genteel and rotting section of New Orleans which gives them locale and mood, are called “Something Unspoken” and “Suddenly Last Summer.” If the first is hardly more than a playful-poignant finger-exercise–two characters, two fingers, on a tinkly keyboard–the second sets a new mark in my theatre experience for rising, cumulative psychological horror. In today’s space I must treat with it alone.

“Suddenly Last Summer” is rather like “Streetcar” rewritten by Paul Bowles. Instead of Blanche Dubois, 38 and fading, we have lovely Catherine Holly, deep in a nervous breakdown in her middle 20’s. Instead of Blanche’s dead young homosexual husband, we now have the paunchy, vulturous shadow of the late Sebastian Venable, a spoiled homosexual snob and pseudo-poet whose violent, literally unspeakable death in some far hot ugly land has shoved Catherine into trauma. Instead of the Stanleys and Stellas whose “normalcy” in itself constitutes an oppression for Blanche Dubois, we have an out-and-out evil Mrs. Venable, vindictive mother to end all vindictive mothers, plus a couple of closer and more boorish relatives who want to do the girl in just to insure their crack at the money. Plus a young doctor–fortunately a nice guy–summoned by Mrs. Venable for the purpose of lobotomizing Catherine, plus a stolid nun from Catherine’s hospital, on hand to keep the patient forcibly under control.

In a twisting, Paris-green setting by Robert Soule that very nearly approaches theatrical genius, these tortured and torturing souls fuse together in a drama of unrelieved intensity, if little explicit meaning, and when the play all of a sudden comes to an end, precisely like a twig snapping, you get up out of your seat wondering if there’s any point at all. The implicit meaning, however, is rich, manifold, and as I see it fantastically courageous; what remains is the open question whether any artist has the right to make art solely for his own therapeutic salvation.

For this is how I read “Suddenly Last Summer”–as both a wild bold acknowledgment of homosexuality and a searing attempt to exorcise it and become “healthy” (my quotation marks still, says jesting Pilate). Mr. Williams has over and over again in recent months proclaimed his entry into psychoanalysis, and his preoccupation with the way people feed on one another. “Suddenly Last Summer” is exactly that, in fact and metaphor: a play about the fed and the eaten. And although it may not have a beginning, a middle, or an end, or any resolution, it does have all his matchless vitality and imagery, and more even than in the past a completely sustained high-octane compression-tension.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]