Aristotle and Suddenly Last Summer

September 14, 2011

I’ll be posting regular blog entries to capture what was discussed in class and to provide some direction about what we’ll be doing in the next lab and lecture. If you want to make sure that what you understood correlates with what I think I taught you, this is a good place to start. These notes are not sufficiently detailed to substitute for actually coming to class and taking your own notes, and this is intentional. However, if you were absent you may find that comparing my blog entry to the notes you borrow from someone else is a good means of catching up.

In class on September 13, we started to discuss whether, and if so how, Aristotle’s six elements of drama would be a useful way of understanding Tennessee Williams’s short but brilliant play Suddenly Last Summer. We used a handout from the course syllabus that gives a few details about each of Aristotle’s elements: plot, character, ideas, language, sound, and spectacle.

We spent some time distinguishing between the plot — what actually happens in the play — and the story — what  we learn about through exposition. We discovered that not a whole heck of a lot happens in the play, and that while the story encompasses the events of Sebastian’s death a full year earlier, and even farther back (perhaps all the way back to “the day he was born in this house,” as Catharine says) the plot happens in a very compressed period just before and just after Violet Venable’s five o’clock frozen daiquiri.

This large discrepancy between the fulness of the story and the brevity of the plot tells us that we have before us a play with a late point of attack. A late point of attack, where most of the story is revealed through exposition, is effective for intensifying the effect of suspense. Here, in a kind of murder mystery, a late point of attack makes sense. It will be interesting to compare this effect in Suddenly Last Summer to the other plays we’ll be studying this semester.

We noted that whether we think the complication of the plot is resolved or not (the dénouement) depends on how we interpret the final lines of the play. That discrepancy between what the play says and what we can infer from it is a good example of the difference between textual analysis and interpretation. Williams certainly does not tell us what happens to Catharine, and it is up to us as readers (and, if we are lucky, actors, directors, or spectators) to decide what do about that.

In terms of character, I suggested that the standard categories (eg protagonist, antagonist, foil, confidant, raisonneur) give us one useful tool for thinking about characters because these categories make us think about the functions of characters rather than trying to understand them as if they were human beings. We will return to this idea in the labs since the assigned article by Elinor Fuchs (“EF’s Visit to a Small Planet”) expresses some strong opinions about how we should understand character, but do recall that understanding Dr Cukrowicz as a foil for Sebastian was helpful because it explained why it might be valuable for Williams NOT to have made him a fully-rounded, psychologically rich character.

We touched briefly on the ideas  in the play, and we quickly realized that we all had different answers to the question “What is this play about?” I asked you to think about how the images and language in the play might relate to what you think the play is “about,” since this is one way of providing evidence that the play is about what you think it’s about. We’ll return to that next Tuesday. Some hints: I’ve been thinking about eight clusters of images, symbols, and abstract meanings:

San Sebastian, martyrs, and sacrificial victims

Predators, prey, and parasites


Mothers and sons

Snow, ice, and the colour white

Summer, heat, and tropical colours


A gay subtext

You may have others to add. Meantime, the next step, in this week’s labs, is to see how Fuchs’s approach to the world of the play provides another tool for textual analysis. When we meet again on Tuesday (hopefully with enough desks for everyone!) we’ll be able to see how Aristotle and Fuchs have alerted us to things we’ll need to notice as we conduct our textual analysis. I hope you’ll see that the sight and sound handout I prepared for you gives us one more tool for unpacking the meanings of this play.  You will certainly find that the other assigned reading, in Pavis’s Dictionary of the Theatre, is illuminating and puzzling in equal measure. We’ll see what we can do to increase the former and diminish the latter when we meet again.