As a rule, playwrights tend not to single out particular plays as their favorite. Especially not playwrights who have written some three dozen plays, including at least six undisputed classics.
But Tennessee Williams didn’t have that problem. For much of his life, he would point to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as his personal favorite. And audiences share his enthusiasm: The torrid 1955 classic won Williams his second Pulitzer Prize and spawned a beloved film adaptation featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman at their most combustible. Maggie, Brick, Big Daddy and the rest of the clan have been seen in more than 60 countries, and three Broadway revivals have popped up in the last decade alone, with the latest beginning previews December 18 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
“It’s a strong story, accessible, with great acting parts,” says Tom Erhardt, agent for The University of the South, copyright owner of the works of Tennessee Williams.
Every Cat needs a strong Maggie the Cat, a fiery striver who has married into the wealthy Pollitt family and is determined to procreate her way into financial stability. Scarlett Johansson, whose performance as a less self-aware temptress (in A View From the Bridge) won her a Tony Award® in 2010, joins a stellar lineage that includes Jessica Lange, Natalie Wood, Kathleen Turner, Elizabeth Ashley (Williams’s personal favorite) and Ashley Judd. Johansson’s costar, Benjamin Walker, was galvanizing as the mascara-wearing seventh president in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and is poised to make an even bigger impression as Brick, the alcoholic former golden boy who has been laid low by a broken leg and forbidden passions.
The nature of those passions has long been a source of controversy for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. By the time the film premiered in 1958, the Hays Code required that the nature of Brick’s infatuation with his best friend be made much less explicit. Other changes took place, and Williams was incensed to the point where he reportedly told people in line not to buy tickets, because “This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!” But they didn’t listen, and the film became one of 1958’s top grossers.
One thing the film did have going for it was the decision to keep Burl Ives in the role of Big Daddy, “the Delta’s biggest cotton planter.” With his mulish fight against cancer and his contempt for the world’s mendacity, Big Daddy is one of the juiciest stage roles for older actors, and the Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Munich, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has also joined director Rob Ashford’s revival. Appearing alongside Hinds as Big Momma is Debra Monk, who won a Tony for her performance in Redwood Curtain.
The Hollywood producers weren’t the only ones to have their way with the script – Williams’s original Cat director, Elia Kazan, had insisted on intensive rewrites and cuts. It wasn’t until 1974 that the author was able to revisit the play, restoring much of Kazan’s cut material and other scenes. “He kept revising the play constantly,” Erhardt says, “sometimes very drastically, other times with minute changes.”
Sex, lies, booze and confrontations: If you haven’t seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof before, it’s about to become your favorite Tennessee Williams play, too.
By John Allendale