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Of all Tennessee Williams's plays, few appear more straightforward in performance than Suddenly Last Summer.(1) This illusion of dramaturgical forthrightness stems, in large part, from the fact that the play is easily identified as an example of Gothic melodrama. Its very setting - an exotic, tropical garden within a Victorian Gothic mansion (9), looking like a "well-groomed jungle" (11) - establishes the familiar Gothic dialectics of overrefinement and wildness, fastidious artifice and dangerous nature that are common to the genre. The garden serves as the setting for a Gothic tale, as we are led to ask "what did happen to Sebastian Venable in Cabeza de Lobo?" and are rewarded with an exotic and sensational answer. The story is revealed to us through a familiar Gothic opposition - the rich, ruthless Violet Venable and her poor, victimized niece, Catharine Holly. Yet Suddenly Last Summer may well be Williams's most deceptive play, for underneath its neat surface oppositions and familiar Gothic conventions, it is as dense and difficult to interpret as any of his more overtly experimental works of the late 1960s and 1970s. For Suddenly Last Summer is not only this dramatist's most extensive exploration of the aesthetics of the Sublime, but also his recasting of Edmund Burke's concept of the Sublime, with all its heterosexual male assumptions, within a gay subjectivity. To accomplish this recasting, Williams superimposes two plot triangles, each manifesting a different treatment of the Sublime. In the first triangle, the play dramatizes the struggle of Violet and Catharine over Sebastian's posthumous reputation. This struggle comes to focus on Dr. Cucrowicz, who is put in the position to judge Catharine's account of Sebastian's last summer and death. In the second triangle, the play narrates as exposition the rivalry of Violet Venable and Catharine Holly for the role of travel companion to Sebastian Venable. Beneath these two plots is hidden yet a third treatment of the Sublime, a shadowy triangle in which Williams himself is caught between two muses: the mythic Mother, and Williams's gay poetic mentor, Hart Crane. On each succeeding level, the use of the Sublime becomes more profound and complex, moving from what first appears to be facile melodrama to a poetic myth of the relationship between a gay artist and his illustrious gay predecessor.
Before turning to Williams's play, however, it is necessary to reexamine the theory of the Sublime, for the revival of critical interest in the Sublime as a category of aesthetic experience over the past two decades has left the field of dramatic criticism largely unaffected.(2) This should come as no surprise; the influence of this concept on dramatic theorists has always been slight. The index to Marvin Carlson's exhaustive Theories of the Theatre contains only eight references to the Sublime, and only one of these, a passage on Friedrich Schiller's On the Sublime proffers any definition of the Sublime whatsoever.(3) This is certainly not due to any omissions on Carlson's part; his historical account quite accurately reflects the marginal role played by the concept of the Sublime in theatrical theory.
This marginality testifies to the continuing centrality of Aristotle's Poetics in dramatic criticism. Instead, the criticism of the Sublime has flourished in criticism of poetry and Gothic narrative, areas that are more resistant to colonization by the norms of Aristotelian tragedy. The Sublime, unlike the Tragic, does not have its roots in dramatic criticism, but comes from another tradition altogether. Its founding document, "On Sublimity" [Peri Hypsous] (a Greek treatise of uncertain authorship, probably from the first century of the present era) is a work of rhetorical criticism, drawing most of its examples from Homer and lyric poetry rather than from drama. The purpose of the work is twofold: to define the Sublime, and to explain the means used to achieve it. Sublimity is that rhetorical quality that causes the audience to be transported beyond itself. It "tears everything up like a whirlwind, and exhibits the orator's whole power at a single blow."(4) As such, it relates to the immediate power of specific passages, rather than to entire works. For the dramatic critic, the Sublime of "On Sublimity" relates to the Aristotelian elements of dianoia and lexis, rather than mythos, the element Aristotle placed foremost in drama.
Despite its history of relative neglect, however, an examination of the concept of the Sublime can enrich our understanding of the tensions underlying many Western bourgeois dramas. The development of the modern discourse of the Sublime - largely defined by Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Emmanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), and Schiller's On the Sublime (1801) - shares in the same cultural definitions of gender and sexuality that defined the contemporaneous forms of bourgeois tragedy, drame, sentimental comedy, melodrama, and Gothic; and these continue, two hundred years later, to exercise a potent influence on the theatrical imagination of the West. Indeed, the persistence of such categories is so great that study of the Sublime can provide important insights into a modern play such as Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer (1957), a play that draws upon the dramatic traditions of two late eighteenth-century genres: the domestic tragedy and the Gothic.
The modern tradition of the Sublime can best be said to have started with Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry.(5) Reflecting the sensibility of an age marked by nascent Romanticism and the rise of Gothic fiction, Burke redefines the effect of the Sublime on an audience. Instead of eliciting "joy and pride," as "On Sublimity" would have it, Burke's Sublime produces horror - "the strongest emotion of which the mind is capable of feeling."(6) Throughout the treatise, Burke contrasts the Sublime with the Beautiful - "that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it" (91). A beautiful object is small, smooth, varied in its surfaces, delicate, clear, and varied in its coloration. It is founded on sensations of pleasure, and elicits feelings of love (91). It can be seen most clearly in the shoulders and breasts of a beautiful woman (115). The Sublime, on the other hand, is found in objects that are large, rugged, solid, dark, and massive. It is founded on sensations of pain (124), and leads to feelings of astonishment, "that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror" (57). This horror, however, must not be the result of a real danger to ourselves, but of an imagined threat contemplated from an aesthetic distance (40).
Although Burke puts his schema forward as an exclusively aesthetic system, investigation quickly shows it to be grounded in anxiety-ridden presumptions about gender and sexuality which universalize Burke's position as a male heterosexual. As such, Burke posits himself between that which is smaller and more delicate, represented most clearly by women, and that which is larger, more solid, rugged, powerful, and threatening, terms which in Western bourgeois culture are associated with masculinity. Through these gendered associations, the Sublime can serve easily as a mystified image of male physicality, the contemplation of which gives a pleasure that is distinguished by a frisson of fear. Burke works to keep himself unaware of the sexual component of this desire toward the masculine; he restricts it to appearing only in obscure and indistinct forms. Indeed, Burke manifests an anxiety about how any form of sexual desire fits into his system. He is quick to say that the love of the Beautiful must in no way be confused with sexual desire, which is the result of certain undefined "means altogether different" (91). He is particularly emphatic in his assertion that a man, no matter how beautiful, does not elicit sexual desire, any more than a beautiful animal might (91). Insofar as Burke describes sexual desire as "violent and tempestuous," however, its intense power would render it Sublime, though Burke never confronts that inference (91).
The role of male heterosexual desire leads Burke to a dilemma that he cannot resolve and wishes to avoid: how can the small, manageable and unthreatening Beautiful have anything to do with the terrifying intensity of the Sublime? His solution to this dilemma is a simple denial of sexual attraction in his system. Burke's avoidance of this dilemma is undermined, however, as he contemplates female beauty. As he describes his aesthetic experience in viewing a beautiful woman's neck and bust, the body becomes "a deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix or whither it is carried" (115). In this microscopic expedition, Burke becomes a Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians, where what was supposedly small becomes vast. The aesthetic stability of the heterosexual male gaze becomes giddy and bereft of control as it is given an optic rollercoaster ride through his beloved's cleavage. In this erotic slalom, that which was defined as Beautiful when intimately explored becomes Sublime. The project of self-control and mastery, central to Burke's view of gender, is thus fundamentally threatened by the existence of sexual desire.(7)
Burke's theory of the Sublime, then, strives to separate sexual anxiety from male heterosexual experience, even in aesthetic contemplation. It tries to do this in two ways: (1) by rendering female beauty as asexual, and thus free from the anxiety of the Sublime; and (2) by keeping the images of the Sublime sufficiently indistinct to allow the ostensibly heterosexual male subject to enjoy these eroticized images of male strength and power without the homosexual component of that pleasure ever becoming evident to him. For if the pleasure of the Beautiful requires the power of feeling completely in control, the pleasure of the Sublime is to be had in surrendering to a masculine power other than one's own, to be pleasurably transported in one's own lack of mastery. Its pleasure is fundamentally masochistic.(8) As an aesthetic phenomenon, then, the Sublime allows the viewer to enter into a contractual relationship with the art work (as the masochist does with the dominator or dominatrix) in which the Burkean viewer can experience horror without any real danger. It operates through a continuing escalation of suspense (imaginary and anticipated danger), rather than the sadistic reiteration of physical pain. The Burkean Sublime, however, is a masochism indulged in bad faith, since it works to disavow the sexual component of the pleasure it enjoys.
In the United States of America, an eighteenth-century invention, literary traditions stem largely from eighteenth-century genres. A Burkean movement away from Woman and "her" realm of the Beautiful, toward the veiled homosexuality of the Sublime, has been a major theme in American literature. It can be found in James Fennimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Herman Melville's Typee, Omoo, and, above all, Moby Dick. In the twentieth century, it continues in countless cowboy and science fiction stories, in the hardboiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and the novels of Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow.(9) No doubt the best-loved example of this pattern in contemporary American literature is Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, in which young Max is able to find the Sublime in the world of the Wild Things and still return home before his dinner grows cold. In American drama, the same theme is manifest in the machismo worlds of Eugene O'Neill, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and John Steinbeck. It emerges in a more muted form in Williams's The Glass Menagerie, as Tom dreams of fleeing the world of femininity, domesticity, and small, delicate, glass figurines, and joining the Merchant Marine. Suddenly Last Summer transforms the same pattern to a highly mythic mode, as Sebastian leaves his mother and winds up among the cannibals of Cabeza de Lobo. In these two works, Williams puts himself within a major tradition of American literature, as the hero turns his back on the Beautiful to seek the Sublime.
First Triangle: Catharine/Cucrowicz/Violet …