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Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Belvoir presents CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF by Tennessee Williams in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills.

Dear Diary,

Please view the Belvoir promotional clip, below, before you begin this ‘epic’ entry. (oh, Puleeease, even if it is tongue in cheek, it epitomises some of the attitude in approaching these works that give me an artist, even, moral, pause. Or, is it just my generational elderliness showing, here? I am just not hip.)

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF by Tennessee Williams (1955) is another production of a classic American work directed by Simon Stone for the Belvoir Theatre. STRANGE INTERLUDE by Eugene O’Neill and THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller were presented last year.

Mr Williams in the publication of the text has a quote of dedication or inspiration on his title page:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light!

 Dylan Thomas – Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

Considering the above quote, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, maybe, is pivotally swung on and around the character of Big Daddy.

Big Daddy and Maggie are two of the most complete characters Williams has ever created. … He is the play’s hero, a big man of violent emotions and a lust for money, food, love and integrity. Like Williams’ own father on whom he is modeled, Big Daddy has little rapport with his son, but he loves him and that’s why he hurts him… .

– Richard F. Leavitt

All work is autobiographical if it is serious. Everything a writer produces is sort of his inner history, transposed to another time.

 – Tennessee Williams.

Amanda Wingfield (THE GLASS MENAGERIE): “The past keeps getting bigger and bigger at the expense of the future.”

So, in the week before opening this production, when the actor playing Big Daddy was forced to withdraw (we have been told, because of ill health), Marshall Napier, was engaged to take over, and played, with book in hand, on the opening night. I thought I would give time for Mr Napier to settle into the run. Big Daddy being so important to the Tenneesee Williams conception.

Tennessee Williams from his MEMOIRS (1972):

People are always asking me, at those symposia to which I’ve been subjected in recent years, which is my favourite among the plays I have written, the number of which eludes my recollection, and I either say to them, “Always the latest” or I succumb to my instinct for the truth and say, “I suppose it must be the published version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. 

The play comes closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft. It is really very well put together, in my opinion, and all its characters are amusing and credible and touching. Also it adheres to the valuable edict of Aristotle that a tragedy must have unity of time and place and magnitude of theme. 

The set in CAT never changes and its running time is exactly the time of its action, meaning that one act, timewise, follows directly upon the other, and I know of no other modern American play in which this is accomplished. 

However my reasons for liking CAT best are deeper than that. I believe that in CAT I reached beyond myself, in the second act, to a kind of crude eloquence of expression in Big Daddy that I have managed to give no other character of my creation.”

The original published text of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1954) had Tenneesee’s original third act, as well as an adjunct, the so-called Broadway Version. In that edition of the play Mr Williams has a Note of Explanation. He talks of the importance of the dangers and values, of a highly imaginative director upon the development of a play (more of that later). The director of CAT was Elia Kazan, who had also directed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1947) and CAMINO REAL(1953) (later, the film BABY DOLL (1956) and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1959)).

... It so happened that in the case of STREETCAR, Kazan was given a script that was completely finished. In the case of CAT, he was shown the first typed version of the play, and he was excited by it, but he had definite reservations about it which were concentrated in the third act. The gist of his reservations can be listed as three points: one, he felt that Big Daddy was too vivid and important a character to disappear from the play except as an offstage cry after the second act curtain; two, 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. Three, he felt that the character of Margaret, which he understood that I sympatized with her and liked her myself, should be, if possible, more clearly sympathetic to an audience. 

It was only the third of these suggestions that I embraced wholeheartedly from the outset, because it so happened that Maggie the cat has become more steadily charming to me as I worked on her characterization. I didn’t want Big Daddy to reappear in Act Three and I felt that the moral paralysis of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy, and to show a dynamic progression would obscure the meaning of that tragedy in him and 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. 

However, I wanted Kazan to direct the play, and though these suggestions were not made in a form of an ultimatum, I was fearful that I would lose his interest if I didn’t re-examine the script from his point of view. I did. And you will find included in this published script the new third act that resulted from his creative influence on the play. The reception of the playing-script has more than justified, in my opinion, the adjustments made to that influence. A failure reaches fewer people, and touches fewer, than does a play that succeeds. 

It may be that CAT number one would have done just as well, or nearly, as CAT number two; it’s an interesting question. At any rate with the publication of both third acts in this volume, the reader can, if he wishes, make up his own mind about it.

But, even this new Broadway act re-written for Kazan was censored by the authorities (the elephant story was removed – too vulgar for the sensibilities of the time!) The play, as it was seen however, still won the New York Drama Critic’s Award and the Pulitzer Prize (1955). Tennessee Williams was extremely unhappy with the screen script (1958) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives, adapted by Richard Brooks and James Poe (directed by Richard Brooks), as was latterly, Mr Newman, as it removed almost all the homosexual themes and revised the third act to include a lengthy scene of reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy. When CAT was revived for the stage in 1974, Tennessee Williams revised the text once again, and it is this version that has been universally accepted as the one that the writer approved, and has been the one used in all of the Broadway revivals since. (N.B. the above published Notes of Explanation were written in 1954, twenty years before Mr Williams made his major revision to the play text in 1974.)

Simon Stone has elected to do the original 1954, third act, as his first directorial decision with this mighty play.

His next directorial decision is that the play is to be given in Australian accents. I regret this as much as the many other critics have, concerning this production. Most of the critics have been silent about that directorial dialect change which Mr Stone and the Belvoir artistic company have made consistently, with, for example, the O’Neill and, particularly, with the Arthur Miller play (don’t forget PRIVATE LIVES), previously, but have been moved enough to note that the musical cadences of the Mississippi dialect that Mr Williams writes in, is such an integral part of the poetic truth of the Williams text, that to place it into the characteristic shapings and rhythms of the Australian dialect is to diminish the impact of the writing and that a protest should be made (!)

John Shand , the Sydney Morning Herald, February 27th, 2013:

Thankfully Simon Stone’s production restores the playwright’s bleaker version, which compounds the potentcy and resonance or it should. 

Stone’s other pivotal directorial decision was to use Australian rather than Mississippi accents, while leaving the slang and place names rooted in the South. Such practices have become commonplace, supposedly to allow contemporary audiences to “relate” to a work. Classics by definition, are timeless, and to feel obliged to grease connections is to patronise.

I loved Mr Shand’s assertion that “…to grease connections is to patronise.”

I agree entirely. Although, I believe, no less, that the dialect that Mr Williams’ works in, and is such an integral part of his writing, its truth and poetry, I, also, reckon that Mr Miller writes his theatre prose with just the same accuracy of musical ear as Mr Williams (different, but just as vibrantly true and poetic) and the damage to the work, e.g. THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN, by transposing it into Australian dialect was just as crucial to the quality of that received work in the theatre. At Belvoir we have had consistently less than more of the greatness of the classics they have presented – and there have been many classics in their canny seasonal repertoire – part of the reason I attend that theatre, my reverence for the quality of the writer. Although, as interesting as some of the work has been, it has, in my experience, never been able to register higher than good, as compared to great, because of their artistic condescensions to us, the audience, around the dialect choices (one is presuming that the actors they are using have the requisite skills to use the specific dialects, of course).

I am in a state of wonder about the choices of dialect that the Artistic body at Belvoir will make about the Tony Kushner ANGELS IN AMERICA. Will it be in Australian to help us ”relate” to the work, all the historical characters and place names intact or, will they, with Mr Kushner’s permission, have it as ANGELS IN AUSTRAYAH?

Mr Stone in the program bangs on about a justification of this choice, which he has consistently made with each of his versions of the American classic for Belvoir:

 ... And the poetry of their voices comes not from an incidental or idiomatic musicality, it comes from the characters’ deep insistence on declaring the truth of their human experience. William’s famous lyricism is the music of truth, not of accent or location or period, and that’s how he created classics.

It is, I believe, that the music of truth of the spoken text- is always situated – in the accent, location and period. I say, that the vocal expression of these characters in Mr Williams’ and Mr Miller’s play does depend on the location and period, it is the root soil of the characters’ truths, their context. I, also, understand that part of the characterisation any actor gives, certainly begins with the shapes required to be made in the mouth to make the sounds that form the words, phrases, sentences, speeches and are based around the given circumstances of the play’s world, the where and the when of the character’s circumstances – the instrument placements (tongue, lips, soft palate, jaw, breath effort, etc.) are integral to creating the truths that are spoken by the characters, and not just their vocabulary or speech tempos, rhythms, if one wishes to capture the truth of these men and women, the timeless quality of these classics.

It is interesting to note that Mr Stone in his attempt to create that resonance in his Australian version of this text, has, as is usual, taken on the role of author and re-written some of the material (with permission, of course?) to achieve that. Big Daddy in this version has, for instance “fucking” liberally interpolated into his speeches (“Crap”, is the usual choice in the actual text) – it, of course, goes some distance to help us to identify this property on which he lives: “twenty eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile”, as an Australian property owned by an Aussie bloke I can “relate” too. As opposed, to say, to my relating to Burl Ives’ Big Daddy in the film, which, of course, I have never before questioned. I had “related”, big time, even as a teenager, to Mr Ives. I understood Big Daddy as a classic archetype of human experience, even with the American accent, that, I then “related’, unconsciously, sure, to my Australianess, to my uncle “Bonzer”, nee Clive. – a Kokoda survivor. My mother’s brother. I knew some Big Daddy’s, or, at least, men of that kind of macho charisma.

Or, is this, just a generational problem? This culture of the youth being a visual one rather than an aural one? – so I am told. As Mr Stone is only 28 do strange sounds obfuscate the classic quality of the play as written, for him? Why that American sound ought to be strange considering the propensity of the American Culture he has probably observed around him, I can’t fathom. Did he never see DALLAS, one of Australia’s favourite TV shows? Not know J.R. the big daddy of that series? Hey, I’m just trying to figure it out. And I am not sure if that poetic allusion to the “valley Nile” or any of Big Daddy’s vocabulary would be found coming from the mouth of any of the farm/landowners, I know in Australia. Oh, well, I just pay to see the choices, not make them.

I believe that Mr Stone is a highly creative, imaginative director. My response to his production of THYESTES is evidence of my appreciation of that strength. It is interesting to note that THYESTES, was a completely new Australian play, based upon the writings of Seneca – Seneca’s work was, according to most academics, not written to be performed. Mr Stone in the mise en scene for this production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is as similarly virtuosic in his directorial/design choices, as in all his other work: THE PROMISE; THE WILD DUCK; NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH; STRANGE INTERLUDE; DEATH OF A SALESMAN; and FACE TO FACE. But, it also carries most of that other works’ problems as well, in, that often the visual inventions/stagings have little to do with the text at hand, and often bury the intentions of the playwright in favour of clarifying the objectives of the director. I would say that all of those classic texts have been re-authored with the life experience and needs/wants of Mr Stone. He seems to be carrying so much personal cultural baggage/’cringe’ that the weight of those preconceptions make it hard for us to see the original work of the playwright he is using and we mostly see, re-born in front of us, the needs/intentions of Mr Stone, over and above the source of his usage, the play by Mr Arbuzov, Mr Ibsen, Mr O’Neill, Mr Miller or the film script of Mr Bergman. He re-authors and re-shapes, often ruthlessly, the material visually, and, as we know, textually, to make his point-of-view work, his needs seen.

As Tennessee Williams says in his notes in the 1954 published edition of CAT:


Of course it is a pity that so much of all creative work is so closely related to the personality of the one who does it. 

It is sad and embarrassing and unattractive that those emotions that stir him deeply enough to demand expression, and to charge their expression with such measure of light and power, are nearly all rooted, however changed in their surface, in the particular and sometimes peculiar concerns of the artist himself, that special world, the passions and the images of it that each of us weaves about him from birth to death, a web of monstrous complexity, spun forth at a speed that is incalculable to a length beyond measure, from the spider mouth of his own singular perceptions. 

It is a lonely idea, a lonely condition, so terrifying to think of that we usually don’t. …

And later, in his notes to the explanation about the Broadway act three that he wrote for Mr Kazan:

Some day when time permits I would like to write a piece about the influence, its dangers and its values, of a powerful and highly imaginative director upon the development of a play, before and during a production. It does have dangers, but it has them only if the playwright is excessively malleable or submissive, or the director is excessively insistent on ideas and interpretations of his own….

The dangers are immeasurably more possible if the writer is dead and unable to protest and/or his legal representatives are not there to protest. It is surely the responsibility of the director to interpret the material on the page – and, that is all the material that the author has caused to be published in those pages as his blue print to understand the writer’s objectives and needs in writing the creation – to put all his creative and interpretative energies like a laser beam of searching to find a way to understand and deliver the writer’s objectives, to excavate and reveal why this play of 1954 is regarded as a classic. This is not your property to edit, without permission, I’d have thought. And, so, there is immeasurably, even more danger when the director has an excessively passionate belief in his own agendas and pursues it by smashing the blue print of the play and re-configuring it for his own advancement. It is then, rather, appropriation of the writer’s property, isn’t it? Taking the MONA LISA and drawing a moustache on it, as my statement?

The way to solve this is not to represent your production as a play by the writer: Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, for instance, but as an inspiration for your own life vision, if you are unable to write one yourself from scratch. I, of course, have no real objection to seeing this “auteurs” work, it is has been an exciting conversation to have in the theatre going experience in Sydney. I just wish, that he would accept that that is what he is doing, and not allowing the audiences to go on believing that they are seeing the Classic written by the author without any of his adulterations.

The set design that Mr Stone has elicited from Robert Cousins, presents us with a bare black floor stage, with a curtain of coloured, crepe ribbons cutting across all the space, three quarters of the way back from the front stage edge. During the first act a revolve brings on racks of contemporary clothes and a myriad of shoes for Maggie, in act one, to choose to dress in, in a frenzy of activity during her long scene/monologue with Brick. There is no furniture for either Brick or she to sit or rest on. He hobbled with a crutch and glass. Maggie wheels on a standing mirror to look in. There is no liquor cabinet for Brick to raid, just bottles wheeled into the space by the revolve which Brick on crutch with a glass in hand, like Maggie with her activities – dressing, undressing, shoeing, de-shoeing – has to chase, on the revolving wheel, to gain.

Later, a mattress bed with white sheets and pillows that need to be made are thrown on. The revolve is rarely still, the actors are forced to walk on the spot not to be revolved off the stage action – it is an olympian sport for the actors and the audience and it is a considerable distraction, diminishing the possibility of hearing the language, poetry, intentions of the text with real clarity. Actors appear and disappear through the scrim of crepe, sometimes cleanly, sometimes entangled. A full set of trestle-like tables and chairs are brought onto the space, and set up by the actors and micro-phoned crew, in theatre blacks, clearing away all else, for the birthday scene with Big Daddy in act two. For this act, the revolves stays still, there is a possibility to hear the conversation and the structures of argument and revelation written by Mr Williams. After the interval, the crepe wall has been demolished and stored at the back, and the bed is brought back to the stage in decrepit state and the revolve revolves, slowly, now, but, ceaselessly, during most of the act (check the SHIT ON YOUR PLAY post for further comment on the revolve action).

The lighting is ‘brutal’ in its colour choices (Lighting, Damien Cooper), with none or little of the colours of the writers’ directions. The naturalistic soundscape with logical sources indicated by the writer, are absented and substituted and blown apart here, with loud blasts of glorious classical music, much like the choices Mr Stone had made, for instance, with THYESTES and THE WILD DUCK productions – a familiar trend, often observed elsewhere from other auteurs, especially in the cinema: making a statement to contrast the visual drabness to the aural glory of the sound of the music – usually of ecstatic celestial religious expressions (composition and Sound design by Stefan Gregory). This is a deliberately ugly, down market look to the world of Mr Williams original conception – it presents a grubby image and cool bleak colourings. The costume designs (Alice Babidge) are low tier market choices, contemporary K-Mart or slightly up-market St Vinnie’s store an inspirational source – and/or fashioned to highlight a caricaturing of the physical presence of the characters – deliberately presenting blithely unaware people – people with no taste or sense on how to use their money. An Australian landscape filled with figures of arid poverty of all kinds – a kind of cynical degradation of the world of the actual play.

Needless to say that every clue written by Mr Williams, in the 1954 published edition of the play, which Mr Stone is using, as to the class, intelligence and sensibility as reflected in the deliberately long design notes in the text are ostentatiously ignored by Mr Stone and his creative team. Mr Williams being dead – cannot protest. Did the actors protest? These great roles are challenging enough without having to transpose the given circumstances to somewhere in Australia – just when is it, I wonder? Where is it? The Riverina? Victoria? Tasmania? Did they have a particular location in mind? and still have to use the nomenclatures of the text environs, and find the biographical details for the lives of these characters who speak so particularly in an un-Australian way and justify it to personalise belief to begin to tell a truth for this Australian sound version. This play is rooted in the traditions of the Actors Studio, Elia Kazan, a famous director from that Strasberg version of Stanislavsky’ teaching: THE METHOD. It is painstakingly obvious the authentic detail of the writer and the approach of the director were in harmony for the film of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and, later, on the under appreciated comedy film, BABY DOLL;  Kazan’s work  approach with THE METHOD detail further epitomised in the great naturalistic film, ON THE WATERFRONT. Williams and Kazan were a partnership, as much I will presume to say that Chekhov and Stanislavsky were on their collaborations. Each influenced the other in attempting to create a new approach to art making. Just how much time did this company, led by Mr Stone, have in discussing and making all those adjustments to honour the play as writ in their cavalier switch to help us Australians to “relate” to the play and appreciate its classic stature?

Jacqueline Mckenzie (SEX WITH STRANGERS) and Ewen Leslie (RICHARD III; and recently, the film DEAD EUROPE) are two of my favourite actors. I look forward to everything they do and they gave committed performances. But they appear to be either miscast or misdirected in this work. Both, with strained conceptions of their characters, with little or no chemistry between themselves. They have bent the material into reasonable images but they lack the imaginative entry into the Maggie and Brick and their relationship that has made this partnership, classic. Both the actors appeared bewildered. The directorial decisions of the first act (that blasted revolve and all that invented extraneous activity) certainly did not give them the space to deal with the textual situation that Mr Williams had given them to explicate. I was bewildered, if they weren’t. Lynette Curran, playing Big Mama, deals with a character written with withering emotional viciousness by Mr Williams (tt reminds me of Chekhov’s lack of restraint in his portrait of Natasha in THREE SISTERS) and surmounts the visual grotesquerie of the design, to hold us with moments of sympathy. Similarly, Rebecca Massey and Alan Dukes hold their own human interest as the rivals for Big Daddy’s attention, as well. On the night, I went, the best performance came from Marshall Napier as Big Daddy, who despite or because of the Australian context delivered a riveting performance of a dying man, raging against “the dying of the light” and attempting to lead his son into the light of living, before it is too late. Physically and vocally Mr Napier muscled his away through all the paraphernalia of Mr Stone’s vision and delivered a creation of courage, balanced with a great sense of integrity to the character written by Tennessee Williams.

Friends of mine were keen to know what I felt about the work. The marvel of the iPhone had them texting me at 10.40pm as I hit the Belvoir Streetscape to get my re-action. They were even surprised that I had stayed past the interval. I always do (well, nearly always). The people about me did not. I spread out a little in the second half in Row G. I texted back, “A GREAT, GREAT play surviving a ‘pygmy’ vision. Misconceived. Misdirected. Miscast. Another great play reduced at Belvoir instead of expanding, and taking us into the life of possibilities that great classics can give us.”

Meeting up for dinner a few days later, we had an excited discussion. I laid out my case for a production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.

This is a gay play written by a gay man in 1952-1954. In the Belvoir program essay by Gabrielle Bonney, ON WILLIAMS:

In the late 1930’s Williams had accepted he was gay. He had a series of relationships with men until the spring of 1948 when he fell in love with Frank Merlo.They were together 14 years until alleged infidelities and drug abuse on both sides ended their relationship.

Both men were unafraid, personally of their relationship or declaring it and lived a public life together as best they could with continual social, political and medical discrimination pressures, with threats of ‘treatment’ of an official illness of psychological mania, either in a hospital or prison. They and others, stalked by fear from their ordinary fellow citizens. A rare courage indeed. They were in a privileged circle of creative artists, undoubtedly, but still challenged the ‘straight’ world around them, full on. This play, no less,  being one of those confrontations. Two stories from Tennessee Williams’ MEMOIRS:

Parties in the fifties. I remember how Irene Selznick, daughter of that awful old Louis B. (Mayer), used to invite me to socially prestigious dinners at the Pierre and say, “Ask Frankie to drop in afterward.” 

“Tell her to go fuck herself,” was his invariable and proper remark when I relayed these insulting invitations.  Again in this context, I remember when Jack Warner entertained me and Frankie in his private dining room on the Warner (Brothers) lot. He was bullying some subordinates who had appeared slightly late for lunch. 

Frankie stared at him with an expressionless fixity which Warner finally noticed.
“What do YOU do, young man?” 

Without a change of expression and in a loud, clear voice, Frank replied, “I sleep with Mr Williams.” 

Jack Warner may have dropped his fork but Frank didn’t blink an eye as he continued to stare steadily at the old tyrant.

Tennessee Williams says he has more of his own truth in this play than in any other he had written up to that time. He had found a man, Frank Merlo, to support him as a partner in a physical relationship. They found a kind of sanctuary with each other. He saw about him other men (and women) in denial of their true selves, destroying themselves with self hatred and fear: Thornton Wilder, William Inge, Carson Mc Cullers, three of his great fellow writers; Clifton Webb, Charles Laughton, Montgomery Clift, three actors among many. I believe this is a play where he calls for the tolerance of the homosexual life. A daring thing to do in 1950’s America. Well, anywhere, really. Still, in most places, it seems. Ask our government. Ask the Pope.

“All work is autobiographical if it is serious. Everything a writer produces is sort of his inner history, transposed to another time.”

Brick is the central character. It his journey we must follow. It is a very difficult assignment for any actor, for he is more talked too than talking. The ability to listen accurately and register the depth of the despair in his life is the mighty challenge. Brick carries the arc of the play, just as Blanche, another Tennessee “outsider”, carries the arc of STREETCAR. Big Daddy is regarded by Mr Williams as his most naked incarnation. Maggie is a cat of his affection, liking.

In the extensive writer’s notes for the designer, we learn of the kind of plantation home in the Mississippi Delta that the play is set. We learn of the exterior “where” of the home, the interior “where” of this bedroom even down to the ‘immediate where” particulars. This particular room where Maggie and Brick are hauled up in…

hasn’t changed much since it was occupied by the (original) owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello. A pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon.

In the centre of this room “…a big double bed… .” This bed then is the bed that these two gay bachelors expressed a life time of tenderness in. This is the bed that Maggie and Brick must share. It is indeed a truth of some symbolic power that Big Mama underlines, in her blissfully ignorant way, when in act one she asks Maragaret about the reason for Brick’s drinking:

Big Mama : Don’t laugh about it! – Some single men stop drinkin’ when they git married and others start! Brick never touched liquor before he- ! … Something’s not right! You’re childless and my son drinks!
(…. She turns at the door and points at the bed.) – When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right THERE!

This bed inherited from those happy gay men, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, by Maggie and Brick, then, is a central symbol and its presence needs to radiate throughout the play. Even in all the MGM iconography for the film version of CAT it is the ornate bed that frames all the publicity material, for even they understood the truth of the bed, even if it were a symbol of a different meaning in that cleaned up heterosexual emphasis of the story. In Mr Stone’s scenography it is an ordinary piece of furniture, not always present, it is a prop, not a symbol at all – certainly the company of actors do not seem to absorb the Williams’ meaning and communicate it.

Brick, in my reading of the play-version that Mr Stone is using, is, a homosexual man, at least a bi-sexual man, unequivocally. And one of the terribly tortured ones. Trying to drown the pain and sense of guilt in liquor. Maggie recognises it in the relationship that Brick has/had with Skipper. She has known about it, probably, from the start.

Maggie: It was one of those beautiful, ideal things they tell us about in the Greek legends, it couldn’t be anything else, you being you, and that’s what made it so sad, that’s what made it so awful, because it was love that never could be carried through to anything satisfying or even talked about plainly. Brick, I tell you, you got to believe me, Brick, I DO understand all about it!

Big Daddy, too, has always known it, but kept his disappointment hidden. But now having stared down death, or he thinks he has, he needs to talk to his son at last and warn him:

Big Daddy: I’ll make a bargain with you. You tell me why you drink and I’ll hand you one. ….
Brick: … I’ll tell you in one word.
Big Daddy: What word?
Brick : DISGUST. …
Big Daddy: What are you disgusted with ? ….
Brick: … Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’ ? …
Big Daddy: … Don’t it mean lying and liars?
Brick: Yes, sir, lying and liars.
Big Daddy: Has someone being lying to you? ….
Brick: …. No one single person and no one lie …
Big Daddy: Then what, what then, for Christ’s sake?

Brick : – The whole, the whole – thing …

Brick and Big Daddy know that Brick has been lying to himself for a long time.
Big Daddy begins to talk truths to is son :

Big Daddy: …What do you know about this mendacity thing? Hell! I could write a book on it! …. Having to pretend stuff you don’t think or feel or have any idea of? Having for instance to act like I care for Big Mama! – I haven’t been able to stand the sight, sound, or smell of that woman for forty years now! – even when I laid her! .. regular as a piston …

Big Daddy intimates that Brick should not lead a life of lies, that he will come to regret it, as he has done, on the door step of death, when regrets are not worth having. That he understands the world and is not judgemental about the different life choices. That he should just step up without scruples and take what he wants.

Big Daddy: Life is important. There’s nothing else to hold on to. A man drinks is throwing his life away. Don’t do it, hold on to your life. There’s nothing else to hold on to. … I let many chances slip by because of scruples about it, scruples, convention – crap. … All that stuff is bull, bull, bull! – It took the shadow of death to make me see it. Now that shadow’s lifted, I’m going to cut loose and have what is it they call it, have me a ball! … I’m going to pick me a choice one, and I don’t care how much she costs, I’ll smother her in minks and choke her with diamonds and hump her from hell to breakfast HA AHA HA HA HA!

Big Daddy will “rage, rage against the dying of the light !”

Big Daddy: … You started drinkin’ when your friend Skipper died.
Brick: What are you suggesting ? …

There follows a long note from Tennessee Williams for his interpreters:

Brick’s detachment is at last broken through. His heart is accelerated; his forehead sweat-beaded; his breath becomes more rapid and his voice hoarse. The thing they’re discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick’s side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them. The fact that if it existed it had to be ‘disavowed’ in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the ‘mendacity’ that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with. It may be the root of his collapse. Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important. The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent -fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as great a deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and as deeply as he LEGITIMATELY can; but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience. …

The following long conversation is, as Mr Williams suggests for Brick a “virtual vivisection”, a close examination of his life and his pain that has led to such an impasse with Maggie and all his family and the fleeing to drink – to alcoholism.This second act duet between father and son is indeed true :” That I believe in CAT I reached beyond myself, in the second act, to a kind of eloquence of expression (of truths) in Big Daddy that I have managed to give to no other character.”

Brick: Oh, YOU think so, too, you call me your son and a queer. Oh! maybe that’s why you put Maggie and me in this room that was Jack Straw’s and Peter Ochello’s, in which that pair of old sisters slept in a double bed where both of ’em died!
Big Daddy : NOW JUST DON’T GO THROWING ROCKS AT – … I’ve seen all things and understood a lot of them, till 1910. Christ, the year that – I had worn my shoes through, hocked my – I hopped off a yellow dog freight car half a mile down the road, slept in a wagon of cotton outside the gin – Jack Straw an’ Peter Ochello took me in. Hired me to manage this place which grew into this one. – When Jack Straw died – why, old Peter Ochello quit eatin’ like a dog does when his master’s dead, and died, too!
Brick: Christ!
Big Daddy: I’m just saying I understand such –
Brick (violently): Skipper is dead. I have not quit eating!
Big Daddy: No, but you started drinking.

Maggie needs to hold onto Brick because of her fear of poverty, if not her loyalty.

Maggie: BRICK, Y’KNOW, I’VE BEEN SO GOD DAMN DISGUSTINGLY POOR ALL MY LIFE ! – That’s the TRUTH, Brick! … Always had to suck up to people I couldn’t stand because they had money and I was poor as Job’s turkey. You don’t know what that’s like. Well, I’ll tell you, it’s like you would feel a thousand miles away from Echo Spring! (his particular brand of whiskey) – And had to get back to it on that broken ankle … without a crutch. … So that’s why I’m like a cat on a hot tin roof! You can be young without any money but you can’t be old without it. You’ve got to be old WITH money because to be old without it is just too awful, you’ve got to be one or the other, either YOUNG or with MONEY, you can’t be old WITHOUT it. – That’s the TRUTH, Brick. …

Maggie tells Big Mama:

My family freed their slaves ten years before abolition, my great-great grandfather gave his slaves their freedom five years before the war between the states started.

And like Scarlet O’Hara, this cat, Maggie, this Southern Belle will not “as God is my witness, eat carrots again.” having once prowled and seduced Skipper and let Brick know of that ruthless conquest, Maggie puts a new action into being, having hidden the liquor she lays Brick, who is in a drunken stupor, on the bed of Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, centre stage, and to the dying groans of Big Daddy from offstage, attempts to seduce her husband, perhaps, to make a baby. The lights dim on a mystery.

What are the chances? My friends and I debated. We still do, when we meet.

I protested to my friends at the end of the food night, “I could not see Mr Leslie invest in the tragedy of a gay man of a certain kind – the self-loather, the different, the ‘outsider’ – the bewildered man. I did not see a gay man, I did not see even a bi-sexual man. This performance was, for me, the struggle of a straight man. I do not know if Ms McKenzie’s Maggie, knew the fundamental truths of her husband’s nature and overwhelmed by her “avarice, avarice, greed, greed!” pursued Brick to their bed with cat like ferocity – a cat on a hot tin roof that was determined when thrown off would be on her feet – with a baby and money to insure her old age.”

“Mr Stone had not cared for the writer’s gifts enough and was too occupied with his own gifts to help us see Tennessee Williams’ play clearly”, I concluded.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is great play. It survived this odd production at Belvoir. I have seen the film. I saw the Wendy Hughes, John Hargraves version for the Sydney Theatre Company, ages ago. I saw Kathleen Turner and Charles Durning in 1990 on Broadway. I saw the Schaubuhne version at the Adelaide Festival a few years ago. I saw James Earl Jones, Adrian Lester and Sanaa Lathan in an all African-American/West Indies version in the London West End in 2009.

This play, no matter the production is a classic of theatre writing. And to miss the opportunity to see it, is to miss too much of what makes life worth while. When, in Sydney, will we get to see it again?


2 replies to “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”

  1. Dear Kevin,
    I'll write anonymously because I'd like to keep working in Sydney theatre, if that's okay.

    You can rest easy – you are not the only one who is deeply disturbed by the "promo" video that opens your review. "A play about a woman trying to get a gay guy to get her pregnant" intones a rather creepily self-satisfied Simon Stone at its commencement. Has Williams' great play been reduced to this level of undergraduate thinking? Yes indeed it has, for more tendentious sound bytes follow, all of them revealing zero respect for the writer and a director who sees the play as a thing that can only be fixed when he turns his breathtaking talent to the task of taming it. You expressed it perfectly: "Mr Stone had not cared for the writer's gifts enough and was too occupied with his own gifts to help us see Tennessee Williams' play clearly".

    Ralph Myers raves about Stone's great casting ideas. Really? In precisely what way is picking two of Australia's brightest young stars so inspired? And finally the promo ends on the joke about Ewie not having read the play. Meant to be fun, of course, but also rather revealing, I'd say.

    So, I have a question for you, which I'd love to see you answer in a full post. And of course, you can say all this stuff, because you're an institution! Ralph and Simo and Beno and co – all the dudes at Belvoir – how good are they really? I think that if you get to work with the best actors, the best designers and the best technicians that money can buy, more often that not, you'll end up with a pretty good show. Even Ralph can win with that combination occasionally. So how do we account for the string of failures and self-indulgent disasters we've seen from them. How do they manage that? More importantly, how do they dare? I guess it takes real talent.

    I'd love to see them put in a room with unpaid actors, a budget of $1000 for set/costumes/props and no money to pay designers or actors, and see what they come up with.

    Sound harsh? That's what Sydney's indie theatre-makers do every week. But apparently, the Belvoir boys are unaware, because they've just hired two directors from Melbourne to replace Simo when he goes to Hollywood. Apparently there are no women directors in Sydney up to the mark.

    Oh well, I guess we'll just have to wait until Neil Armfield's true heir arrives… but who knows when that will be.

  2. I have to argue with this review, quite a lot. Well, the premises behind the review, anyway. Your right is to enjoy or not to enjoy the play. But I think some of the methodologies you use to undertake the review … irritate me, and I'd like to explain why.

    By insisting that new productions of old plays are done in the same style as, and in the same accents as, those plays, you are condemning artists to be imitators, not creators. The simple fact is, Australian actors will always be more convincing playing Australians than they are playing Americans (or Englishmen, or … well, actually, the only two accents that seem to be argued about are American and English accents, nobody really cares about what accents are used in a Russian or French or German play).

    And to always bring the play back in the same way, in the same style, with the same approach to performance, seems to deny the play any chance of having an active life. It's the Samuel Beckett estate approach to drama, where a play becomes a muesum piece.

    I had issues with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (my review is on my site) but I don't think it's the accents or even necessarily the choice of style that's causing the problems.

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