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Written by Timothy Sexton
"Yes, this was Sebastian's garden."
The opening line of any play almost always carries import. Many scholars suggest that Shakespeare’s opening lines—regardless of how seemingly mundane or prosaic they may seem—are examples of true genius and mastery at this hope-for effect. In this case, Mrs. Venable’s opening line is abundant with meaning. Without any context, the audience is introduced to Sebastian by way of this woman. Sebastian will prove to be the center that holds the entire play together, yet will never appear on stage. The audience will come to know many presumed facts about Sebastian, but just as the fact that this setting of Scene One is immediately introduced as Sebastian’s garden will ultimately be revealed as every bit as mysterious and potentially false or ambiguous as just about anything else that is learned about him. It is a masterfully deceptive opening line; seemingly a throwaway piece of information that quickly proves thematically rich.
“One poem for each summer that we traveled together. The other nine months of the year were really only a preparation.”
Within this quote is another powerhouse of useful information. First off, we get a glimpse into the kind of poet Sebastian was. A one-poem-a-year kind of poet. This would normally seem to verge on the boundaries of the absurd until you read the second line. Nine months for that one poem a year to gestate. The lesson to be gained here is not to take the play too literally.
"There were naked children along the beach, a band of frightfully thin and dark naked children that look like a flock of plucked birds, and they would come darting up. . . . Sebastian started to run and they all screamed at once and seemed to fly in the air."
The imagery here is macabre and disturbing all on its own, but keeping in mind that this is a play intended to be take more figuratively than literally, the important key to understanding is allusion and reference. The reference to children so dark and thin they resemble objects flying through the air is a fairly direct allusion thanks to the name of the character to which those objects fly. In essence, what Catharine is describing is not just a bizarre and horrifyingly gruesome death for her cousin, but a symbolic re-enactment of the martyrdom St. Sebastian who was executed by a firing squad of archers.
“I can’t change truth, I’m not God!”
Catharine is under great pressure to alter her story. Sebastian’s mother worries that her story will taint their family name forever. Catharine’s mother and brother want her to change her story in order to accommodate Violet’s wishes out of fear of losing their meal ticket. Even under the considerable pressure of a threat to have a piece of her brain surgically removed, she sticks to her story, moved at one point to cry out this line of dialogue. Irony inhabits this phrase assertion of course; neither is Dr. Sugar anything near to being God, yet with the slice of a blade he could, in effect, change the truth.
“My son, Sebastian, was chaste. Not c-h-a-s-e-d!”
In addition to being a nifty pun filled with its own considerable irony, this line directed with outrage from Violet to the doctor also offers a glimpse into her mental state. And that mental state appears to be every bit as shaky and subject to doubt as Catharine. The facts here are probably about as unambiguous as gets in this play: Sebastian was almost certainly not chaste just as he almost certainly was chased to his demise. Even more to the point is the fact that, if Catharine can believed, Violet knows—and knew—this about her son. She is living in denial and one very effective way to throw off doubt about one’s own mental state is to wordplay. Wordplay gives the impression of logic and clever thinking, but as Violet proves, it is also a quite useful weapon for deflecting suspicion.
“Lunatics don’t have reason!”
More wordplay. In his desperate attempt to convince Dr. Sugar that she is the sane one and Catharine the mentally deficient figure in this tragedy, she resorts to something that on the surface seems commonplace, but is actually a power play. Remember that she is talking to a physician she wants to perform the most extreme psychological treatment ever conceived. The assumption is that if there is anyone in the room capable of diagnosing who is a “lunatic” and who is not, it is probably not the women who just lost her son in some sort of strangely bizarre act of violence not yet a year ago. Still, she persists. Why? She doesn’t need a degree; she’s got influence. The kind of influence has convinced stronger men than Dr. Sugar to accept a layman’s diagnosis as their own. Violet has not invited the doctor to her own for the purpose of convincing; she is working on the assumption that her name, money and influence will have already done that. The meeting is merely a formality to seal what she has convinced herself is a done deal.
“You have financial problems, don’t you, Doctor?”
And there it is. So convinced that this is a done deal, Violet quickly stops playing games and instead lays her entire hand on the table for the doctor to see. Dr. Sugar may have thought he was there to examine Catharine, but what he’s really there is to examine is the deal Violet is prepared to make: taking care of all his funding problems so that he can have his controversial procedure no longer constrained by limited space, lack of trained assistants, access to appropriate mental patients and even the inability to marry the girl of dreams and live happily ever after.
“Don’t you understand? I was PROCURING for him. She used to do it, too. Not consciously!”
Although she would never allow herself to believe it, Violet has been playing a dangerous game with the doctor. Her attempts to prove herself the opposition of sanity to her niece’s insanity and to convince the doctor that Sebastian was a pure poetic soul eventually proves to backfire on her. She—not Catharine or Sebastian—is the instrument of her undoing. The truth about Sebastian slowly comes out for the doctor, Catharine proves to be more convincing than Violet. Catharine’s admission to being used by Sebastian to procure young sex partners is what ultimately seals the deal for the doctor and Violet’s own mechanics of self-delusion only facilitate his willingness to believe her claim that Violet acted in the same capacity while manifesting the same symptoms of self-delusional behavior the doctor has himself recently witnessed.
“I think we ought at least to consider the possibility that the girl’s story could be true.”
The final line of the play is as suggestive as the opening line. The doctor remains reticent about accepting everything that Catharine has said as true. Perhaps he is mulling over the possible loss of a financial windfall or maybe his experience with psychology has informed him to enough to accept that nobody ever tells the entire truth. Then again, maybe, maybe the story is just too patently unbelievable to actually be believed. The story ends on a note as ambiguously empty of finite answers as that which opened it.
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