Six decades separate the Broadway debut of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF in 1955 from Colin Kaepernick’s boycott of the National Anthem, yet this emphatic exercise in free speech protesting racial injustice brings to mind Williams’ confusing, frustrating play that suggests self-censorship in addressing same-sex relationships.
The Kaepernick controversy was cited by panelists at the National Constitution Center in early October as the latest prominent example of dissent, the theme of the discussion at the Philadelphia facility. They stressed that Kaepernick, the on-again, off-again quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, had a constitutional right to kneel instead of stand up and sing the national anthem. Or sit. Or take a nap. They affirmed that nobody is legally obligated to sing the anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Constitutional scholar Linda Monk, a North Carolina author, pointed out that denunciations against Kaepernick reflect a long history of attempts to repress dissent. It is a clear sign of the times that Kaepernick’s defenders spoke out as vehemently as critics who accused him of disrespect and even treason.
Sixty-plus years ago, it is safe to say that Tennessee Williams would have been far less fortunate if he sympathized with a gay character. He had already earned a Pulitzer for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and would win the Pulitzer once again for CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Both plays were directed by Elia Kazan, who was celebrated as a theatrical genius and reviled for cooperating with Senator Joe McCarthy’s commie-hunting committee.
Williams drops all kinds of hints that the protagonist, Brick Pollitt, might be gay as his fetching wife Maggie the Cat gripes that he refuses to touch her, as he mourns the death of his close friend Skipper and as his father – most famously known as Big Daddy – questions if Skipper attempted to draw Brick into a gay relationship. Williams, a homosexual who died in 1983, never answers the most obvious question.
The playwright holds back on identifying Brick’s sexual orientation, and who can blame him? The year 1955 was no time to stage a play explicitly exploring the turmoil of a closeted homosexual oppressed by his own family – not when confessed communists were jailed for refusing to name names, when homosexuals were busted for being, well, homosexuals, and even when premarital sex between the openly straight was frowned upon by society.
To be clear, a Tennessee Williams who performs at less than 100 percent is still better than the best of many other playwrights.
It was maddening to watch the play when I saw it for the first time last June at the Heritage Center Theatre in Morrisville, Pa. The Heritage’s staging was certainly entertaining as it remained true to the original text. By coincidence, the film version from 1958 aired on Turner Classic Movies the next day.
The movie, starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, morphed into an unintended comedy. It made absolutely no sense because all suggestions of homosexuality were eliminated. Newman, who played Brick, was disappointed with the screenplay because of this omission, and the film ended up satirizing itself. Why should it take nearly two hours for two hot stars to fall into each other’s arms? Why would Taylor, as Maggie, need to beg any straight male animal to undress her?
Whether in the play or the movie, both set in the Mississippi Delta, Brick’s purported reasons for resisting Maggie are too thin: Had he tired of her? Did he fear parenthood? Was he that broken up by the suicide of his close friend Skipper? Was self-blame for Skipper’s death his only motive for denying her? Was self-blame a reason at all? Or even that he might be perceived as gay?
The only sensible explanation that could carry such a heavy play must be that Brick was gay, sexually attracted only to men and forced to conceal his orientation from his family. A decade or two later, perhaps in 1975, it would have been simultaneously safe and groundbreaking for Williams to debut a better Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If it opened today, the play would be treading old ground.
Williams might have hoped to do something more with Cat, but in an era of harsh censorship he was possibly advised by friends on the limits of such a subject.
Had Williams written Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when the gay rights movement first emerged, he might have plotted out the play thus: Brick is tormented and enslaved by the people around him into being someone he is not. In this instance, he is a homosexual who, to paraphrase an iconic line in Streetcar, could not depend on the understanding of all his biased, lunatic family members, a Deep South family yet.
If Brick was an abolitionist in this kind of family during pre-Civil War days, he would be equally repressed.
My take on the backstory is that Brick and Skipper had a homosexual relationship and there was more to Skipper’s suicide than suggested by the play. The end of the play signified Brick’s grudging acceptance of his perceived family obligation to produce more grandchildren for Big Daddy and Big Mama. The movie’s ending, when Paul and Liz finally embrace, offers a touch of hysterical farce.
Such context in the stage version could explain Brick’s first half-hour or more of silent brooding as Maggie rambles on alternately pleading for a roll in the hay, deriding her brother-in-law’s bratty children and reeling off reams of tiresome exposition. It must be a hard act to stage because actor Cat Miller as Maggie recited what amounts to a prolonged monologue while actor John Helmke as Brick did a record slow and mostly quiet boil before he blew up at Maggie; Cat Miller is the actor’s name on the cast list.
The movie version split this act into three shorter scenes as some of the exposition was already shown rather than told. Especially, an accident that left Brick on crutches was the opening scene in the movie, whereas in the play Maggie and Brick described what happened.
The very act of limiting the play’s theme reflected inherent censorship that precluded debate on a legitimate issue.
As evidenced by the Kaepernick kerfuffle, we feel much more freedom today to say what we think. No issue is off limits, ultimately. True, there remains strong pressure to silence those who would voice their feelings on many issues today, but it is not overwhelming as it was in 1955.Give Tennessee Williams credit for advancing as far as he did under such crushing and repressive conditions. He might have never succeeded in bringing CAT to Broadway without his reputation, and it helped that he could depend on the kindness of Kazan and other theatrical powers who were no strangers to this towering talent.