Thursday, March 24, 2005

50 Years

Fifty years ago tonight, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams opened on Broadway. It was the third smash hit for Williams following The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, taught it, and gone through it line by line. I still think it’s one of the best pieces of writing in the English language. Unfortunately, it’s the last great play Williams wrote.

The sad fact is that the director, Elia Kazan, made Williams change the play, removing the overt allusion to Brick’s sexual confusion. This interference bothered the playwright to the end of his life and led to his addiction to alcohol and drugs.

The story of Cat’s production in 1954 [sic] and the disaster that followed upon its enormous success must be told now.

Kazan immediately shared Audrey’s [Audrey Woods, Williams’s agent] enthusiasm for Cat but he said that it was faulty in one act. I assumed that he meant the first act, but no, it was the third act. He wanted a more admirable herioine than the Maggie offered in the original script.

Inwardly I disagreed. I thought that in Maggie I had presented a very true and moving portrait of a young woman whose frustration in love and whose practicality drove her to the literal seduction of an unwilling young man. Seduction is too soft a word. Brick was literally forced back to bed by Maggie, when she confiscated his booze. . .

Then I also had to violate my own intuition by having Big Daddy re-enter the stage in Act Three. I saw nothing for him to do in that act when he re-entered and I did not think that it was dramatically proper that he should re-enter. Consequently I had him tell “the elephant story.” This was assaulted by censors. I was told it must be removed. The material which I then had to put in its place was always offensive to me.

I would not tell you this except for the consequences to me as a writer after Cat had received its Critics’ Award and its Pulitzer.

Even though I always go crazy on opening nights, the New York opening of Cat was particularly dreadful. I thought it was a failure, a distortion of what I had intended. After the show was over I though I had heard coughs all during the performance. I suppose there weren’t that many, probably the usual number. And it did become my longest-running play.

[…]

After that, I went to Italy with Frankie [Frankie Merlo, his lover] and for the first, no, the second time of prolonged duration, I was unable to write.

Strong coffee no longer sufficed to get the creative juices to flow.

For several weeks I endured this creative sterility, then I started to wash down a Seconal with a martini. And then I was “hooked” on that practice. – Memoirs by Tennesse Williams, 1975.

Williams never really recovered from the experience of Cat and the assault on his work by a well-meaning director and the uptight society of 1955. The script was softened up even more for the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman — no one in 1958 Hollywood was going to suggest that Newman’s character might be gay.

The plays that followed — works such as The Night of the Iguana, The Rose Tattoo, and Orpheus Descending — are good, but I can’t help wondering how much better they might have been if the battle in the first production of Cat had been left to Maggie and Brick.