Enough Mendacity To Sink A Ship
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Theater of Tennessee Williams, Volume Three, New Directions Books, New York, 1955
The first couple of paragraphs here have been used as introduction to other plays written by Tennessee Williams and reviewed in this space. This review applies to both the stage play and the film versions with differences noted as part of the review
Perhaps, as is the case with this reviewer, if you have come to the works of the excellent American playwright Tennessee Williams through adaptations of his plays to commercially distributed films you too will have missed some of the more controversial and intriguing aspects of his plays that had placed him at that time along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller as America’s finest serious playwrights. Although some of the films have their own charms I want to address the written plays in this entry first (along with, when appropriate, commentary about Williams’ extensive and detailed directing instructions).
That said, there are certain limitations for a political commentator like this reviewer on the works of Williams. Although his plays, at least his best and most well-known ones, take place in the steamy South or its environs, there is virtually no acknowledgement of the race question that dominated Southern life during the period of the plays; and, for that matter was beginning to dominate national life. Thus, although it is possible to pay homage to his work on its artistic merits, I am very, very tentative about giving fulsome praise to that work on its political merits. With that proviso Williams nevertheless has created a very modern stage on which to address social questions at the personal level, like homosexuality, incest and the dysfunctional family that only began to get addressed widely well after his ground-breaking work hit the stage.
“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” is a prime example of the contradiction that a radical commentator is placed in. The themes of duplicity, latent homosexuality, adultery and dysfunctional families topped off by more than enough mendacity to sink a ship are the stuff of social drama that NEED to be addressed as outcomes in the modern capitalist cultural sphere. However, in the end nothing really gets resolved truthfully here. Old 1950’s-style All-American boy Brick, the ‘great white hope’ of the family, may or may not sober up after the ‘lost’ of his dear friend and fellow football player, Skipper. Saucy and sexy wife Maggie (the cat) may or may not really get pregnant by Brick and save the family heritage for him, or die trying. The only certainty, despite all that above-mentioned mendacity, is that Big Daddy is going to die and that 28,000 acres of the finest land in the Delta is going to need new management, either by Brick, brother Goober (along with his scheming wife and their ‘lovely' brood of children) or some upstart. Off of these possible outcomes, however, I would not get too worked up about the final outcome.
In the movie version, done in the 1950’s as well, which starred the recently departed excellent actor Paul Newman as Brick and a fetching Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the question of Brick’s possible homosexual relationship with Skipper is far more muted than in the play. The implicit question seems to concern Brick’s fading youth, his search for perfect meaning to life in Mississippi and that one’s existential crisis can be eliminated by reliance on the bottle. The relationship between the dying Big Daddy and his ever suffering wife, Big Mama, is less dastardly than in the play as well. The scheming Goober and wife and family and those ‘lovely’ children, however, run true to form. My sense of the movie, unlike the deeper issues of the play, is that a few therapy sessions would put old Brick back on the right track. The play was far less hopeful in that regard.