Tennessee Williams' play, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" won the Pulitzer Prize and Drama Critics Circle Award in 1955. Directed by Elia Kazan the play ran for nearly 700 performances on Broadway and starred Barbara Bel Geddes as Margaret, Ben Gazarra as Brick, and Burl Ives as Big Daddy.
I reread "Cat" as part of an ongoing project to read and review Tennessee Williams' plays. John Lahr's biography, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" (2014) inspired my project.
"Cat" was the first Tennessee Williams play I saw many years ago while still in high school. I was deeply moved by the production, undoubtedly without knowing why. Later that year, when each member in our English class had to do an oral report on an American play, I did Williams' "The Glass Menagerie". "Cat" was not an option. The teacher made clear that she disliked most of Williams, including "Cat". In reading the reviews here on Amazon, I am both impressed and puzzled that this adult-themed and difficult play has found its way into the high school curriculum. Most high school readings are made to be disliked.
The play is set in a mansion in the Mississippi Delta and, dramatically, takes place over the course of a few hours in real time. The story is raw, passionate, and extreme. Williams writes with poetry and lyricism. The play involves sexually dysfunctional couples, unmasking character, and a family fight over a large pending inheritance. Of the three primary characters, Brick, Maggie, and "Big Daddy" Pollitt, Maggie wins the playwright's and the reader's heart. Maggie is a fighter -- a cat in more than one sense. Her husband, Brick, 27, a former athlete and sports announcer
has deteriorated into withdrawal and alcoholism and into a sexual disgust and rejection of Maggie. Maggie, lonely, on edge, and frustrated, wants to regain her husband's love, restore him to health, and have a child, both for her own emotional needs and in order to secure Brick a share of the inheritance from the impending death of Brick's father, the fabulously wealthy Big Daddy. Brick is withdrawn into himself and blames Maggie for the death of his friend Skipper with whom Maggie had a brief affair. Big Daddy is dying of cancer, as Brick, Maggie, and the rest of the family which includes Brick's older brother, Gooper, a successful lawyer, and his wife are aware. Big Daddy and his wife Big Mama have initially been lied to about the nature of the illness. The heart of the play is a stunning confrontation between Brick and his father in the second act of the play in which parent and son try to talk to one another and in the process force each other to face reality about themselves without comforting illusions.
The resolution of the play in the final act provoked a great deal of controversy. At Kazan's request, Williams' rewrote the third act in the version that was performed on Broadway and that undoubtedly contributed to the play's success. The major substantive difference is in the portrayal of Brick. In Williams' initial version, Brick does not change character after the confrontation with Big Daddy. In the revised version, Brick becomes a participant with Maggie in her lie that the couple have resumed sexual relations and that Maggie is pregnant with Brick's child. The revised play thus ends more positively than did Williams' initial draft. At the time and for the rest of his life, Williams was ambivalent about the ending. He agreed with much of what Kazan said about the development of the play and relished the commercial success. But Williams couldn't shake the feeling that he had sold out. Most printed versions of the play include both the original third act and the revised version performed on Broadway in 1955.
Much of the play deals with homosexuality and with the wide condemnation of homosexual activities in the 1950s. The themes of the play -- loneliness, sexual frustration, facing death, being honest with oneself, and more -- amply survive the changes in social mores that have occurred subsequently to the play. Williams carefully distinguished between the particular incidents of "Cat" and its more universal themes. In an illuminating stage direction for the climactic moment of Act 2 of the play, Williams discussed Brick's relationship with Skipper as the source of his, and Maggie's troubles. Williams wrote:
"The thing they're discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick's side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them. The fact that if it existed it had to be disavowed to 'keep face' in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the 'mendacity' that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with. It may be the root of his collapse. Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important. The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent -- fiercely charged! -- interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis."
The characters are a mix of feelings and of both good and bad. Maggie is tough, raw, a climber and a lover with an indomitable, fiery will to live.
Lahr's biography is an excellent source of information about the interpretation of "Cat", about Williams' and Kazan's views about the script, and about the play's staging and reception. Lahr writes succinctly and perceptively that the play captures the "internal debate" "between the dead heart and the outcrying heart." The play invites deeply personal responses from its readers and audiences.
on 11 December 2012
For many years I only read plays, not novels. I re-read Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and remembered why. It is fabulous to have every life emotion condensed into one play. Family feuds, tortured pasts, anger, guilt, love, jealousy, envy, revenge, sorry, sadness, lust...ALL packed into one incredible play that EVERYONE should read at some point in their life.
Even if you saw the wonderful film with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman - you still need to read this, to see it in print - you won't be disappointed.