STRATFORD, Conn.--One of the tasks of the theater is to reassess the works of our playwrights a decade or two after their original productions. As part of its 20th season, the American Shakespeare Theater is fulfilling this function by turning for the first time in its history to a play by a living American dramatist.
It seemed appropriate to someone to select a work dating from 1955, the year the AST opened. The choice fell on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, who is, along with Arthur Miller, generally considered one of the two foremost native dramatists of our time.
As it happened, both Williams and Miller faced Broadway audiences that year, the latter with A View From the Bridge. Coincidentally, both plays were revised by their authors, both showed the influence of ancient Greek drama, both dealt substantially with homosexuality, and both were on this account denied a license of London production by the Lord Chamberlain.
Homosexuality was then hardly a new subject for the stage. After all, Edward II, by Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe, is a masterly drama about a homosexual kind of England. In our own century, Broadway audiences were confronted with the topic during the twenties and thirties through such plays as The Captive, The Pleasure Man (by Mae West--who, we tend to forget, wrote as well as acted), The Children's Hour, The Green Bay Tree and, later, Tea and Sympathy. Prior to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams himself had invoked the subject tangentially in A Streetcar Named Desire, and would return to it more seriously three years later in Suddenly Last Summer.
But theater audiences have notoriously short memories. When Cat was first mounted, Williams was widely deemed a purveyor of sex, sensationalism and violence; the play was found shocking, with most of the talk focussed on homosexuality and the inclusion of a bawdy joke about an elephant's erection.
Today, after a decade that has brought us such outspoken dramas as The Toilet, The Killing of Sister George, A Song at Twilight, Fortune and Men's Eyes, Staircase, The Boys in the Band, and, just this spring, Find Your Way Home, homosexuality is no longer shocking and virtually anything is grist for stage treatment.
This opening up has the advantage of allowing us to go back to a work like Cat with a balanced perspective. Sure, homosexuality is a factor in the play; but we can now more easily appreciate that it is not the central subject. Only last year, shortly after publicly acknowledging his own homosexuality, Williams stated, "I have never found the subject of homosexuality a satisfactory theme for a full-length play."
Cat, like most of Williams's plays, casts its net far wider, exploring a number of major themes: illusion and reality and the impact idealism has on them (there is a lesson in the fact that, in this matter, Williams and O'Neill--in The Iceman Cometh--could take opposing positions and both be convincing); the need to overcome isolation and the obstacles to communication and worthy personal relationships; the nature of power, both materialistic and spiritual; and sexual conflict and guilt (heterosexual as well as homosexual). As often with Williams, disease and neurosis and death are also involved--and so is humor.
The earlier Glass Menagerie and Streetcar remain his finest achievements. But Cat ranks next, and had no trouble making a strong initial impact. It copped the Drama Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize, not to mention an unexpected accolade from Fidel Castro. It is sad that, in the ensuing two decades, Williams has, for all his activity, not produced another first-rate work, and we have had only a series of rehashings and fitful flickerings. But nothing can detract from the luster of his early masterpieces.
Cat plunges us into a predatory Southern family not unlike the Hubbard household so splendidly limned by Lillian Hellman in Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes. At the head is Big Daddy Pollitt, who has amassed a fortune of nearly $10-million, never stops bragging about his "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile," and is unaware he has terminal cancer. He loathes his wife, Big Mama, with whom his sex life has been no doublebed of roses.
Big Daddy's elder son, Gooper, is a greedy lawyer slavering to inherit the estate, and is married to Mae, a snotty and equally money-minded mother of an ever-expanding obnoxious brood of "no-neck monsters." The younger son, Brick, is an ex-athlete fallen into alcoholism, who refuses to become involved with anyone, including his wife Maggie. She is thus not only sexually frustrated and childless but, born into poverty, also fearful of losing the wealth into which she married. On the sidelines is the Reverend Tooker, a local clergyman adept at sniffing a fat bequest for a church memorial.
These are not your ordinary next-door neighbors. Williams has made them larger-than-life, like the characters in ancient Greek drama, and has tried, in his words, to portray the "fiercely charged interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis." Furthermore, despite the play's three acts the action is absolutely continuous, being confined to two and a half hours on the evening of Big Daddy's 65th birthday. Not only does the work satisfy Aristotle's suggestions but it also meticulously observes the three unities, of time, place and action so dear to the hearts of Renaissance theorists.
Although the cast contains some fifteen players, the core of the play--again as in Greek drama--lies in big duologues separated by choral passages (sometimes literal offstage singing). The first act, like the others, takes place in the combination bed-sitting-room occupied by Maggie and Brick, and it belongs almost exclusively to them. In fact, we have here not so much a duologue as a monologue by Maggie, for she talks more at him than with him. Brick, whose tippling has resulted in a broken leg, is always physically present, with crutch and cast, but his mind is almost always elsewhere. Maggie's babbling and bitching merely bounce off her boozer.
In the second act, the galvanic Big Daddy won't tolerate Brick's detachment. The two of them, alone on stage, have a knock-down drag-out dispute in the tradition of the Greek agon. This is the most powerful scene in the play, and one of the most powerful in modern drama. Williams is often at his most effective when he is autobiographical. Tom and Laura in Menagerie were modeled on the playwright and his introverted sister Rose, who had to be institutionalized for life. The confrontation in Cat was his way of trying to exorcise the demonic memory of his taunting and bullying father--much as O'Neill did in a still greater play, Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Here, with persistent and painful probing, Big Daddy pries out of Brick a reason for his refuge in alcohol: disgust at the world's hypocrisy--or "mendacity," as Brick puts it. Part of this disgust is self-disgust at the outcome of Brick's "pure and true" friendship with his now-dead football pal Skipper, a relationship that was homosexual on one side and, at least latently, on the other. Forced to face truth, Brick turns the tables and reveals that what Big Daddy thinks is a spastic colon is actually a metastasizing malignancy.
Williams has always been a tinkerer, right from his first commercial effort, Battle of Angels, which wound up 17 years later as Orpheus Descending. The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore was offered to the public in four versions, none of them successful. And, more recently, Two Character Play resurfaced as Out Cry.
In Cat, it was the third act that proved troublesome. In order to assure the play's production, Williams felt compelled to knuckle under to director Elia Kazan's desires that Big Daddy return on-stage in the last act, that Brick undergo a change of character as a result of Act II, and that Maggie become more sympathetic. Williams saw some merit only in the last, but went along with all three. In Kazan's production, Big Daddy came back to hear Maggie's false claim of pregnancy and to tell a smutty joke. This was a half-hearted compliance, but it did no real damage, though the arch of the play's structure had been prefectly satisfactory with Big Daddy serving solely as the keystone.
In the revised version, Brick seems at the very end to be headed for a reconciliation of sorts with Maggie, as he did not in the original script. This did do some damage, and Williams knew it. He was quite right in stating, "I don't believe that a conversation, however revelatory, ever effects so immediate a change in the heart or even conduct of a person in Brick's state of spiritual disrepair." When the play was published, Williams took care to include both versions of the third act.
But the problem continued to nag him. A year ago he tried out a new version at Stage West in West Springfield, Massachusetts, in which he mixed together parts of both third acts. I didn't see this production; but when the Theatre Company of Boston did the play at the Loeb Theatre two months ago, director David Wheeler did a bit of mixing of his own, and also substituted a single intermission just before the big confrontation instead of preserving the two in the text.
It seems to be substantially the Springfield version that the American Shakespeare Theatre is currently offering. Williams has been on hand here during the preparations and has made a few other minor changes. Today four-letter words may be spoken on stage as they could not on the Broadway of 1955; so "frig" has become "fuck" and "ruttin'" has become "fuckin'"--which everyone knew was intended all along.
Big Daddy does come back; the thunderstorm has been curtailed; Gooper reinstates his witticism about Big Mama's double chin; and Brick ends the play, as he originally did, by being more ambiguous and less conclusive. The text can now, I think, in its fourth version be considered final. If there seems to be, generally, too much repetition of words and phrases, that's just the result of (my) personal taste.
Williams ought to be pleased with the production that Michael Kahn has mounted for him. Kahn has operated with a sure hand. He has let all the humor come forward, and he has not been afraid to introduce quite a few lengthy pauses, all of which work tellingly. The first-act blocking and the byplay with the crutch escape the monotony that can easily beset the early portion of the play.
Elizabeth Ashley is a stunningly beautiful young Maggie, and this justifies all the primping and preening she does. Her Southern accent is not infallible, but she does serve well the lyrical aspects of her speech. She is not at home, however, in the profanity of a phrase like "goddam luck." I think she represses her fighting instinct too much in the first act, and one mutters, "At last!," when she really lets go in the third. I like the idea ok having her aim her archery bow at Mae's back. I did not care at all for Barbara Bel Geddes' Maggie on Broadway; Miss Ashley's here is as impressive as I have seen.
Keir Dullea's Brick is fine all the way. For a long time this is a thankless role: Brick has little chance to play; he functions more as a mannikin than as a man. But it takes considerable skill and attentiveness to convey Brick's inattentiveness convincingly, whether he is just lying down with closed eyes, gazing off into space, or whistling about the light of the silvery moon, quite oblivious of what Maggie is saying. Eventually he is goaded into action, and uses a chair as a circus lion-tamer does. In the great scene with Big Daddy, he performs with the right tempi and with shattering intensity. Still, it is a weakness of the script that Williams has not given us a fully-rounded portrait of Brick; we really know less about him than we do about his friend Skipper, whom we never see.
The memory of Big Daddy as played by Burl Ives both on Broadway and in the adulterated movie version is ineradicable, and we are not likely to see it bettered. Fred Gwynne, whose long-stage career since his undergraduate Harvard days has been largely devoted to comedy, here proves to be a surprisingly capable Big Daddy. He manages to encompass the role's vulgarity, shrewdness and compassion. Only when he gets to hollering at the end of the second act does he become unintelligible.
Kate Reid's Big Mama is hyperactive, rowdy, and gross. This is far different from Mildred Dunnock on Broadway, but it is closer to what Williams indicates in the text, where Big Mama is likened to a "Japanese wrestler." Miss Reid has a way of sitting with her legs apart in a most unladylike fashion, and vomits the word "crap" so as to make it seem the vilest word ever invented. Her characterization makes Big Mama and Big Daddy almost two of a kind--which is something of a novelty.
As the ever-pregnant Mae, Joan Pape has a more authentic accent than Maggie, but she is not nearly vicious and venomous enough. Charles Siebert's cigar-smoking Gooper is adequate. This couple is not up to the Madeleine Sherwood and Pat Hingle of 1955. Wyman Pendleton's Reverend Tooker is a deft sketch; and William Larsen has the unrewarding role of Doctor Baugh, who, like a messenger in Greek drama, is on hand merely as the bearer of bad tidings. The children and servants perform their bits admirably.
Jane Greenwood's costumes suit the time and place nicely. Maggie even puts on dress stockings with seams, which are all but impossible to find in these days of seamless hose. The lines require, however, that Brick wear a pair of white silk pajamas; what he wears sure isn't silk.
John Conklin has designed a handsome setting, all in off-white, just starting to show signs of deterioration. Three pairs of floor-length lace curtains catch the wisps of breeze and a variety of colors from the fireworks in the garden. In the center of the room, where it belongs as a major bone of contention, is a large double bed. I am reminded of the blooper committed by a TV announcer promoting the showing of the play's film version: "See Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in a Cot on a Hot Tin Roof." No, it's got to be a double bed.