Sebastian Venable belongs to that very special order of fictional characters which ranges from Rosaline in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Maris, first wife of Niles Crane, brother of the titular Frasier on the long-running NBC sitcom. Less like Samuel Beckett’s Godot and more like Detective Columbo’s oft-mentioned , but never-named wife, Sebastian is a character the audience can build an image of in their mind quite readily based on the information that is provided about him from the other characters. Here is where Sebastian separates himself from most other characters whose name may be known, physical description may be given and actions are described.
The truth about who and what Sebastian is, in effect, the driving narrative impulse of Suddenly Last Summer. The audience is obliquely presented with two different portraits of Sebastian. One is that of a very sensitive young would-be poet who is almost airily free from the petty constraints of the flesh. The other is a slightly less sensitive would-be poet is not only not at all free from constraints of the flesh, but neurotically—perhaps even psychotically—driven by such passions.
Perhaps one can argue that the tragic spiral driving Romeo and Juliet is stimulated by the unseen and unheard Rosaline’s refusal to requite the love for her which has made Romeo so miserable. Perhaps if Rosaline had requited his passion, the streets of Verona would have been splashed with less blood and vengeance. Perhaps. According to Romeo, Rosaline shines brighter than the sun. His good friend Mercutio, however, has a much less elevated view of her: “a pale, hard-hearted wench” who wants nothing more than to torment his friend. Friends protect friends, that much is true, but considering we never hear from it, one is inclined to believe Mercutio saw Rosaline for what she really is.
In order to believe that Sebastian is somewhat less than the pure innocent his mother believes, the audience cannot be accept that his cousin Catharine is quite mad. And yet, if Catharine’s horrific story is to believe, then surely whatever delusion exists in the play takes place entirely within the mind of Sebastian’s mother. And yet, the only character facing the potential of a lobotomy is Catharine. The play is thus suggesting that society should believe Sebastian’s mother. Not just because she may be right and Catharine may be crazy. Indeed, the whole point of the play seems to be that it really does matter whether Catharine’s seemingly insane and quite appalling recounting of the events of last summer is true or not. What matters is that for society to continue unabated, we must be willing to accept certain positive lies about those we care about rather than accept certain negative truths.
Ultimately, Suddenly Last Summer offers no evidence one way or the other to base a substantial argument for either side. Either you believe Catharine or you don’t. For an audience, of course, there is no investment here other than the abstract. Within the constructed reality of the play, however, one must give great pause to whether one believes the story his cousin tells of Sebastian’s final moments or not. What is at stake is nothing more nor less than the life of a young woman. If she’s determined to be insisting upon a false narrative, she stands actually physically lose part of her brain.
It is a reality that history tells us has extended far beyond the fictional constraints of a playwright’s imagination.