Since its Broadway premiere in 1955, Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece of secrets, frustrations and sexual repression, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, has been rewritten for directors and censored for society. Until the legislative reform of the sixties sparked a widespread shift in social mores, it was a victim of homophobic laws and cultural bigotry.
Broadway and Hollywood giant Elia Kazan directed the first production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. When Williams presented him with a finished script, Kazan was adamant that the third and final act required a rewrite. The director felt the original third act would not appeal to audiences without The Pollitt family patriarch, Big Daddy, returning to the stage; his son, Brick, showing moral growth; and Brick’s wife Maggie being portrayed more softly and sympathetically.
Williams was resistant to these ideas but desperate for a Broadway success after the financial disaster of his last play, Camino Real. In contrast, Kazan was riding a wave of critical and commercial success, including the stage production and subsequent Hollywood adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, also by Tennessee Williams.
The playwright eventually agreed to all Kazan's changes. The result was the now-infamous second version of the third act. Of all the edits, Williams felt the changed act did the greatest disservice to Maggie: she entered the play ferocious and tenacious, and (in the original script) left the same way. She was a strong woman getting what she wanted. In a letter to his friend and agent, Audrey Wood, Williams wrote of his dissatisfaction with the rewrite. Maggie’s newfound passivity was, Williams felt, “an echo of ‘Tea and Sympathy’… another case of a woman giving a man back his manhood”. While Williams disliked the changes, he was, at least, the author of the altered third act – a luxury he would not have with subsequent adaptations.
In 1958, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was hit with a double blow to its authenticity: the Lord Chamberlain's censorship of the British theatre premiere in the UK, and the Hays' Code dilution of the Hollywood film.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick, the ex-athlete golden child, struggles with his sexuality. He's drowning his sorrows over the suicide of his friend Skipper – a relationship that Brick's wife Maggie believes was more than just friendship. The play touched on the theme of homosexuality in a more obvious way than Williams' previous scripts (such as The Glass Menagerie), making it the subject of widespread social and legal debate. The result was a string of edits that would leave Williams disillusioned with every adaptation he saw.
The Lord Chamberlain is, still to this day, the most senior officer of the Royal Household. Prior to 1968 when the Theatres Act was passed, it was the official censor for all public theatre in the UK, granting licenses for shows deemed morally acceptable. Theatre companies circumvented this censorship by creating "Club" theatres, which carried a small cost for membership and were thus private (meaning outside the Lord Chamberlain's control). The New Watergate Theatre Club was formed in 1957 to stage Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which was dubbed obscene for featuring two men kissing.
When it came to staging Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the UK, the Lord Chamberlain insisted all offensive language be removed, including swearing and sexual references. The office also instructed Williams to remove whole pages which referred to Brick's homosexuality – a central theme of the play, and one that Williams refused to alter. Lord Chamberlain denied the production a public license, and so it was performed at The New Watergate Theatre Club.
That same year, the play was adapted for the screen in a heavily-censored Hollywood production featuring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie and Paul Newman as Brick. From the early thirties through to 1968 (when the modern ratings system was brought in), filmmakers were stifled by the Hays Code, which sought to bring films in line with a strict set of social mores. References to sex, nudity and drug use were especially frowned upon.
The film adaptations of Williams' works butted up against the Hays Code on many occasions. There was controversy about the cinematic portrayal of a homosexual relationship (despite Skipper never coming on screen), and more controversy still about Paul Newman – then considered a shining example of wholesome American values – playing a homosexual character. The final cut of the film removed all reference to Brick's homosexuality, barely hinting at the reason for his lack of sexual drive. Williams was so unhappy with the result that he was heard telling movie-goers queuing for tickets, "This movie will set the industry back fifty years. Go home!"
Subsequent adaptations have done more justice to the original tale. Two decades after he first penned it, Williams had the opportunity for a final rewrite of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when it was revived on Broadway in 1974. This rewrite blended the original and Kazan-approved versions of the third act, setting an appropriately ambivalent tone for the play's conclusion. Fourteen years later the London National Theatre's 1988 revival was lauded for its social satire and hitting all the (often ignored) comedic notes in the play, and moving into the 21st century director Debbie Allen's 2008 recasting of the traditionally white roles with an all-African-American cast was celebrated for its emotional ferocity and bringing the play to broader audiences. These days both the original third act and Williams' '70s revision are preferred, performed by almost all modern theatre companies, including Sydney Theatre Company.
This month, the iconic production comes to the STC stage for the second time, uninhibited and still disturbingly topical. Don't miss an inimitable cast and director take on Tennessee Williams' masterwork.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 29 Apr – 8 Jun 2018, Rosyln Packer Theatre
Seeing the show? Pick up a souvenir play program from the Roslyn Packer Theatre foyer for $12, featuring in-depth articles, photographs and info about cast and creatives. You can pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.
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