The Clare Spark Blog

September 27, 2010

Cannibals, “Negro jazz,” and servile revolt

Tennessee Williams

I saw the 1959 film “Suddenly, Last Summer,” last night, with its graphic representation of the not-so-saintly Sebastian’s flight from a mob of young, nubile Spanish boys, who then tear his limbs and eat of his flesh (off camera). The Wikipedia entry on the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s one-act play speculates upon the underlying politics of the film, linking it not only to Williams’ personal biography and homosexuality (a theme that the Catholic Legion of Decency repressed) but to “mob violence”:

[Wikipedia entry:] “…The film’s plot is said to take place in 1937, which would mean that the death of Sebastian in Spain during the previous summer would coincide with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. The war is not explicitly mentioned in the film; however, the time before its outbreak was characterized by widespread social unrest in Spain, and the Civil War’s first days saw numerous cases of mob violence – both well fitting with the circumstances of Sebastian’s death as revealed at the film’s climax.” [end Wiki excerpt]

     But whoever wrote this suggestion neglected to mention the strange and frightening instruments and cacophony of sound the musical mob produces in its riotous, relentless march toward the white-suited, elegant Sebastian. (To see the scene go here:

     I have been reading Earl R. Beck’s Germany Rediscovers America (1968), a survey of German responses to all facets of American life during the Weimar Republic years. To some, American music was almost entirely “Negro”-produced jazz (to be contrasted with a more sedate and less crazy-making European variety). The author quotes one German’s horrified, even paranoid, description of the genre that he links to cities and to modernity itself:

    Beck writes, “After describing the polyphony of sounds produced by ‘water-gurgling sprinkling cans, swinging saws, howling pot covers, primitive forest tones of buzzing sticks, bells, saxophones, etc. Dr. Fritz Giese declared that these were joined ‘to a suggestive, close-cut disciplined rhythm. A rhythm just as harassed, just as concentrated, just as determined as the brutal turning tempo of the industrial machine, the speed of the racing car, the momentarily changing lighting and constant rotation of the lighted advertisements on the business houses.’

   Beck continues, “And Giese described one band in New York with appropriate symbols: ‘First it rattles like the air-pressure pump in the subway; suddenly a dog is run over by an auto bus; just as unexpectedly the gas stove explodes; then one hears the whining sound of the elevator motor. This instrument sounds off like a motor horn in haste; the other hums like the carpet sweeper; in the midst of it purrs in eternal calm the ventilator. Swinging cranes, locomotive steam, telephone snarls, back-fires of motorcycles—this and everything else is actually caught and melted into a musical film full of emphatic express-train tempos.’” (pp. 161-62)

   Which leads me to this question. Wikipedia, in focusing on the repressed theme of homosexuality in the film version of Williams’ play, ignored cannibalism as a symbol of the Jacobin mob. Finally, as students of the Spanish Civil War are aware, Ernest Hemingway  produced in For Whom The Bell Tolls, one of the most graphic, and prolonged scenes of mob violence in modern fiction, in this case the renowned Anarchist attack on the ruling classes of Ronda. The climax of Suddenly, Last Summer, brilliantly conceived, scored, and edited to demonstrate the almost pychotic vision that had to be repressed by the overwrought character Katherine/Tennessee, displays the specter of servile revolt that continues to haunt post-romantic artists writing for the gentility. Melville’s Benito Cereno (1856)comes to mind.


  1. […] The advice from this scholar and political independent is to focus on fiscal conservatism, to divest oneself and one’s party of embedded and explicit antisemitism, and to cherish the pluralistic society that welcomes all belief systems and all social criticism, under the rule of law. Now remind me who censored the movie version of Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer? (See, and […]

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