OH LOOK IT’S THE PLACE WHERE THE WARDEN SHOOTS TOMMY WHILE DUFRESNE IS IN THE HOLE I’VE ONLY SEEN THIS PART FIVE TIMES HOW CAN PEOPLE WATCH THIS MOVIE TO THE END EVERY DAMN TIME??
Uh, ANYWAY. I tape a lot of movies and have started watching them without blogging it, because not that many people care that I watch obscure Bette Davis movies? But this past month, I found myself taping a lot of movies that were adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays. I’d watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a couple of times, and I’d heard great things about Suddenly, Last Summer and The Night of the Iguana was supposed to be “hot stuff,” according to the Hayes Code. I was halfway through Iguana when I realized that both movies had been shown on the same day. Knowing that TCM sometimes does theme days, I muttered to myself, “What, is it Tennessee Williams’s birthday?”
When I Googled it — which is what the cool kids do nowadays — I learned that Tennessee Williams was born on March 26.
That’s my birthday.
I mean, seriously? I’ve always believed somewhat in the idea of past lives and regeneration and, I don’t know, mystical energies being passed down throughout the ages. Or something. And I’ve considered myself a ‘writer’ for at least the past six years, the lack of published works notwithstanding. So the new knowledge that I shared a birthday with one of the greatest American playwrights? I felt 10% proud, 10% inspired, and 80% failure for not getting anything done by the age of thirty.
So, in an effort to push the lever more towards ‘inspired,’ I dug out my copy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and read it.
Now, as I said before, I’ve watched the Newman-Taylor film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a couple of times. And I enjoy it every time I watch it. I love Elizabeth Taylor, so much so that I actually sat through Liz and Dick to see how bad it was (Poor LiLo; I just can’t help but feel for that kid). But knowing what I know about the Hayes Code and how film adaptations tended to water down what actually happened in the stage versions, I was excited to see what the differences would be between the film adaptation and the original, written, staged edition.
The plot is, obviously, the same: Maggie and her husband, Brick, are visiting at Brick’s childhood home to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday. Neither Maggie nor Brick want to be there; Brick is finding his solace in a bottle, after going out at three a.m. to run some hurdles in an effort of nostalgia (resulting in a broken leg), and Maggie is trying to turn Brick’s attention from the bottle to her body. Brick’s brother Gooper (not making that up) and Gooper’s wife Mae are rubbing their fertility in Maggie’s face (although not literally; taken literally, that’s incredibly gross). Family is very important to the Pollitts, and Mae and Gooper have five kids to Brick and Maggie’s zero. Mae is nearly proud to learn that Brick is not sharing Maggie’s bed, and there’s an insinuation that he may have been in love with his high school pal, Skipper, but that is cleared up as the play goes along.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot. The play is definitely something worth reading – and I’ll continue talking about that in a minute. But plays are not meant to be read; plays are meant to be performed, and plays are meant to be watched. So if you’re intrigued as to how the play ends and who ends up with whom and if people are redeemed and if there’s a happy ending, check your local theater times to see if there’s a company in your area putting it on. If not, find a copy of the Newman/Taylor version. In all honesty, not a lot changed thanks to the Hayes Code; just references and language. It’s not like the movie’s ending is a complete 180 from the original theatrical version. I highly recommend the film version, and I’m putting a lot of faith in theatre companies today when I say that I hope the company putting it on in your neighborhood will do the play justice. But it should be good.
To get to the whole “reading” part of it: for me, it’s both a different experience and yet not for me to read a play. It’s different because I haven’t read one in a very long time, and I’ve never reviewed a play that I’ve read and not seen performed live. The not part comes in because in high school and college I acted in plays, and my last year at college I took Playwriting, so I know the mechanics of writing a play for the stage. But it has been at least … oh shit, when did I write — no wait, Dead Man’s Chest came out in 2006, so it has been seven years since I’ve written my last play.
Okay, I just made myself a little sad.
The reason Dead Man’s Chest and 2006 are important markers for my own History of Playwriting is because that’s the year I went to Springfield, MA to watch Dead Man’s Chest with my good friend Sarah, and on the ride back to her house we discussed her coming up to my former place of business dressed as a pirate because it would be hilarious to confuse my co-workers (now that I’ve been out of there and it won’t have any effect on my career, I used to work at L.L. Bean and there is a trout pond in one of the lobbies; imagine a pirate loitering around that for a day), and I wrote what I now consider to be a cross between The West Wing and Waiting for Godot with a soupcon of Monty Python thrown in entitled The Pirate in the Lobby. And that’s the last play I ever wrote. *sad*
So I wasn’t unfamiliar with the form. What I didn’t know and truly appreciate right now is that Tennessee Williams loved stage directions. I’ve had different philosophies about that and struggled with it in my own writing — too much authorial intent in the stage directions won’t always allow the actor to develop the character through his/her own methods; too little and the playwright might not see his/her play staged with the same undertones he was looking for. The biggest piece of advice my Playwriting professor gave us was that once the script was complete and someone wanted to direct it, we as the writer needed to step back. Our piece was out in the world now, out there for others to interpret. The most stressful stagings of plays came when the playwright was whispering in the director’s ear. Lots of little egos — oh shit, that’s a quote from something that I can’t quite recall.
The line that I … felt most, for lack of a better term, was in the Notes for the Designer. Mr. Williams describes how he wants the set designed and the lighting and the setup and all of that, and he is very explicit that the duration of the play takes exactly as long as the time spent on-stage. That may not seem important or significant, but it adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings. Plays very rarely take place in ‘real time.’ And think about your daily life: pick an event that happened with your family. Would it be interesting enough to hold the attention of an audience for two-plus hours, encompassing family drama, mystery, sex, and the all-powerful struggle between life and death?
And that is why Tennessee Williams is an American hero and great man of letters. And why I am feeling super inadequate and yet determined in the wake reading this play.
Grade for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: 4 stars