Friday, August 17, 2012

The Tennessee Williams Play That Freaks Me Out

I haven't been reading for pleasure lately, stopping in the middles of The Amber Spyglass and The Thin Red Line to study up on the U.S. Constitution, presidents, Supreme Court justices, bodies of water, Canadian provinces et al. for my upcoming Jeopardy! try-out. I've also been dusting and reorganizing my bookshelves, and when I came across Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara? The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World's Best-Loved Books by Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy, I couldn't resist flipping it open.

From Here to Eternity is on page 131. I'm pretty sure I read this section before, but I didn't mean as much to  me before I finished FHTE. I learned (or re-learned) that James Jones is like Robert E. Lee Prewitt in the following ways: Jones' father was an alcoholic, which was part of the reason Jones left the family home as a teen, and he was also a boxer in a unit renowned for its Golden Gloves participants. I also learned that the book FHTE beat out when it won the National Book Award was The Catcher in the Rye.

Catcher in the Rye is a favorite subject of the conspiracy theory bloggers, by the way. See this post at MK Culture, for example, or this post at Pseudo-Occult Media implicating the cartoon Family Guy (a cartoon I personally dislike, for the record). The Wikipedia entry on the book mentions that it's been linked to John Hinckley Jr.'s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, Mark David Chapman's shooting of John Lennon and Robert John Bardo's shooting of Rebecca Shaeffer.

Anyway, another book I came across was Famous American Plays of the 1940s, edited  by Henry Hewes, which was one of my school books from my freshman year of high school. The first play is Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, and it includes the cast of the first production (November 18, 1942). It included Tallulah Bankhead as Sabina (P.S. that was my maternal grandpa's mom's name) and Montgomery Clift (then aged 22) as young Henry.

I've been borrowing Montgomery Clift films from Netflix, and after reading Tennessee Williams' rather catty quote about Marilyn Monroe via D.R. Haney's article on Marilyn's death anniversary, I somehow came to the conclusion that I should watch the Williams adaptation Suddenly Last Summer, which features Montgomery Clift. I was imagining it would be a family drama along the lines of Streetcar,  with Elizabeth Taylor doing a turn as a Blanche Dubois-esque Southern Belle, probably with some tragic result. I had no idea it would be so creepy and disturb me so much.

The screenplay, by the way, was written by the recently deceased Gore Vidal.

(Vidal is on the right, next to Tom Wolfe.)

At the beginning of the movie, Montgomery Clift's character, psychiatrist Dr. Cukrowitz (from the Polish word for sugar, cukro), is performing a lobotomy at a former school made into a mental health hospital; the building is literally falling apart. He's from Chicago, but recently moved his practice to this state-run hospital in New Orleans. Later that same day, he meets a potential benefactor in Mrs. Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). 

Mrs. Venable, who arrives to greet Dr. Cukrowitz via an elevator that makes her look like a goddess descending in an ancient Greek drama, is deeply in grief over the death of her son Sebastian. Sebastian (explicitly named for the saint who was martyred after being shot with arrows) supposedly died of a heart attack in Spain the previous summer, and his death was witnessed by his cousin, Catherine Holly (Taylor). Catherine suffered a mental break because of her cousin's death and is now confined to a Catholic mental health hospital.

Mrs. Venable, who is widowed, shows the doctor around Sebastian's jungle-like garden, where she feeds her Venus fly-trap. The garden contains a statue of the angel of death, which resembles the alleged "angel skeleton" on The Simpsons

Violet was unusually devoted to her son, even going to so far as to say the mother-son pair was regarded as a couple. Sebastian and Violet's relationship was overly entangled, if not outright incestuous.  

Mrs. Venable's deeply offended by the "babblings" of Catherine in her "madness," which impugns Sebastian's "moral character." Violet wants Catherine to have a lobotomy, supposedly for her own good. When we first meet Catherine, she has intentionally burned a nun's hand with a cigarette, and stands accused of molesting a 60-year-old male gardener and then claiming the man attempted to rape her. Is Catherine really mentally ill, or is she a sane woman who suffered a terrible trauma and is now chafing under the restraints of an overly restrictive hospital where she does not belong? 

At that first meeting between Catherine and Dr. Cukrowicz, she kisses him. He does nothing to discourage her, dismissing this inappropriate interaction as "a friendly kiss." They're going to have major transference issues. 

However, the much larger danger to Catherine is that Violet's money, power and influence will induce the state hospital (to which Catherine is moved; the nuns have a hard time controlling her) to perform a lobotomy on Catherine. Tennessee Williams had a sister on whom a lobotomy was performed, and he appears to have been deeply traumatized by his parents' decision to allow this. 

Dr. Cukrowicz is reluctant to perform the surgery, at least until he can get from Catherine the true story of how Sebastian died in Spain. When Catherine does finally tell the story at the film's climax, it is very disturbing. We can assume from Catherine's narrative that Sebastian has used her to attract attention, then propositioned the men who swarmed around her. Before Violet got "too old," this was Violet's function for Sebastian as well. There's a suggestion - although nothing this explicit could have been stated in a 1950s film - that Sebastian may have taken advantage of underage boys, who are so poor he can coerce them with money.

For whatever reason, the mob of boys and young men turns against Sebastian, chase him through the streets and kill him in a manner most gruesome - they tear him apart, and some of them eat bits of his flesh. Since his previous play was titled Orpheus Descending, it's not too far-fetched to imagine that Williams may have been thinking of classical Greek and Roman mythology, with its fiercely violent followers of Dionysus and Bacchus - a theme also used by Charlaine Harris. Barbara Walker's Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets will be happy to tell you that St. Sebastian is a mythological figure linked to the Gaulish version of the Annually Dying God, who is sacrificed each year. The website CatholicOnline says of St. Sebastian, "He is also commonly referred to as a homosexual icon, which remains an on-going controversial tie between  the gay community and the Roman Catholic Church." 

This is a much grislier fate than befalls the typical Tennessee Williams character; The New York Public Library Literature Companion says of the one-act play on which the film is based, "Even for Williams, the play is unusually bleak." Critics have suggested that according to the moral code of the 1950s, gay men were "monsters" who, like Frankenstein's monster, were to be dealt with by chasing them down with pitchforks and torches. If Mrs. Venable, in some aspects, represented Williams' mother, he may have identified with the refined, shy, sensitive poet Sebastian, and he may have felt he was being cruelly punished by society for being gay. Even if Williams identified with Sebastian, though, the film paints the character in a negative light. 

Katherine Hepburn's character, Mrs. Venable, is truly a villain, willing to destroy her young niece in defense of her dead son's reputation and to avoid facing the truth. 

Sebastian is disturbing. Mrs. Venable is disturbing. The relationship between Dr. Cukrowitz and Catherine - following the tried-and-true Hollywood trope that the hero must always get the girl at the end of the picture - is also disturbing. Dear Gore Vidal in gay heaven, this is such an inappropriate story onto which to tack a love story.  Yes, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift were BFFs, but turning Catherine - who told the doctor about an experience of being sexually assaulted before she told him about her traumatic experience of witnessing Sebastian's death, and had also recently attempted suicide - into a romantic heroine is just bizarre.  She's far too vulnerable to be able to have an equal relationship (other than a professional relationship, that is) with her doctor, and he has totally forgotten his Hippocratic oath.

I'm not the only one disturbed by this fascinating, well-acted but problematic and strange melodrama. For further reading:

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Cellophane Queen said...

Excellent write-up. I'm also struck by the Simpsons and the references to fairly obscure literary references.

I can see where the play would freak you out. I can hardly wait to rent the movie on Netflix. Too bad they had to do a 50's style cleanup. I'm sure the actors knew what it was all about.

Good luck on the Jeopardy test!

Unknown said...

Now I want to watch it! Though I'm sure it will give me weird dreams...