Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on this day, in 1955, in New York. Brooks Atkinson, one of Williams’s staunchest critic supporters, wrote: “[The play seemed] not to have been written. It is the quintessence of life.” The performances were praised to the rooftops, Ben Gazzara became THE new guy in town, and Cat ended up running for almost 700 performances. It was a smash hit, playing to standing-room only houses. (There was a production in New York in 2013, and my friend Ted had some thoughts on the play’s long-lasting power.)
Cat was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Ben Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes. Williams was tormented by the writing of this play. He found it “messy”, and wrote in his journal that “the intrusion of the homosexual theme may be fucking it up again”. But he kept at it. He always kept at it.
On April 3, 1954, Williams wrote to his agent Audrey Wood:
Here’s a sort of rough draft of the play that threw me into such a terrible state of depression last summer in Europe, I couldn’t seem to get a grip on it. I haven’t done much with it since then, but I would like to have this draft typed up, so that I will at least be able to read it with less confusion. Although it is very wordy it is still too short and would need a curtain-raiser to make a full evening. But I do think it has a terrible sort of truthfulness about it, and the tightest structure of anything I have done. And a terrifyingly strong final curtain.
In June of that year, he wrote to Cheryl Crawford (director, producer):
I let Audrey read “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” while she was here and to my surprise she seemed to take a great liking to it, said the material excited her more than anything I’ve done since “Streetcar”. But she doesn’t find it complete in its present form and wants me to add another act to it. So far I don’t agree with her. I think it tells a full story, though it is under conventional length, and that as soon, or if I get back my creative breath, i can fill out these two acts (or 3 long scenes as they actually are) to a full evening without extending the story as I see it.
Williams’s back-and-forth with his agent are always really good reading, dealing as they do with the creative process. Here is part of a letter Williams wrote to Wood in September, 1954:
I agree in principle with what you say in your letter … but I feel there are circumstances to consider carefully in this instance. For one thing, I gathered that your enthusiasm for the “Cat” play is more or less contingent on my adding another act to it. To me the story is complete in its present form, it says all that I had to say about these characters and their situation, it was conceived as a short full-length play: there are three acts in it. First, Brick and his wife. Second, Brick and Big Daddy. Third, The family conference. They are short acts but complete, and I thought at least structurally the play was just right, I liked there being no time lapse between the acts, one flowing directly into the others, and it all taking place in the exact time that it occupies in the theatre. I would hate to lose that tightness, that simplicity, by somehow forcing it into a more extended form simply to satisfy a convention of theatre, would much rather risk the prejudice that might be incurred by bringing down a curtain at 10:30 or 10:45 and possibly raising it a little later to compensate. Or even using a good one-act play as a curtain-raiser.
This was a disagreement that would go on and on (even carrying over into Kazan’s feelings about the play, which culminated in there being TWO versions published: Williams’s preferred version, and then Kazan’s staged version).
Williams only wanted Kazan to direct, naturally. Kazan was “his” director. Williams sent the play to Kazan, and then began a back and forth between them. They were very close intimate friends and colleagues – they were able to speak truthfully to one another (sometimes forcefully), expressing emotions of dismay or conviction – without sugar-coating things. This is the collaborative process. I would so love to have Kazan’s side of these letters published – or to have a volume of the Williams-Kazan correspondence – showing BOTH sides, because while Williams gave birth to these plays (and Kazan has said that all of Williams’s plays came to him complete, needing no major revisions – but Cat is the exception) – Kazan was the “midwife”. It was his input and sensibility that helped ground Williams’s lyrical and sometimes sentimental art.
Williams sent Kazan one of his preproduction rewrites with the following note (obviously an ongoing conversation between the two of them):
The play was not just negative, since it was packed with rage, and rage is not a negative thing in life. It is positive, dynamic! … [Brick’s] one of the rich and lucky! Got everything without begging, was admired and loved by all. Hero! Beauty! — Two people fell in love with him beyond all bounds. Skipper and Maggie. He built up one side of his life around Skipper, another around Maggie – Conflict: Disaster! — One love ate up the other, naturally, humanly, without intention, just did! Hero is faced with truth and collapses before it … Maggie, the cat, has to give him some instruction in how to hold your position on a hot tin roof, which is human existence which you’ve got to accept on any terms whatsoever … Vitality is the hero of the play! — The character you can “root for” … is not a person but a quality in people that makes them survive.
Kazan had obviously written to Williams giving him some strongly-worded reactions to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It had to do with its structure: the highpoint of the play came in the second act. It should come in the third, according to Kazan (and to Wood). Williams disagreed. In October, 1954, Williams responded:
There is certainly no use in my trying to disguise or dissimulate the fact that I passionately long for you to do this play. But I can understand why you are afraid of its failure although I am not. I don’t mean I think it couldn’t fail. I think it not only could fail but has a fifty-fifty chance of failure, and know how much I have to lose from such a failure, but still I do passionately long for its production and for you to stage it because I think it does that thing which is the pure aim of art, which is to catch and illuminate truly and passionately the true, true quality of human existence. It so happens that the second act has the highest degree of dramatic tension. That has happened before in very fine plays and they have survived it. It has to be compensated, not by a trick or distortion but by charging the final scene with something plus, underlining and dramatizing as powerfully as possible the sheer truth of the material, its very lack of shrewd showmanship, because I think critics and theatre lovers will respect it all the more for not making some facile, easy, obvious concession to the things which a lot of people have complained about in us, both, a too professional, showy, sock-finish to theatre. Am I rationalizing again? Maybe, but on the other hand, I may be simply trying to articulate to you my side of the case … Even if “Cat” is not a good play, it’s a goddam fiercely true play, and what other play this season is going to be that? I resumed work this morning, at 8 a.m. after not much sleep, on Act Three, determined to get what you want without losing what I want. (Assuming they are essentially the same thing, just conceived of in different fashions) I dare to believe that I can work this out, but it would help me immeasurably if you and some producer would give me a vote of confidence by committing yourselves to a date of production with the work still on the bench. I don’t think that I would fail you. Of course I will be disappointed if you refuse, perhaps even angry at you – I was angry with you last night, too angry to sleep! – but I will not hate you for it, and we would still do something together again. I know that you are my friend.
Kazan wrote about this Third-Act disagreement (among other things) in his autobiography. So let’s get his side of things:
I believed Big Daddy could not be left out of the third act. I felt that his final disposition in the story had to be conveyed to an audience. I also thought that the third act was by far the weakest of the three – one and two were brilliant and as good as anything Tennessee ever wrote. I suggested that Big Daddy be brought back into Act Three, a suggestion that had nothing to do with making the play more commercial. Tennessee said he’d think about my suggestion, and a few days later he brought me a short scene where Big Daddy did appear and told a dirty joke. It wasn’t this author’s best work, but perhaps it was better than nothing.
This is a big disagreement. What Kazan describes (the Big Daddy short scene) happened once rehearsals got underway, but the issue was there from the start.
Kazan agreed to direct. A date was set. Work continued on the script. Williams wrote to Kazan on Nov. 3, 1954:
I am glad that in “Cat” we are getting off the chest some of the terrible things that we have to say about human fate. I want to keep the core of the play very hard, because I detest plays that are built around something mushy such as I feel under the surface of many sentimental successes in the theatre. I want the core of the play to be as hard and fierce as Big Daddy. I think he strikes the keynote of the play. A terrible black anger and ferocity, a rock-bottom honest. Only against this background can his moments of tenderness, of longing, move us deeply. This is a play about good bastards and good bitches. I mean it exposes the startling co-existence of good and evil, the shocking duality of the single heart. I am as happy as you are that our discussions have led to a way of high-lighting the good in Maggie, the indestructible spirit of Big Daddy, so that the final effect of the play is not negative, this is a forward step, a step toward a larger truth which will add immeasurably to the play’s power of communication or scope of communication.
Work on the script continued. Kazan sent a 5 page letter to Williams (why can’t I read that letter??), telling Williams his problems with the script – it mainly had to do with the conception of the character Brick.
Which reminds me of a funny story. Allow me a digression:
Tommy Lee Jones came and spoke at my school. He could be frightening at times, and wasn’t afraid to let people know that some of the questions were a little bit stupid. (“So what drew you to doing Ulysses in Nighttown on Broadway?” Jones barked, impatiently, “James Joyce.”) One of my classmates, a playwright, asked (and it was the WAY he asked it that was so funny), “I know that you played Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Having suffered through many a terrible Brick in almost every acting class I have ever been in, I just had to ask you: what’s up with Brick? What’s the challenge, what’s the roadblock?” Tommy Lee Jones’ whole body language changed. He responded to the question physically, perking up, changing his position. He loved it. He responded that his feeling was that Brick came from Williams’s long fascination with Nietzsche, that Williams was working out something in that character that had to do with Nietzsche’s views, and so that had been Jones’s approach to the role.
Because Brick IS a problem, a conundrum. He is not a problem to be solved, mind you, but one of those characters with a deeply unspoken mystery at the heart of him, and that is why he stays in the mind long after the play is over. Jones also felt that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was certainly Williams’s most well-made play, and, ultimately, Williams’s “only truly great play”.
No wonder everyone who worked on the original production felt like they were wrestling with a giant anaconda. Williams was working on something different than he had ever worked on before: the themes in Cat are not the themes of Streetcar or Menagerie – and that play really does stand out (in my opinion) in his body of work as quite singular.
The “homosexual” level of the story was difficult to handle (although crucial), and Williams stuck to his guns about all of it, with an increasing sense that he was not being understood at all. He was more than willing to collaborate, to take in suggestions – but when the suggestions seemed to threaten the core of the play, he pushed back.
Williams wrote in his journal, about Kazan’s Brick comments:
I do get his point but I am afraid he doesn’t quite get mine. Things are not always explained. Situations are not always resolved. Characters don’t always ‘progress’. But I shall, of course, try to arrive at another compromise with him.
In one of his notes on the play, Williams wrote:
The poetic mystery of BRICK is the poem of the play, not its story but the poem of the story, and must not be dispelled by any dishonestly oracular conclusions about him: I don’t know him any better than I know my closest relative or dearest friend which isn’t well at all: the only people we think we know well are those who mean little to us.
In another letter to Kazan, this one from Nov. 31, 1954, Williams talks specifically about the character of Brick, one of the many bones of contention (and seriously: every actor attempting to get by the “roadblock” of this character should not only heed Tommy Lee Jones’s advice, but also read this letter in its entirety):
Why does a man drink: in quotes “drink”. There are two reasons, separte or together. 1. He’s scared shitless of something. 2. He can’t face the truth about something. – Then of course there’s the natural degenerates that just fall into any weak, indulgent habit that comes along but we are not dealing with that sad but unimportant category in Brick. – Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Brick did love Skipper, “the one great good thing in his life which was true”. He identified Skipper with sports, the romantic world of adolescence which he couldn’t go past. Further: to reverse my original (somewhat tentative) premise, I now believe that, in the deeper sense, not th eliteral sense, Brick is homosexual with a heterosexual adjustment: a thing I’ve suspected of several others, such as Brando, for instance. (He hasn’t cracked up but I think he bears watching. He strikes me as being a compulsive eccentric.) I think these people are often undersexed, prefer pet raccoons or sports or something to sex with either gender. They have deep attachments, idealistic, romantic: sublimated loves! They are terrible Puritans. (Marlon dislikes me. Why? I’m “corrupt”) These people may have a glandular set-up which will keep them “banked”, at low-pressure, enough to get by without the eventual crack-up. Take Brando again: he’s smoldering with something and I don’t think it’s Josanne! Sorry to make him my guinea pig in this analysis (Please give this letter back to me!) but he’s the nearest thing to Brick that we both know. Their innocense, their blindness, makes them very, very touching, very beautiful and sad. Often they make fine artists, having to sublimate so much of their love, and believe me, homosexual love is something that also requires more than a physical expression. But if a mask is ripped off, suddenly, roughly, that’s quite enough to blast the whole Mechanism, the whole adjustment, knock the world out from under their feet, and leave them no alternative but – owning up to the truth or retreat into something like liquor ….
Williams is making the case that Brick does, in a way, “progress” (one of Kazan’s criticisms) – that he eventually faces the truth about who he is. Williams goes on in the same letter:
He’s faced the truth, I think, under Big Daddy’s pressure, and maybe the block is broken. I just said maybe. I don’t really think so. I think that Brick is doomed by the falsities and cruel prejudices of the world he comes out of, belongs to, the world of Big Daddy and Big Mama. Sucking a dick or two or fucking a reasonable facsimile of Skipper some day won’t solve it for him, if he ever does such “dirty things”! He’s the living sacrifice, the victim of the play, and I don’t want to part with that “Tragic elegance” about him. You know, paralysis in a character can be just as significant and just as dramatic as progress, and is also less shop-worn. How about Chekhov?
It was time to find the cast. Again, there were disagreements between Kazan and Williams. Kazan writes in his autobiography (and this, to me, is a brilliant analysis of a certain TYPE of woman that perhaps I recognize because, duh, he’s talking about me):
[Barbara Bel Geddes] was not the kind of actress [Williams] liked; she was the kind of actress I liked. I’d known her when she was a plump young girl, and I had a theory – which you are free to ignore – that when a girl is fat in her early and middle teens and slims down later, she is left with an uncertainty about her appeal to boys, and what often results is a strong sexual appetite, intensified by the continuing anxiety of believing herself undesirable. Laugh at that if you will, but it is my impression and it did apply to Miss Bel Geddes. I knew how much a working sexual relationship meant to this young woman and that in every basic way she resembled Maggie the Cat. I trusted my knowledge of her own nature and life and therefore cast her.
I’ve seen actresses play Maggie the Cat as some nympho and I find it misogynistic (on the part of the director, and also the actress, frankly) and incorrect. Misogynistic because it compartmentalizes women into two different groups: the sexy and the unsexy. And the “unsexy” can’t possibly have sexual feelings, right? At least it’s not anything that an audience (male audience, it is assumed) would want to SEE. But everyone on the planet has sexual feelings, and whether or not you want to “see” it is irrelevant. Wanting to SEE something doesn’t give it more value. I find it far more interesting to see Maggie cast as a normal woman, who expected a normal (ie: sexual) relationship with her husband, and is driven to the brink by his refusal to participate. How much more agonizing would that situation be for a woman who already has some anxiety about her attractiveness to men (as pointed out by Kazan)? Anyway, you could take many different tactics with this – and it’s not that a beautiful woman can’t also have insecurities and anxieties – but often the actress playing the role doesn’t include those elements at all (which are in the script). All she does is beg her husband to fuck her, writhing around in a negligee. Well, that’s one (unimaginative) way to go with it. Kazan sensed something in Barbara Bel Geddes that he thought would be powerful and potent in the part.
Young actor Ben Gazzara was cast as Brick. He was well-known at the Actors Studio, but this would be the role that would make him a star. He writes in his autobiography:
When I was cast to play Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof it was a dream come true. Every actor wished to be in a Tennessee Williams play directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan had not been abandoned. He lost friends but he worked in film and in the theater whenever he wanted to. And despite the controversy surrounding him, most actors would have killed to work with him, too. He was the “actor’s director” and he had chosen me to work with. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.. I’d seen how Williams’s plays gave actors the material they could delve deeply into – the glorious Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie and the electrifying Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. How would I pull it off?
Gazzara describes the first rehearsal:
When I arrived at the New Amsterdam Roof, near Times Square, where we were to rehearse, everybody was already seated around a huge wooden table. Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams, Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives, Mildred Dunnock, Pat Hingle, and Madeleine Sherwood. Seated nearby facing them were Audrey Wood and the producer Roger Stevens of the Playwrights’ Company.
Nobody got up or even said hello. They looked at me in silence. I was embarrassed because I’d arrived late …
But once the reading began, all else was forgotten. To hear Tennessee’s vivid dialogue being spoken by these fine actors was a revelation. The play became much more than I imagined when I’d read it on my own.
Gazzara talks about the part of Brick:
He’s married to a beautiful woman, and I had to make it clear to viewers that rejecting Maggie doesn’t come from his dislike or disgust, but instead from the death of Skipper, the friend he’d loved with a love he never admitted, even to himself. The loss of Skipper leads Brick to more and more booze and even greater disgust with people’s mendacity, especially his own… I worked on reaching into myself to find the broken part of Brick.
What a beautiful way to put it.
Gazzara describes some tense moments at reherasals, when it became clear that Williams was not happy with the casting of Barbara Bel Geddes.
She was much too wholesome for [Williams’s] taste. He was looking for something more neurotic, but I’m sure that Kazan had cast Barbara precisely for that wholesome quality. Theatergoers loved Barbara and therefore she would be able to make audiences embrace this complicated and not always likable character. Gadg [Kazan] was absolutely right about that.
But Tennessee felt there were problems during the scene where Barbara is on her knees embracing my legs and making a plea for me to take her to bed. Tennessee said something like, “Gadge, she’s fuckin’ with my cadence.” He may have thought he was whispering but Tennessee had a deep, mellifluous voice which at that moment was too loud. And he’d been drinking. Well, I looked over and Barbara was gone. She’d run off the stage in tears, so I went after her to console her. When I came back, Gadge looked at me for a long time and said, “You’re a nice guy.” I didn’t understand. Wasn’t it normal to help a lady in distress?
Kazan finally spoke to Williams and told him to lay off Bel Geddes, which he did. Eventually, Williams went up to Bel Geddes and told her she had much improved and he was happy with what she was doing.
The opening approached.
Frequent Kazan-collaborator Jo Mielziner was the set designer. Kazan wrote in his autobiography about the creation of the set for Cat:
Jo Mielziner and I had read the play in the same way; we saw that its great merit was its brilliant rhetoric and its theatricality. I didn’t see the play as realistic any more than he did. If it was to be done realistically, I would have to contrive stage business to keep the old man talking those great second act speeches turned out front and pretend that it was just another day in the life of the Pollitt family. This would, it seemed to me, amount to an apology to the audience for the glory of the author’s language … So I caused Jo to design our setting as I wished, a large triangular platform, tipped toward the audience and holding only one piece of furniture, an ornate bed. This brought the play down to its essentials and made it impossible for it to be played any way except as I preferred.
After a run-through in early March, Tennessee Williams sent his notes to Kazan, some of which I will excerpt here – just a fascinating glimpse of the artistic process:
The bare stage background in New York may have been partly responsible but it seemed to me that the last act of the play, the first part of Act III, suffers from an undue portentousness as if we were trying to cover up some lack of significant content by giving it a “tricky” or inflated style of performance.
In manuscript, in style of writing, this is almost the most realistic scene that I have ever written. I gave
enormous care to restricting all the speeches to just precisely what I thought the person would say in precisely such a situation, I tried to give it the quality of an exact transcription of such a scene except for the removal of any worthless irrelevancies. I assumed, and still believe, that the emotional essence of the situation was strong enough to hold interest, and that the exact quality of experience, if captured truly, would give it theatrical distinction…
There is a “poetry of the macabre” which I was creating in all the silly, trivial speeches that precede and surround the announcement to Big Mama, the fuss over what he ate at dinner, the observations about Keeley cure, anti-buse, vitamin B12, the southern gush and playfulness, these all contribute to a shocking comment upon the false, heartless, grotesquely undignified way that such events are treated in our society with its resolute concentration on the trivia of life. Practically all these values disappeared, for me at least, in a distractingly formalistic treatment of the situation…
I’m not happy over the interpretation of Doc Baugh whom I had conceived as a sort of gently ironical figure who had seen so much life and death and participated actively in so much of it that he had a sort of sad, sometimes slightly saturnine, detachment from the scene, a calm and kindly detachment, but he plays like a member of the family, in the same over-charged manner, like a fellow conspirator, especially at the moment when he starts abruptly forward as if about to deliver a speech and says the Keely cure bit at stage-center with such startling emphases. It is off-beat off-key little details like this which give the beginning of Act Three its curiously unreal look-for-the-rabbit-out-of-the-silk-hat air …
I love the noise of the storm fading into the lovely negro lullabye: that’s a true and beautiful bit of non-realistic staging which comes at the right moment and isn’t the least bit exaggerated, in fact I would like to hear the singing better …
After all of this, he closes the letter with:
I am being utterly sincere when I say that, on the whole, you have done one of your greatest jobs. I just want all of it to measure up to the truest and best of it, and to make it plain to everybody that this play is maybe not a great play, maybe not even a very good play, but a terribly, terribly, terribly true play about truth, human truth.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof went on to win Tennessee Williams the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Award.
When Williams heard that he had won both of the plum prizes for a playwright, he sent a telegram to the cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, on May 2, 1955:
DEAR PLAYERS: I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I KNOW THAT YOU ALL GAVE ME THE PRIZES. ALL MY LOVE=