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Critical Review by William Becker
SOURCE: A review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in The Hudson Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1955, pp. 268-72.
In the following review, Becker offers high praise for the debut production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he describes as a "remarkable piece of work" and "Williams' best play to date."
The team of Tennessee Williams, playwright, Elia Kazan, director, and Jo Mielziner, designer, is as potent an artistic force as Broadway can boast today. Their newest collaboration, the Playwrights Company production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Morosco, is a really remarkable piece of work. It is also the season's most solid dramatic success. One should perhaps take special note of the fact that the kind of theatre produced by this particular team is a strictly American creation and has as yet no European counterpart: it is, in fact, the singular dramatic achievement of the postwar decade on Broadway (the only other new achievements of any artistic kind being in the field of the musical). One senses it as an important creation, and one that is now arrived and may be ready for an interesting future. The technique of it is based on a curious dialectic of intense realism and rather eloquent fantasy, a dialectic which is present in every part of the final creation—it is there in the writing, in the open half-abstracted settings, in the play of the lights, in the postures and delivery of the actors. It is an intensification of life posed against abstractions from it, artifice breaking down into nature, nature building up into artifice. Specifically, it is real speech with unnatural inflections, solid furniture in rooms with no walls, naturalistic acting that assembles itself into highly posed and static images, normal realistic light that gives way to follow-spots and chiaroscuro, talk that develops special rhythms and elevates itself into speech.
Nor is this phenomenon, even fundamentally, a playwright's creation, nor a director's, nor a designer's. One senses it as thoroughly eclectic, collaborative, fluid, and the final product as one in which the individual contributions are so harmoniously blended as to create a fully synthetic piece of theatre—a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk minus the music. The production process is more than just an achievement of the play; it is actually its completion, with the result that the design of the set and the basic elements of the staging get built into the script—quite literally, as anyone who has had the opportunity to compare an original Williams text with the final published version will know. No future production of the play can ever depart very successfully from the basic scheme that emerges. I have seen six or seven productions of Streetcar (and even performed in one), in several different countries and languages, and not one but derived in every major respect from the original Broadway production. Performances, of course, can vary, no matter how synthetic the creation; but it is the great achievement of this collaboration that, in most cases, they can only vary in the direction of inferiority. By the time the play reaches its finished printed form, the roles have been altered to fit the performers, and the quality of the original performances has somehow been built in, too. As a way of work in the theatre, there is something very nearly ideal about this extraordinary collaborative process: it is perhaps the closest analogy that exists in modern theatre to the older tradition of the actor-playwright who was able to forge just such a synthesis with his own company. The success of the process is, of course, a special tribute to the genius of Elia Kazan, who, as director, is its catalytic agent; but it is no less a tribute to Williams, as an author, that he is sufficiently gifted and flexible to take advantage of what Kazan and Mielziner have to offer him. His ability to function so brilliantly in collaboration is precisely what makes him, as a writer, so much of the theatre. It is no accident that Kazan's work is never quite so successful or spectacular with lesser playwrights.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, in many respects, Williams' best play to date. It is, by all odds, his most powerful; and it contains, in Big Daddy, marvelously played by Burl Ives, the most nearly heroic character Williams has ever created. Set in the Mississippi River Delta, the play introduces us to the family of an enormously wealthy planter of Rabelaisian character and great physical bulk (Big Daddy), whose death by cancer is imminent. There is Brick (Ben Gazzara), his younger son, a one-time star athlete turned sullen neurotic alcoholic; and Maggie (Barbara Bel Geddes), Brick's wife, desperate for Brick's physical love, and nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof because he withholds it. There are, in Big Mama (Mildred Dunnock), Gooper (Pat Hingle), Brick's older brother, and Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), his wife, three brilliant tragicomic portraits, satirical in quality and devastating in their accuracy. The family group is completed by the five noisy little "no-neck monsters," belonging to Gooper and Mae, who were played with consummate disagreeableness by what must surely have been the five most unattractive children available in New York City.
The dramatic method of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is familiar from Williams' earlier plays; and it remains of considerable technical interest, being at once quite traditional and yet uniquely Williams' own. One can find in it elements of the dramaturgy of both [Henrik] Ibsen and [Anton] Tchekov, the blend serving to point up the essential interconnectedness of apparently disparate techniques. Williams' method is Ibsenist in the way that it permits the rich narrative elements, which comprise one of Williams' most striking gifts, to emerge bit by bit in a crescendo of meaningfulness. We are plunged into a story at a point just on the verge of an explosive climax or conclusion. Little by little the sequence of past events seeps out, and it is generally not until the end of the second set that the history is complete. At that point, at least in Cat, the full story precipitates a revelation, not only for the audience, but for the characters, and the major climax is the second act curtain. The remainder of the play is an inexorable working out of the consequences. The method is Tchekovian, on the other hand, in the sense that the climaxes are psychological, and the play's rhythms are created, not by external events, accidents, or gimmicks (like the fire in Ghosts), but by developing relations between people or by an increasing self-awareness in an individual character. As in Tchekov, there are long rambling speeches and lengthy personal reminiscences. There are, in fact, longer speeches in Cat than in any modern American play I know, outside the works of Eugene O'Neill. But where O'Neill's speeches tend to be repetitive and verbose, and greatly in need of pruning for performance, Williams' speeches tend, like Tchekov's, to be entirely necessary and to defy cutting. The better part of the entire first act of Cat is one long monologue by Maggie the Cat addressed to her husband, and only occasionally interrupted by Brick's icy non-committal responses. Likewise, the second act, which is dominated from beginning to end by Big Daddy, and of which more than half is a tempestuous dialogue between Big Daddy and Brick.
If the dramaturgy is in debt to Ibsen and Tchekov, the general tone and manner owe something to Strindberg. (These comparisons are not idle: Williams has established himself in the major traditions, if so far in something less than a major way.) A great part of the psychology is violent, just as much of the eloquence is bombast. One of Big Daddy's typical speeches will serve to illustrate both the quality and the rhetoric (intervening stage directions omitted):
You don't know a goddam thing an' you never did! (BIG MAMA: Big Daddy, you don't mean that.) Oh, yes, I do, oh, yes, I do mean it! I put up with a whole lot of crap around here because I thought I was dyin'—An' you thought I was dyin' an' you started takin' over; well, you can stop takin' over, now, Ida, because I'm not goin' to die, you can just stop this business of takin' over because you're not takin' over because I'm not dyin'. I went through that laboratory and the exploratory operation and there's nothin' wrong with me but a spastic colon. An' I'm not dyin' of cancer which you thought I was dyin' of. Ain't that so? Didn't you think that I was dyin' of cancer? Ain't that so, Ida? Didn't you have an idea I was dyin' of cancer an' now you could take control of this place an' everything on it? I got that impression, I seemed to get that impression. Your loud voice everywhere, your damn' busy ole body buttin' in here an' there! (BIG MAMA: Hush! The Preacher!) Rut the Preacher! Did you hear what I said? Rut the cotton-pickin' chicken-eatin', memorial-stained-glass Preacher!… I went through all that laboratory an' operation an' all just so I would know if you or me was boss here! Well, now it turns out that I am an' you ain't—and that's my birthday present—an' my cake an' champagne—because for three years now you been gradually takin' over. Bossin', talkin', sashayin' your ole butt aroun' this place I made! I made this place! I was overseer on it! I was the overseer on th' ole Straw an' Ochello plantation. I quit school at ten! I quit school at ten years old an' went to work like a nigger in the fields. An' I rose to be overseer of the Straw an' Ochello plantation. An' ole Straw died an' I was Ochello's partner an' the place got bigger an' bigger an' bigger! I did all that myself with no goddam help from you, an' now you think that you are just about to take over. Well, I'm just about to tell you that you are not just about to take over, you are not just about to take over a goddam thing. Is that clear to you, Ida? Is that very plain to you now? Is that understood completely? I been through the laboratory from A to Z. I've had the goddam exploratory operation, an' nothin' is wrong with me but a spastic colon—made spastic, I guess, by all the goddam lies and liars that I have had to put up with, an' all the hypocrisy that I have lived with all these forty years that I been livin' with you! Now blow out the candles on th' birthday cake! Take a deep breath an' blow out th' goddam candles on th' cake.
Cambyses' vein, perhaps, but nonetheless some of the most powerful theatrical writing to enliven the drab stages of Broadway in some time. As Eric Bentley has noted, the prose rhythms owe something to the repetitive artifices of Gertrude Stein, but the lushness has its roots in real Southern vernacular. The language is part of the whole creation, like the play itself, a mixture of realism and fantasy, a personalized rendition of an authentic American idiom. Like the language of The Flowering Peach, it makes us realize what riches lie largely unmined in the diverse American voice, and it reminds us, too, how little mere accuracy (e.g. Horton Foote or William Inge) is a substitute for style.
The plot of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is too complex, and the circumstances of its central situation too eventfully rich, to attempt to retail (the play should be seen, or eventually read by everybody with any interest in the American stage); but some mention needs to be made of its thematic strands. The play dances, thematically, around the problem of Truth, though without saying anything very substantial on the subject. The theme is, really, an excuse for the drama—which is perhaps as it should be—and the drama exists in a series of personal relationships to which, of course, the criterion of truth may be applied. Brick has been lying to himself; the family has been lying to Big Daddy about his cancer; Big Daddy has a speech in which he retails the lies and hypocrisy he has had to live with all his life; and Brick bitterly sums it all up, in the big second act revelation scene, with the remark, "Mendacity is the system we live in." But if truth is the main subject of the play's investigation, sex is the peg that the drama is hung on. Big Mama enquires of Maggie if she makes Brick happy in bed, and, pointing to their bed, exclaims, "When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are here, right here!" Big Daddy talks about Big Mama's insatiability, and how he was too good in bed for forty years to an old woman he couldn't stand "the sight, sound, or smell of". And his first wish, when he thinks he is healthy, is to rectify it all by spending the last years of his life having a sexual "ball". The source of Maggie's desperation is her exile from Brick's bed, and she spends a good part of the play being conscious of her body and its attractions. The truth Brick is forced to face is his own partial and repressed homosexuality, and that of his closest friend, for whose death by alcoholic self-destruction Brick is finally responsible—though it is a responsibility he has projected onto Maggie. For it was Maggie who accused the friend and then allowed herself to go to bed with him in an attempt to prove her accusation false, and it was his impotence on that occasion which convinced him the accusation was true, and triggered his break-down into alcoholism. The resolution of the play is also sexual, though the ostensible subject is still truth. Maggie brings to birth a "desperate truth" by telling Big Daddy that she is pregnant with Brick's child, thus fulfilling the profoundest wish of a dying man—a lie different from all the other lies in the play, because it impels its own conversion into truth: as the final curtain falls, Brick and Maggie are going to bed to create that child. This rather intellectualized and schematized handling of the question of truth and mendacity seems to me the weakest aspect of the play. What is said about truth is not nearly so convincing as what emerges dramatically in the course of the play about the truth of relations between people—the opening, for example, of the big second act dialogue between Brick and Big Daddy, with its tentative groping after some real truth, in the form of communication, between them. Or the climax of that same dialogue, in which Brick, forced by Big Daddy into a terrible revelation of his own self-deception, blurts out, almost in vengeance, the truth about the cancer, sending Big Daddy off as the curtain falls, shouting, "Christ—Damn—Damn All—Lyin' Sons of—Lyin' Bitches! Yes—All Liars, All Liars, All Lyin', Dyin' Liars! Lyin'—Dyin'—Liars! Liars! Liars!"
It should be said, in conclusion, that the great weakness of the Williams-Kazan synthetic creation, and particularly of Kazan's part in it, is that much of the artifice tends to be hollow and pasted on. Tremendously effective during the moments one is subjected to it in the theatre, it has a way of evaporating in retrospect; and one realizes that a great many raised questions have been, not answered, but bowled over, and aspects of character or plot, not justified, but arbitrarily imposed. There is, in the method, a certain amount of opportune dishonesty, bamboozling, and trickery, which is, however, perpetrated with consummate theatrical finesse, and revealed only when recollected in tranquillity. Still, Kazan's caterpillar opportunism is not merely the key to his meteoric success, it is an essential ingredient of his genius. If he were not empty of convictions and utterly unscrupulous, if he were more thoughtful and less absolutely intuitive, his conscience would probably destroy him. It is precisely because his imagination is reckless and, to a degree, irresponsible, that he succeeds in creating theatrical effects of a daring and power that no other director on Broadway can begin to approach. His opportunism, both good and bad, is his gift.
This section contains 2,714 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)