It takes a special kind of playwright to unequivocally love Tennessee Williams's most cherished plays. I am not one of them. But then, in my defense, neither was Williams. In his long-obscure but now famous essay "The Catastrophe of Success," Williams pours forth his misgivings about the early work that brought him fame and fortune, and forever saddled him with expectations to make merely more plays in the vein of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "I got so sick of hearing people say, 'I loved your play!' that I could not say thank you anymore. I choked on the words and turned rudely away from the usually sincere person. I no longer felt any pride in the play itself but began to dislike it." But we don't need secondary sources to know about Williams's mixed feelings—there's sufficient evidence in the scripts.
Back when I used to teach playwriting (back when I used to write plays), I would dedicate an entire class to the subject of stage directions. What good are they? How are they best used? What sorts of playwrights lean on them? (Shaw, Beckett, Ruhl.) And which sorts lean away or barely bother with them at all? (Shakespeare, Molière, Pinter.) In order to better teach this section, I began keeping a collection of treasured stage-direction snippets, like rare beetles pinned in a plush velvet box. My favorites were the silly, the sublime, the outrageously prolix (I'm looking at you, GBS!). And easily my favorite of all, audaciously balling all of these qualities together at once, was this single stunning gem from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:
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 to “keep face” 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 a great 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 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.
Pity the poor actors expected to play that as written, and the director who tries to stage it.
(Williams’s stage directions are so notorious as to warrant this Onion parody, which is so dead-on I initially mistook it for the real thing):
(Brick, cool and detached as ever, takes his crutch and hobbles stage right to the liquor cabinet and begins fixing himself another drink. Margaret, still sobbing from their previous argument, crosses to the room's oval mirror but not before briefly glancing at her husband, a quick look that conveys a sense of confusion, certainty, sadness, happiness, anticipation, loneliness, devotion, neediness, a look that suggests she is still young, but knows her youth is fleeting, a glance so strong yet so weak that Brick takes notice and yet at the same time doesn't take notice, a look that could only be given by a women who grew up poor, but yearns to be wealthy, a brief look, the gravity of which penetrates her character's dialogue in this scene and throughout the play. Brick remains aloof. He is very handsome, and possibly a homosexual.)
Not only does Williams seem to be pulling the reader's leg (remember, this delightful writing will never be heard by the play's audience), he also seems eager to pull his own. By the time Williams was writing these words (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered in 1955), he was far less tortured about his own homosexuality than he was about the obvious need to keep his characters deeply tortured about theirs. Keeping them closeted allowed American audiences to accept and love the plays as much as they wholeheartedly did. There's always the sense of him getting away with all the magnolia syrup because Americans were too prudish and dumb to spot a one-to-one gay allegory when they were basically gagging on it. The fact that he's still getting away with it, from regional theaters to Broadway, says more about us than it does about him. This is the nut I choke on when it comes to ACT's upcoming production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It's 2015, and we are still reserving the stage for plays coded for 1950s American values.
My mentor, the playwright Thomas Babe, used to say, "There are plays about boredom that are utterly gripping." (Beckett wrote most of them.) "And then there are plays that are just plain boring." (As I recall, he was talking about an early play of mine.) A fitting corollary applies to Williams's body of work, and gay theater more generally. There are gay plays that are about self-loathing, and then there are plays that simply loathe themselves, their characters, and, most crucially, their audiences.
I haven't seen or read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in so many years, I can't remember all the reasons I don't like it. So in fairness to ACT, and its upcoming production, I am going to break my self-imposed banishment from theater and go see the play this week. I am curious and hopeful. The cast—John Aylward as Big Daddy, Marianne Owen as Big Mama, Laura Griffith as Maggie the Cat, et al.—looks terrific. But I wonder if director Kurt Beattie, who has never been esteemed for his boldness, has what it takes to hold Williams's feet to the fire and decipher the sniggering cryptography of this unquestioningly beloved—and "possibly homosexual"—treasure of American drama.
I want him to. I want to be wrong. I want Williams to have been wrong. I want to love Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—and not just because actors and artistic directors adore it much too much to stop staging it anytime soon. I want the play to turn out, to my surprise, to be a true work of genius, not just one wrought by a genius who hated the audience for loving it.
Note: This article has been updated to correct an error.