1936, in the Garden District of New Orleans. Mrs. Venable, an elderly widow from a prominent local family, has invited a doctor to her home. She talks nostalgically about her son Sebastian, a poet who died under mysterious circumstances in Spain the previous summer. During the course of their conversation, she offers to make a generous donation to support the doctor’s psychiatric research if he will perform a lobotomy on Catharine, her niece, who has been confined to a private mental asylum at her expense since returning to America. Mrs. Venable is eager to “shut her up” once and for all, as she continues to “babble” about Sebastian’s violent death and “smash” her son’s reputation by hinting at his homosexuality.
Catharine arrives, followed by her impecunious mother and brother. They are also eager to suppress her version of events, since Mrs. Venable is threatening to keep Sebastian’s will in probate until she is satisfied. But the doctor injects Catharine with a truth serum and she proceeds to give a scandalous account of Sebastian’s moral dissolution and the events leading up to his death, how he used her to “procure” young men for his sexual exploitation, and how he was set upon, mutilated and partially “devoured” by a mob of starving children in the street. Mrs. Venable launches herself at Catharine but she is prevented from striking her and taken off stage, screaming “cut this hideous story from her brain!” Far from being convinced of her insanity, however, the doctor believes her story could in fact be true.
From its first page, the script is rich in symbolic detail open to many interpretations. The “mansion of Victorian Gothic style” immediately connects the play with the literature of Southern Gothic, with which it shares many characteristics. Sebastian's “jungle-garden”, with its “violent” colours and noises of “beasts, serpents, and birds ... of savage nature” introduces the images of predation that punctuate much of the play's dialogue. These have been interpreted variously as implying the violence latent in Sebastian himself; depicting modernity's vain attempts to "contain" its attavistic impulses; and standing for a bleak "Darwinian" vision of the world, equating "the primeval past and the ostensibly civilised present".
The Venus flytrap mentioned in the play's opening speech can be read as portraying Sebastian as the "pampered" son, or "hungry for flesh"; as portraying the "seductive deadliness" concealed beneath Mrs. Venable's "civilized veneer", while she "clings desperately to life" in her "hothouse" home; as a joint "metaphor for Violet and Sebastian, who consume and destroy the people around them"; as symbolising nature's cruelty, like the "flesh-eating birds" of the Galapagos; as symbolising "a primitive state of desire", and so on.
Williams referred to symbols as "the natural language of drama" and "the purest language of plays". The ambiguity arising from the abundance of symbolism is therefore not unfamiliar to his audiences. What poses a unique difficulty to critics of Suddenly Last Summer is the absence of its protagonist. All we can know of Sebastian must be gleaned from the conflicting accounts given by two characters of questionable sanity, leaving him "a figure of unresolvable contradiction".
In spite of its difficulties, however, the play's recurrent images of predation and cannibalism point to Catharine's cynical pronouncement as key to understanding the playwright's intentions: "we all use each other,” she says in Scene 4, “and that's what we think of as love.” Accordingly, Williams commented on a number of occasions that Sebastian's death was intended to show how:
"Man devours man in a metaphorical sense. He feeds upon his fellow creatures, without the excuse of animals. Animals actually do it for survival, out of hunger ... I use that metaphor [of cannibalism] to express my repulsion with this characteristic of man, the way people use each other without conscience ... people devour each other."
The original production of the play was performed off Broadway in 1958, staged by the York Playhouse with lighting design by Lee Watson. Anne Meacham won an Obie Award for her performance as Catharine. The production also featured Hortense Alden as Mrs Venable and Robert Lansing as Dr. Cukrowicz, and was directed by Herbert Machiz.
The film version was released by Columbia Pictures, in 1959, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift; it was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a screenplay by Gore Vidal and Williams. The movie differed greatly from the stage version, adding many scenes, characters, and subplots. The Hollywood Production Code forced the filmmakers to cut out the explicit references to homosexuality.
The movie received three Academy Awards nominations: Hepburn and Taylor were both nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and it was also up for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White.
The play was adapted for BBC television in 1993 under the direction of Royal National Theatre head Richard Eyre, and stars Maggie Smith, Rob Lowe, Richard E. Grant, and Natasha Richardson. It aired in America on PBS as an episode of Great Performances. Smith was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie. According to Lowe, his personal driver during the production of the telefilm was also the personal driver for Montgomery Clift on the 1959 film.
The play made its Broadway debut in 1995. It was performed together with Something Unspoken, the other one-act play that it originally appeared with under the title Garden District. It was presented by the Circle in the Square Theatre. The cast included Elizabeth Ashley as Mrs. Venable and Jordan Baker as Catharine.
Michael Grandage directed a 2004 stage production at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, featuring Diana Rigg as Mrs Venable and Victoria Hamilton as Catharine. The production toured nationally before transferring to the Albery Theatre, London. The production received enthusiastic reviews, and Hamilton won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance.
An off-Broadway production in 2006 by the Roundabout Theatre Company starred Blythe Danner, Gale Harold and Carla Gugino.
The play was part of the 2015 season at the Sydney Theatre Company. Director Kip Williams blended live camera work with traditional stage craft in a production starring Robyn Nevin as Mrs Venable. The production received three nominations at 2015 Helpmann Awards, with Nevin nominated for Best Actress, the production nominated for Best Play, and Williams winning for Best Director.
The play was performed by Oxford University's Experimental Theatre Club at the Oxford Playhouse in February 2017. Sammy Glover directed a student cast including Mary Higgins as Catharine and Derek Mitchell in drag as Mrs Venable.
A French translation of the play was staged at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in March and April 2017. Stéphane Braunschweig directed Luce Mouchel as Mrs Venable, Marie Rémond as Catherine, Jean-Baptiste Anoumon as Dr Cukrowicz, Océane Cairaty as Miss Foxhill, Virginie Colemyn as Mrs Holly, Glenn Marausse as George, and Boutaïna El Fekkak as Sœur Félicité.