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Written by Timothy Sexton
Violet and Catharine
The two women at the center of Sebastian’s life as the audience knows it are his mother, Violet, and cousin, Catharine. The playwright’s production notes indicates that Catharine is essentially be bathed in whiteness in contrast to the shadowy figure of Mrs. Venable. The insistence upon light and shadow is a way to use imagery to suggest that Sebastian’s mother wills herself to accept the darker parts of her sons that she would almost have to be blind not to see whereas Catharine’s unchanging story indicates her willingness to accept Sebastian for what he is. This cannot hold for Violet and urges her to pursue the ultimate in enforced darkness: cutting out that hideous acceptance of things best left unseen from her niece’s brain.
Sebastian was a Christian martyr who is sentenced to death by archery. The most famous image of St. Sebastian—reproduced in art and cinema many times over—is that of a slight figure crumpled over with arrows piercing his body. This imagery is referenced somewhat indirectly through allusion in Catharine’s tale of the horror of her cousin’s last minutes when she describes “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 Invisible Sebastian Venable
One of the most effective examples of imagery in the play is that Sebastian is all reconstructed image. He is the central character in the play, yet never actually appears on stage in the flesh. Nor does Sebastian have a voice that is heard except through recollection by others, most notably his mother and cousin. By not being an actual character to be cast with an actor, Sebastian remains literally an image and in this way his horrific story can both literal in the telling, but internalized symbolically by each member of the audience according to their own interpretation of what the events mean.
At the heart of the play is Catharine’s story about what actually did happen suddenly last summer. It is such an atrocious and unbelievable story that Mrs. Venable can hardly be faulted for assuming her niece invented it inside a poisoned mind. To portray the events on the stage would be to make them tangible and less open to the potential that perhaps Catharine is disturbed and making parts of the story up. The story of the cannibalistic feeding frenzy is entirely dependent upon believing what others say, just as the character of Sebastian cannot be independently verified. This is integral to the story because the future of Catharine’s brain—her entire life—is utterly and solely dependent upon convincing Dr. Sugar—who becomes by extension the perceptual character of the audience—that what really happened did happen. Cannibalism contains a host of symbolic meanings, but as imagery the story told Catharine must be either be taken as a literal memory or the projection of a diseased mind.
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