by Lydia Jones Kerkhoffs
“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” written by Tennessee Williams is a brilliant play about a dysfunctional family that is forces to deal with hidden deceptions and hypocrisy. It has won a Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critic Award. This powerful play was first produced in 1955 at the Morosco Theatre, and it was directed by the great director Elia Kazan. The issues that this play revolves around transcend time and region; Williams uses his craft to entertain, enlighten and bares men’s soul.
There was some contention between Williams and Kazan over the first written version of the play. Kazan praised work but he wanted him to revise the third act. Williams wished to appease the director but he did not want to compromise his art. (Williams, 124) He states,
The gist of Kazan’s reservations can be listed as three points. 1) He felt that Big Daddy was too important to disappear from the play. 2) He felt that the character of Brick should undergo some apparent mutation as a result of the virtual vivisection that he undergoes in his interview with his father in Act Two. 3) He felt that the character of Maggie, should be, if possible, more clearly sympathetic to an audience. (Williams, 124)
Furthermore, Williams and director Elia Kazan debated over some of the cast members in the first 1955 production of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.”
Kazan saw the young Barbara Bel Geddes as a perfect Maggie The Cat, but Tennessee did not concur. As for the director’s choice for Big Daddy, Burl Ives, Tennessee could only observe, “He’s a singer, isn’t he?” (Smith, 17)
Set Apart Also, what sets the first production of Williams’s play apart from his earlier works is the fact that the play’s foundation is based on conversations the characters have that appear to be “real”, vital as well as entertaining. They do not preach and condescend. An audience can recognize elements of the characters in friends, family and in themselves. Williams appears to have creatively evolved as a playwright in his quest to unmask man’s illusions. He and Kazan have created a compelling drama with an uncomplicated set and a talented cast of performers. (Akinson)
The September 1998 production of Williams’s “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” performed at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage (a theatre-in-the-round) is an interesting rendition of the play. The wonderful set was designed by set designer Pavel Dobrusky. He collaborated with artistic director Molly Smith, and this production is very unique. (Reiter, 7)
In addition, the “set is atop a house sunk halfway into the floor of the theatre’s flagship space…the rectangular house that rose from beneath the audience’s view and towered several feet overhead.” (Reiter, 7) this is very difference from the way that set designers traditionally arranged the set for this play; usually they used the thrust stage that faced the audience. Dobrusky wanted to magnify the confrontations that the characters displayed added much to the drama.
Dobrusky and Smith mined the text and mulled over Williams’s characters, their passionate struggles for truth, love, money, sex and life. They talked icons, seeing the characters as demigods and gods fighting atop Mount Olympus, “where Big Daddy is Zeus, Brick is the favorite god, and Maggie is Athena.” (Reiter, 7)
Most of the action takes place on the roof, which, while not in tin, was rendered quite hot as it was lit from both above and below. “I wanted it to feel dangerous, but also fun to work on”, say Dobrusky, stressing that, although the actors were often perched 11 inches above the ground, their safety was his top priority. He added, “the danger had to be there, otherwise it doesn’t work.” (Reiter, 8)
Furthermore, Dobrusky wanted the characters in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” to sweat, as if they were fighting for their lives. He also wanted the audience to sweat along with the actors. When an audience member told him that the production made his sweat, Dobrusky thought that this was a great compliment. (Reiter, 8) What makes this production so powerful is the mood that Dobrusky creates; the characters are not only oppositional but there is a sense of urgency. (Reiter, 8) This interpretation adds greatly to Williams’s prose, and insures that his work will be appreciated by the theatergoers of the twenty-first century.
When Richard Brooks adapted “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” for the screen in 1958, he was forced to purge any illusions to homosexuality. The theme of prolonged adolescence was stressed instead. Brick Could not be a husband to Maggie or an heir to Big Daddy because Those roles would have forced him to assume adult responsibilities. Brooks’ film manufactures an upbeat ending that violates the spirit of Williams’s play. (Winchell, 702)
Screen Adaptation The screen version was released by MGM studio and Brooks penned the screenplay and served as director. It starred screen legends Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie and Paul Newman as Brick. Burl Ives and Madeleine Sherwood reprised their roles as Big Daddy and Mae. The film version was a huge commercial success and Tennessee Williams was paid $500,000, a handsome sum in 1958. (Leverick, 574) In this adaptation the action takes place in several locations, which takes away from the intensity of the character’s emotions and from the confrontations in this drama.
In addition, Brooks uses a lot of Williams’s prose and he kept a lot of the conversation intact. He added some new dialogue, and he shortened Grooper and Mae’s parts in the film. In this version Brick’s character is transformed after his conversation with Big Daddy when his father confronts him about his drinking. Some of the dialogue is very refreshing. For example, Brick tells his father, “Can’t you understand? I never wanted your place or your money…all I wanted was a father, not a boss…I wanted you to love me.” Soon after Big Daddy tells his son, “I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?”
However, the ending of the film is an unbelievable Hollywood “happy ending.” Brick lies along with Maggie about her being pregnant, and then lures her into bed. The drastic change in Brick appears odd and out of character.
Also, Williams was not pleased with the film adaptation of his play. He felt that since “in the film “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”, homosexuality is only implied, it makes many of Brick’s ravings largely inexplicable.” Williams also felt that Brick’s repressed sexuality was a crucial element to the drama.
Yet, this 1958 film was very popular and it brought Tennessee Williams more followers who appreciated his talent. (Dirks, 1) Moviegoers who either did not like to go to the theatre or could not afford it, could be exposed to Williams’s prose. Many of his other plays were made into movies as well. The opening night performance of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” on March 24, 1955 was reviewed by Brooks Akinson, a critic from the New York Times. He praised Williams, and he recalled the play as being “a stunning drama.” Akinson also states of the play “…one of its great achievements is the honesty and simplicity of the craftsmanship.” (Akinson)
In addition, the critic summarizes the plot and theme of the play. He also notes that “his characters try to escape from the loneliness of their lives into some form of understanding. The truth invariably terrorizes them.” (Akinson) He discusses Williams’s fascination with how the characters think and relate to each other.
Moreover, Akinson praised how well Williams’s and Kazan’s collaboration contributes to “superb theatre.” (Akinson) They were able to work out their differing views of the script to create a candid view of life, which as well as entertained. Akinson also praised the infamous set designer Jo Mielziner, who had designed a set that “graphically suggested a bed-sitting room on what amounts to an apron stage that thrusts the action straight at the audience.” (Akinson) The room appears to be realistic and Mielziner’s expert use of lighting sets the somber tone of the play. (Akinson)
However, Akinson did not forget to acknowledge the magnificent acting. He mentions how the actors occasionally address the audience, and how through their skillful performances they “reveal awareness of a notable theatrical occasion.” He especially praises Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazarra and Burl Ives. This critic considers “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” to be Tennessee Williams finest work. (Akinson)
Respect Grows By 1955 Tennessee Williams was already a well known and respected playwright due to the success of the 1945 production of “The Glass Menagerie” as well as the success of the 1949 production of “Streetcar Named Desire.” Theatergoers, as well as critics, had enthusiastically anticipated the arrival of the 1955 production of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” Many loved the play, but they had difficulty with the play’s resolution. (Winchell, 711)
…critics and ordinary theatre-goers have not always known what to make of the play. Both the original and the Broadway versions of the third act leave questions unanswered and an uneasy sense that the answers suggested are willed and artificial. (Winchell, 711)
In addition, many people love Williams’s play “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” because the plot is intriguing and the character’s secrets unfold slowly. His play’s premise is unique and it is not a re-hashed drama. They enjoy that Williams entertains and enlightens. “Audiences go to his plays not to be shocked but to see the playwright’s sympathetic portrayal of characters whose fears and loneliness reflect their own.”” (The New Book of Knowledge, 174)
Tennessee Williams’s plays have been praised and criticized by literary scholars. Most applaud his prose and mastery in developing characters, yet they are sometimes offended by his subject matter. Mark Royden Winchell wrote a compelling article analyzing Williams’s play “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” In his essay, Winchell states that the play “is a powerful work of art”, yet he exclaims that it is perverse and “scandalous.” (Winchell, 702)
The article is entitled “Come Back To The Locker Room Ag’in, Brick Honey”, and the author discussed Williams’s exploration of homosexuality in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” He states that “the ideal of male companionship is one of the most enduring myths in American literature.” (Winchell, 702) He notes that Williams uses this theme when he describes the main character Brick’s relationship with his friend Skipper. Yet, the author believes that Williams twists the myth and subverts it when he hints that his male characters have more than an innocent relationship. (Winchell, 702).
Furthermore, Winchell suggests that Williams has a dislike for Mae and Grooper’s relationship and he had distaste for the traditional American family. (Winchell, 702) Although Williams actually abhorred the lies and deception inherent in many traditional families. Winchell also explores how Williams seems to favor the homosexual relationship between the former tenants of Big Daddy’s plantation. Their names were Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, and Williams admires the fidelity they shared. (Winchell, 706)
Also, Winchell elaborates on the controversy surrounding the critics as well as the audience opinion of the ending in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” Many people felt that there were unresolved questions pertaining to the characters, and the viewer was left unsatisfied. Williams had changed his original ending and he revised the third act in response to Elia Kazan’s request; and this is the way it was presented on Broadway.
In the original version Brick appears to give in to Maggie, and he says in response to her declaring her true love, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true.” Kazan convinced Williams to add Big Daddy to Act Three to converse with Brick, and Brick tells Maggie at the end of the Broadway version of the play, “I admire you Maggie.” Many critics felt these words did not seem authentic, and that the ending took away from the greatness of the play. (Winchell, 707)
The critic, William Becker, wrote a glowing review of Williams’s play “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” in the summer of 1955. He states that “it is a really remarkable piece of work. It is also the season’s most solid dramatic success..” (Becker, 368) He praises the actors, the infamous director Elia Kazan, the designer Jo Mielziner as well as the genius of Tennessee Williams.
In addition, Becker compares Williams’s style to Henrik Ibsen in terms of “rich narrative elements”‘ and to Anton Tchekov in the sense that he has developed psychological relations between people and individuals striving for self-awareness. (Becker, 270) He also states that the play is “a mixture of realism and fantasy.” (Becker, 272) the audience is truly entertained by Williams’s prose, and the fantastic actors under Kazan’s direction.
The play dances, thematically around the problem of truth…the theme is, really, an excuse for the drama-and the drama exists in a series of personal relationships to which, of course, the criterion of truth. (Becker, 270)
Furthermore, Becker discusses the role that sex plays in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” He states that “sex is the peg that the drama is hung on.” (Becker, 270) The author also notes how the play is resolved with a sexual act. What troubled Becker were the unanswered questions in the conclusion of the drama. (Becker, 271)
Another interesting critique of Williams’s play “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” was written by Jorgen C. Wolter. His essay is entitled “Strangers on Williams’s Stage.” The author discusses “the paradox inherent in Williams’s play with regard to strangers.” (Wolter, 33) He states that “Williams’s plays plead for sympathy with the spiritual stranger victimized by society but also displays the mainstream bias towards strangers of foreign extraction.” (Wolter, 33)
In addition, Wolter explores in this essay how the paradox within Williams’s works reflects the multiple aspects of the playwright’s personality. Williams also created many of his characters to resemble his feelings of being on the outside of mainstream society. (Wolter, 35) the author speculates that Williams used stereotypes to characterize foreigners to add humor and clarity. (Wolter, 34) Williams’s play was written at a time when political correctness was not emphasized, and marginalizing foreigners was commonplace.
In “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” Williams criticizes the mendacity of the saints, here represented by Big Daddy, an epitome of insensitive vulgarity, and Grooper and Mae, personifications of dishonesty and avarice. They know how to protect their own interests and take advantage of the strangers. This time, however, the saints are extremely irritated because they find themselves unable to dominate the stranger. Brick has with- drawn beyond their reach. At the same time, this is one of the few plays in which the stranger fights the saints with her own weapons; Maggie, a definite social stranger…fights back with the mendacity that so universally characterizes her opponents. (Wolter, 38)
Also, Williams’s protagonists, whom he calls “strangers” are embodied with sensitivity, guile, imagination and wit. They are likable due to their weaknesses as well as their strengths; they appear “real” or believable to the audience or reader. Williams “wanted to tear down the wall of non-communication between strangers and saints”, he adds “walls are build up between people a hell of a darn sight faster than-broken down.” (Wolter, 53: Williams’s Period of Adjustment, IV: 151)
All the Elements Tennessee Williams’s play “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” contains all of the necessary elements of a good drama, and it conforms to Aristotle’s Poetics. It consists of a ploy, characters, thought or theme, diction, music and spectacle. Aristotle also had very strong views on how an effective play should conclude; he felt that “the end of the play is an action, not a mood.”
The plot in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” centers on a Southern family, who gather together to celebrate the patriarch Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday. They have found out that he is dying of cancer and they quarrel and finally deal with many of the lies and hypocrisy in their lives. Aristotle maintained that conflict is paramount to a good play, and this plot is brimming with controversy. For example, the sisters-in-law quarrel over their husband’s right to inherit Big Daddy’s fortune, and Big Daddy forces his son Brick to deal with his old feelings for his deceased friend Skipper.
Character Matters In addition, the characters in Williams’s play are not caricatures or stereotypes; they are based on aspects of Williams’s personality and people that he knew in his past. The thought or theme in this play deals with mendacity, and Williams continually strips away the falsehoods. Most of the characters are hiding their true intentions. The tone in this play also reflects the tension between the characters.
Also, the diction or language in this play is powerful in itself. Williams’s prose is colorful and imaginative. For example, Maggie tells her husband Brick in Act One, “I’m not living with you. We share the same cage.” (Williams, 28)
Furthermore, music often plays an important role in a good drama. In “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” there is a reference to music being heard in Act One after Maggie tells Brick “you have that rare sort of charm that usually only happens in very old or helplessly sick people, the charm of the defeated-you look so cool….” (Williams, 24) In Act Two Maggie turns on the console and a symphony or opera blasts into the air. Big Daddy angrily turns off the music and his action makes a statement about the importance of the characters truly hearing each other and not being distracted by anything.
Moreover, Williams’s use of spectacle in this play is compelling. The lighting is bright to add to the tension that the characters feel as well as the intensity of the conflict throughout the play. The drama occurs in one room without walls, since the characters can no longer hide from the truth. Yet, Williams’s prose creates the greatest sense of spectacle, since the words bring the characters to life, and in turn captivate the audience or reader.
In addition, Williams’s play contains dramatic irony and this “allows the audience to know more than the characters do about their own circumstances.” (Arcarian and Klotz, 21) The play’s ending puzzles many but it does not conclude with an action. Williams preferred his original ending since it reflects Brick’s ambivalence and weakness.
The Interview This interview is based on a telephone conversation I had with Colin MacLean on Tuesday April 25th at 8:10 p.m. He presently manages a restaurant in Saratoga, New York. He was born in Toronto, Canada.
LYDIA: How did you get involved with the theatre?
COLIN MACLEAN: I spent five years as an actor in Toronto, as well as in New York. I appeared in off off Broadway plays as well as off Broadway plays. I also spent five years as an independent producer. I produced off Broadway plays and I helped produce a musical based on Rita Hayworth’s life. I raised thousands of dollars for shows and I hired actors and directors. I worked with Rick Hoard; he was my partner and we worked at the John Houseman Theatre.
LYDIA: I’m sure that you are familiar with the play “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.”
COLIN MACLEAN: Yes, written by Tennessee Williams. I studied the play in acting class in Toronto and I have seen several productions of the play.
LYDIA: Great. Can you tell me the play’s place in the theatre world in terms of its significance for future audiences?
COLIN MACLEAN: Well, it is a timely piece that is brilliantly written. It is emotionally charged and since it is relationship based, it can be played anywhere in America…from Alaska to California.
LYDIA: Thanks, Colin. I appreciate your returning my call and giving me this information.
Personal Strife Tennessee Williams was a well renowned playwright, who highlighted his personal experiences in his plays and stories. He had a colorful life and he enjoyed writing about what was considered taboo subjects in the 1940’s, 1950’s and the 1960’s. Williams explored homosexuality, alcoholism, violence, greed and sex.
He also infused humor into his work. Williams dissected the traditional American family, and he penned many stories about dysfunctional and volatile families. In the journalist Bruce Smith’s memoir on Tennessee Williams entitled Costly Performances, Tennessee is quoted reminding his readers, “I have had a life of required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before….” (Smith, 6) Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in his maternal grandfather’s rectory in Columbus, Mississippi on March 26, 1911.
His father, Cornielus Coffin Williams, was a shoe salesman at a shoe factory. He was an alcoholic and he was often verbally abusive to his family. Williams’s mother’s name was Edwina Lanier Williams and she encouraged the young Thomas to write. Williams later based the character of Amanda from his play “The Glass Menagerie” on his mother.
He had a sister named Rose, who was two years older, and when they were growing up they were very close. Rose was a very sensitive child and by her early twenties she was classified as a schizophrenic. She was later institutionalized and eventually given a lobotomy. His sister’s condition devastated Williams, and he was afraid throughout his life that he would succumb to madness as well. He based the character of Laura from “The Glass Menagerie” on his sister Rose. Williams had a younger brother named Dakin, who was eight years younger.
Their father doted on the younger brother, and there was a great deal of sibling rivalry between them. He actually based Brick and Grooper’s relationship on his tumultuous dealings with Dakin. Also, Williams had a great interest in people who lived on the fringes of life, like Rose. He considered himself to be “different” and he was not popular in his youth.
Thomas was teased as a youth by a boy named Brick, and Williams added that the character was weak minded and flawed. (Leverich, 55) The character of Big Daddy was based on an old school friend’s father, who was called “Big Daddy” and he used to say “it’s as how as a cat on a hot tin roof.” (Leverick, 417) In addition, Williams’s father paid for him to attend the University of Missouri but when he failed ROTC, his father cut off his funding, and he was forced to leave school. (Leverich, 128)
His father got him a job at the shoe factory, which Williams despised. He quit after a short time and he drifted around from one low paying job to another. Thomas’ maternal grandparents agreed to pay for him to attend the University of Iowa, and he graduated in 1938. In 1940 Williams landed a job at MGM as a screenwriter.
He was fired and his story “The Gentleman Caller was rejected. Ironically, this very script was later renamed “The Glass Menagerie.” Around this time in his life he changed his name to Tennessee, and he began to explore who he was as well as his sexuality. He dated women as well as men, but he preferred males. (Leverich, 260) Also, when his long standing significant other, Frank Merlo, died of cancer in 1961, Williams began to deteriorate. He drank heavily, became adducted to prescription drugs and he developed a bad reputation or drunkard public behavior.
He continued to write stories and plays until the 1980’s. His later plays, “Clothes For A Summer Hotel” and “A House Not Meant To Stand” were not well received. (Smith, 157) Unfortunately, the critics attacked Williams’s later work, and they felt that the plays were contrived and not original like “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” and “Streetcar Named Desire.” (Leverich, 129) Yet, his later works reflect a man who lived an emotionally painful life often feeling overwhelmed by his fame and relishing the spotlight at the same time.
Interestingly, critics love Shakespeare even though some plays are not as good as others, yet some critics wish to discredit Williams due to his less successful work.
Conclusion In summation, “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”, is one of Williams’s most powerful plays. It is about dealing with the past and exposing the falsehoods in people and in life. Tennessee Williams believed in hard work and he thought that by interweaving his life into his craft, would be truly his. Yet, his gift belongs to the world to explore and reflect on. He died on February 24, 1983 at the age of 71.
Works Cited Abcarian, Richard and Marvin Klotz with Peter Richardson Literature 7th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc. 1998, 20-23
Akinson, Brooks. Review of “Tennessee’s “Cat” by Tennessee Williams, directed by Elia Kazan. Morosco Theatre, New York Times, 25 March 1955
Becker, William. Review of debut performance of “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams. Hudson Review (1955), 268-272 http://www.galenet.com/servlet/LitR
Dirks, Tim. Review of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” (1958-movie), 1-19 http://www.filmsite.org/cato/htm/
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1995, 3, 17, 55, 59, 128, 129, 260, 417, 574
McLean, Colin. Interview, April 25th, 8:10 p.m.
The New Book of Knowledge vol. 20 US, Grolier, Inc. 1994, 174-175
Reiter, Amy. A Capital Cat.” Entertainment Design January 1999 7-8 proquest.umi.com/pqdweb
Smith, Bruce. Costly Performances. New York: Paragon House, 1990, 6, 17, 59, 157
Williams, Tennessee. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof New York: Penguin Books Ltd. 1955 24, 124, 125
Winchell, Mark Royden. “Come Back To The Locker Room Ag’in Brick Honey.” The Mississippi Quarterly 48 Fall 1995 701-712 webspirs3.silverplatter.com/cgi-binwaldo.cgi
Wolter, Jurgen C. “Strangers on Williams’s Stage.” The Mississippi Quarterly 49 Winter 1995 33-51 webspirs3.sinverplatter.com/cgi-bin/waldo/cgi