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Written by Timothy Sexton
In attempting to prove her own contention that her son did not possess the reckless disregard toward the fate of others upon which Catharine’s macabre story about what happened last summer rests, Mrs. Venable asserts that her son made of his entire life his calling as a poet. The suggest is that an entire life lived as a poet—the man and the artist inextricably linked—Sebastian would have been above the kind of profane lifestyle that could result in Catharine’s story of the events of his death. She calls upon a simile to cement this idealized conception of his son’s purity: “A poet’s vocation is something that rests on something as thin and fine as the web of a spider.” The apparently unintended irony is evident: Sebastian was using Catharine like a small fly caught in his web to snare his true prey of young men to fulfill is less than poetic carnal desires.
Doctor Cukrowicz very early on informs Mrs. Venable that Polish name translates into the English as “sugar” and then even goes so far as to make discourse easier by calling him Dr. Sugar instead of fumbling over the pronunciation of his actual name. Mrs. Venable has engaged the attention of Dr. Cukrowicz for the express purpose of “sweetening” her son’s legacy and by extension the remainder of her life by convincing—actually, bribing—him to perform a lobotomy which will remove forever the only lasting remnants of the stain on that legacy which would otherwise live on for as long as Catharine insists on repeating the story. The irony is that by the end, Dr. Sugar seems to have come around to being convinced that Catharine is telling the truth, which makes it quite unlikely the operation Violet so desperately desires will ever actually be performed by anyone.
Throughout the play, Mrs. Venable insists both directly and indirectly that Sebastian was chaste and above the petty desire of the flesh. In fact, if his cousin—who was there—is to believed, Sebastian’s quite unchaste homosexual lifestyle is the stimulus that precipitated his being chased by a gang of young boy. The case that results in, apparently, the literal consumption of his body in a cannibalistic feeding frenzy with orgiastic overtones has decidedly ironic undertones.
One of the great ironies of Mrs. Venable engaging Dr. Sugar to help keep her family’s reputation untarnished due to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the death of her son is that in the process, it is her own reputation that is perhaps most damaged. The story Catharine tells of her time with Sebastian last summer is that he used her flagrant sexual as bait to “procure” young sex partners for himself. At one point, however, she makes it clear that her flagrant sexuality was merely a replacement for Mrs. Venable’s good breeding and high standing. Sebastian, it turns out, had been using those very qualities as a means of procuring a certain type of lover. Having grown tired of that type, he became interested in a kind of lover notable not found in such amongst such company and in such fashionable standing.
Perhaps the central irony of Suddenly Last Summer is that its central character—the one around which all the narrative is driven and without whom some of these people would never have crossed paths—is never actually seen or heard from. Sebastian Venable becomes something almost akin to Godot in that the audience is waiting to find out exactly what happened last summer that has caused his mother to desire the extreme measure of wanting his cousin lobotomized and yet net really gets to find out for sure exactly what did happen since he is not around to confirm Catharine’s admittedly unbelievable tale.
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