Thursday, March 12, 2009

How Many Endings Does a Cat Have?

Frank Rich said the following of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: "Act I belongs to Maggie, Act II to Big Daddy and the anti-climactic Act III (of which the author left several variants) to no one."

Tennessee Williams struggled hard to find an ending to his last major play, which is still showing through Saturday at the Lyric Stage here in Boston, (Georgia Lyman and Kelby T. Akin, pictured above left.) The degree of influence the famous director Elia Kazan exerted on the playwright during their initial Broadway collaboration is debated, but it is generally accepted that their working relationship at least partially fragmented Williams' original concept.

However, scholarship, along with Williams' letters and notebooks, shows us that he was troubled with his third act well beyond his Kazan problems. In structure, the play required a third act climax, but as it is currently stands, the play often feels like a Hamlet that ends after the visit to Gertrude's bedchamber. (Read Thom Garvey's recent post about how the father and son showdown is the major emotional high point of the evening.)

I have seen Cat performed with and without Big Daddy's return to the stage. For those who may not be aware, Williams was encouraged by Kazan to bring Big Daddy, Brick's plantation owner father, back on for the third act of the play, (this was one of three key suggestions made by the famous director.) In published versions of the play, the original Act III, (referred to by Williams as "Cat number one,") and the "Broadway Version," are printed. They are separated by a very brief explanation, an explanation that ends with Williams leaving the decision as to which is the best up to the reader.

The majority of productions bring Big Daddy back onstage, but some critics argue that just the simple fact that Williams published the two separate acts is proof of his preference for the original.

Somebody once observed, (I don't have attibution on hand) "Williams and the critics prefer Cat Number One, but Kazan and audiences prefer the rewritten Act III." I went back several times to see the Howard Davies production with Kathleen Turner. (Above right.) That production had a fantastic Charles Durning as Big Daddy ,who mesmerized every bit as much as Turner, but stayed true to William's original and kept him offstage in the concluding act.

A 2000 article in the Tennessee Williams Annual Review by Brian Parker discusses all the ways the playwright tried to work with having Big Daddy appear again. After looking over these scenarios it is apparent that Williams wanted to have Big Daddy remain more of a looming presence than an active agent. For instance, he worked with a couple of versions in which the curtain would rise higher and we would see Big Daddy revealed on the roof of the mansion. The older Pollitt would then comment, occasionally, on the action taking place below.

One thing that is clear after reading the sketches of different drafts and seeing the play performed recently at the Lyric Stage, is that Williams' most difficult challenge was deciding just what Big Daddy would do when he appeared amidst the other characters in the last moments. As Thom Garvey points out, there is not much more to be said between the two men. Brick has been made to face the truth and has revealed the truth to his father.

In the past, some critics have suggested the play seems to be missing the "obligatory scene" between Maggie and Big Daddy. Just what that would be remains a mystery, and I am fairly sure Williams would have balked at writing it because the play is Brick's and not Maggie's or Big Daddy's.

However, a stage direction that was cut during the play's Broadway tryouts is interesting. Originally, before Big Daddy confirms that "this girl has life in her," he pulls Maggie up against himself and ,with his hand, probes down her abdomen feeling for any signs of pregnancy. The physicality was then toned down, and what we have now is Big Daddy simply looking into Maggie's eyes.

Perhaps that direction is too grotesque, but its potential theatrical charge is undeniable, and it perhaps brings more clarity to the blessing Big Daddy confers on Maggie: Death to Life. (Big Daddy is, after all, in the robe like Brick.) This is the larger theme of the drama, punctuated in the center of the play by Big Daddy's Proustian recollection of an empty and decaying European continent. The wealthy old plantation owner realizes that he could subsidize the entire economy of one of those countries with his personal fortune. Most reviewers like to quote the famous line about the plantation acreage, but the dollar amount Big Daddy throws out - 10 million dollars!- merges the melodramatic elements of wills and inheritances into the larger themes. Maggie the Cat ain't getting off that gravy train any time soon, Skipper or no Skipper.

Which brings me to another point about revisions of the play. Tennessee Williams admitted that he grew to adore the character of Maggie and became less resistant to the idea, initially floated by Kazan, of making her more sympathetic to the audience.

It makes sense, because the more I study the play and see productions, the more I realize, (as Williams must have realized,) Brick just doesn't make for a sympathetic character on the surface. In the outlines, Brick is a spoiled, rich and entitled jerk. Here is a man who, rather than leave his college days behind, started a semi-pro football team to keep up his youthful passions. (Of course, we find out the real reasons he and Skipper kept wanting to "throw those long, high passes.") His obstinance in the pursuit of his goals actually mirrors Maggie's tenacious, aggressive nature, which is equally unflattering in many respects. The problem is that he just so outwardly inactive during the course of the play...aside from consuming his Scotch.

In an article in Modern Drama, Williams scholar Douglas Arrell related Brick's situation to that of the Victorian bachelor, caught in the double bind of male bonding and homosexual feelings and then retreating into a kind of sexual anesthesia. Arrell states, in his abstract, that a character like this "cannot convincingly be portrayed as escaping from this condition, and that this explains the problems Williams had with the last act of Cat. In his final version of the play, he shows Brick as unchanged after his scene with Big Daddy, a choice that is thematically right but dramatically unsatisfying."

Williams' struggle in structuring drama out of his portrait of Brick's moral paralysis is admirable, but also more experimental than most realize - sitting as it does in the center of a one-set melodrama, complete with the unity of time. Most people forget that the original Broadway concept was much more stylized, and Kazan even went so far as to have actors address the audience directly in the longer speeches. I have never seen a production that completely abandons the plantation motif, but there is some video of an Australian production on You Tube that really takes the play out of its traditional, steamy setting.

In the current production at the Lyric Stage, Scott Edmiston and his Brick, Kelby T. Akin, have the tough challenge of playing to three sides. Which they do well, but I sometimes felt this makes Brick is a little too mobile. His lashing rages, while adoitly executed by Akin, aren't as shocking coming from such a nimble invalid. Although there is a moment in Act Two where a particularly hard crash, (as Akin tries to escape the pressing questions of Spiro Veludos's Big Daddy,) sends ice flying across the balcony, and Akin's ensuing grimace, along with his pleading, hits the perfect note. Brick's immobility is a very precise convention that Williams employed, and I think characters are supposed to orbit him.
The third act is even harder to pull off. Brick, in any of Williams' variations, slides into the background while Maggie, Mae and Gooper marshal for the final battle over the inheritance. It is like watching the despondent Hamlet, in his first scene of Shakepeare's great tragedy, sitting, sullen, while the court conducts business around him.

Making things more difficult is the fact that the major arc of the play, the son's self destruction, appears to hinge its third act climax on the relatively quiet attempt of Brick to drink himself into oblivion. (Not to be? The rest is silence?) And since he is already three-fourths there, what's the suspense?
It is a very challenging play, made more challenging by its production history and the many attempts by Williams to resolve his dramatic experiment.
(Sorry for the long post, just didn't have the time to work on this enough and I wanted to get something out before the show closed.)


Pun said...

WOW. This was an extremely well written and thought out essay. I never knew the history and evolution of the different versions. And that Australian production was intense! Way more powerful than the latest revival on Broadway.
I'm a blogger for the Spring Awakening National Tour (coming to the Colonial April 28-May 24, 2009). Hoping you could feature us in some way? Feel free to email me. Thanks and keep up the great work!

Thomas Garvey said...

You bring up a lot of good points, Art. The relationship of the last act to the previous two is clearly the central problem of "Cat." Essentially, Williams leads us to a climactic admission at the end of Act 2, and then seems to drop it; Brick doesn't seem transformed by what's happened to him, and Maggie makes a bizarre claim that flies in the face of everything we've just learned. The claim seems, in fact, to align her with Big Daddy (and his "death" theme) - but Williams doesn't seem to have even wanted to include Big Daddy in the act! Thus my reading of the play - which I may have made sound too doctrinaire in my post - of Maggie as a "disguised gay male" who is somehow empowered and liberated by Brick's admission. I'm not going to give up on that entirely - I feel she clearly operates as a variant of Williams's Blanche Dubois mode - but she also seems to do double or triple duty as a symbol of the play's other themes. And it's worth pointing out that her lie about her pregnancy up-ends all the claims about "mendacity" made in the play - mendacity is also how the human race survives, Williams seems to be saying; without Maggie and her determination to reproduce there's only Brick's sterility and Big Daddy's death by cancer. Perhaps that contradiction - which we can at some level understand is deeply true - leads inevitably to contradictions in action and structure. I will say that I think Kazan and audiences are right - the play is stronger with Big Daddy's appearance in Act 3. But I also think Williams never quite worked out how to successfully integrate the differing demands of his many themes.