Maybe sixteen when first starting to get into Williams, I can’t remember the first read—probably The Glass Menagerie, the one major work of his I detest—but fondly recall the one with the most impact: Suddenly, Last Summer. Flipped for its theatrical flash and absolute incredulity. (Williams claimed there’s “biographical” truth in it; given his sister’s lobotomy and his own penchant for sexual cruising, he’s right.) So taken, when named a director for the annual student-produced one-act festival, I selected it. At first I faked a lack of understanding why it was necessary to keep re-submitting my version to the English department head. Dialogue such as Catherine’s “blonds were next on the menu” and “we were procuring for him” had to be excised. References about lobotomies, Sebastian’s beach activities and cannibalism had to be toned down. It seemed every day brought new objections about the script already in rehearsal with. Agreeing to the cuts, I had every intention of defying the censorship by reinstating key lines for the actual performance. Not helping was the school paper published a quote from me: “This one is going to be a bombshell!” and it didn’t take long to hear the department head wasn’t the only terrified adult—the school board decided to unceremoniously cancel the annual event. Looking back, with a huge smile, it’s clear the production would never have had an opening night; the school board’s cancellation, however, was really more an act of retaliation against a highly nonconformist Lithuanian speech-drama teacher, Nijole Martinaitis, who, just a few months before, directed a controversial student version of Williams’ only verse play The Purification. Equally contentious because it dealt with brother-sister incest, this play entered state competitions and knocked the socks off just about every audience seeing it. Despite jitters and lectures over theme from guest judges, viewers applauded how she trimmed and made clear the verse, whipped her student actors into shape, created a Mexican ambiance complete with Greek chorus. So inspired were the students they created an original guitar-based score and innovative choreography. Time has not dimmed my appreciation—it was very powerful stuff. (The lead actor Patrick Drummond has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most proficient sound effects editors. He’s done, to name only a few, Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado, Broadcast News, Children of a Lesser God, Boyz N the Hood, As Good As It Gets, Father of the Bride I and II and, his most acclaimed work, Dick Tracy and The Canal.) The school board, though, was far less appreciative of all the efforts: it pushed for Nijole’s resignation a year later. Fed up with whitewash education, she went to Mexico to study anthropology. But what she bequeathed to students who have never forgotten her is discovering, when all the elements of a Williams play click, the thrilling cheer “This is theatre!” We cheer the movie version of Suddenly, Last Summer for less meritorious reasons: for a 1959 melodrama on a taboo subject, it visually depicts Sebastian’s doomed famishment for meaty entrée at Cabeza de Lobo, with director Joseph Mankiewicz and adapter Gore Vidal going full hog on foreboding symbols of death and themes of exploitation. Looking decidedly fleshy in white bathing suit, Elizabeth Taylor is too sane to be used as bait to lure in Sebastian’s tricks but to her credit she’s unembarrassed about it, has some fun putting out a forbidden cigarette on a nun’s palm—“You said give it to you, so I gave it to you”—and gets laughs with a few dialogue punches about going “off my rocker” she shares with on-screen brother Gary Raymond, who’s very entertaining. Walking as if club-footed and with eye brows like awnings, Monty Clift is stricken with a bad case of drug-induced frights and he probably never looked so badly suited up, especially the tweedy coat. In corsage hats and doily collars, Mercedes McCambridge pumps the author’s shamelessness in lines like “In no time after the little operation...” and later “Oh! Don’t tell about that!” to comic perfection. Oliver Messel’s set designs for Mrs.Venable’s Victorian Gothic house and the Venus flytrap garden enhance the hyperbolic looniness in which Katharine Hepburn’s “style” hits its apex; playing the ultimate she-monster (inspired by Williams’ mother) with imperial tics the likes of which have to be seen to be disbelieved, her horror show is compulsively watchable, and such words as “Encantadas,” “dementia praecox” and “deb ree” get supremely inflected. I almost wrote “inflicted.” Well, that too.

Note: The spelling of Taylor’s character is Ca t h e r i n e in all movie credits. In Williams’ text of the play it’s C a t h a r i n e.  


Text COPYRIGHT © 1991 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.