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Self-Consuming Artifacts: Power, Performance and the Body in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer ANDREW SOFER What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? What .brought the kindred spider to that height, Then steered the white moth thither in the night? What but design of darkness to appall?If design govern in a thing so small. Robert Frost. "Design" Suddenly Last Summer is unique in the Williams canon in that its protagonist is literally and figuratively absent. The poet Sebastian Venable dies before the action takes place; he is at once a blank text, like the empty pages of the notebook his mother Violet brandishes in triumphant fury as proof of his inability to write his last Poem of Summer, and a palimpsest "awesome in his ambiguity .'" Images of Sebastian repeat and refract until the play becomes a dizzying hall of mirrors: Cousin George appears sporting Sebastian's wardrobe, Catharine wears a suit Sebastian bought for her, and Doctor Cuckrowicz wears all white, just as Sebastian did on his dying day. No-Williams play is more haunted by the body, its directives and disguises; yet in no other play is the body in question so elusive. Produced off-Broadway in 1958 while Williams was undergoing psychoanalysis , Suddenly Last Summer belongs to the middle period of Williams' socaUed punishment plays, and is arguably the bleakest. Praised for its construction and reviled for its content in equal measure at the time, Suddenly Last Summer cuts to the heart ofWilliams' matter by constructing the body in relation to power on the one hand, and to performance on the other. Violet's and Catharine's narratives alternately flesh out and strip away the figure of Sebastian Venable, raising questions crucial to a long-overdue rereading of the Williams canon: What claims can discourse make to represent the truth of Modern Drama, 38 ('995) 336 Suddenly Last Summer 337 the body? Is there a space for the body outside discourse, or a space for discourse uninflected by power? Does power have the last word to decide where (or if) truth lies, or does performance? More tautly than any other Williams play, Suddenly Last Summer weaves its subject into a glittering skein of lan- 'guage, until we can no longer say for certain where the body ends and discourse begins. Suddenly Last Summer takes place in the Garden District of New Orleans, on the patio of Violet Venable's Victorian mansion and in her son Sebastian's adjacent garden. Williams' stage-directions limn an atmosphere of lush, sickly decay, "steaming with heat after rain."2 Sebastian's garden (and, by extension, the world of.the play) is both postlapsarian jungle and ruthless Darwinian experiment. As Violet explains to her guest, "Dr. Sugar," her son fed fruit flies originally bred for experiments in genetics to his Venus flytrap - a subtle suggestion of Nazi medical experiments. The flytrap is kept under glass from early fall to late spring and emerges only in summer, like the carnivorous Sebastian himself. Sebastian has in fact created his garden in his own image, so that every inhabitant feeds off another: "There are massive tree-flowers that suggest organs ofa body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood" (9). This rupture parallels Sebastian's own dismemberment, even as the aural tumult punctuating the action suggests a savage rite off-stage. Before the action even begins; Williams rejects what W.B. Worthen terms the rhetoric of realism, which "claims to stage an objective representation by integrating dramatic and performance style into the pictorial consistency of the material scene onstage. The purpose of this consistency is not, in the end, simply mimetic: the aim ofrealism is to produce an audience, to legitimate its private acts of interpretation as objective.") Worthen cites the garden in Belasco's The Return ofPeter Grimm (191 I) as an example, for Peter Grimm's garden implicates him "in a complex of social, economic, domestic. and even psychological histories." Williams explodes the compact between playwright and audience by which "A character so fully identified with its productive environment is more completely contained within the stage."4 Williams' setting parodies such realism, for his...


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pp. 336-347
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