The 1950s was the decade during which Tennessee Williams hit the height of his success, while also hitting what he described as the “bottom of the pit,” suffering from anxiety, dissatisfaction, loneliness and bouts of ill-health exacerbated by his tendency to hypochondria. As he drifted through Europe and America during the 1950s with on-again-off-again partner Frank Merlo, a sparkling circle of high-society friends and a dwindling parade of sexual partners, Williams became increasingly despondent and substance-dependant. From the depths of depression and addiction would come Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of his most successful works. Into it he poured his ruthless self-examination and raging internal conflict.
The beginnings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof appeared when Williams was in Venice recovering from an accident in the summer of 1951, after driving his car into a tree at high speed. He had hit the road with a “thermos of martinis” in the passenger seat, in a state of dislocation in part due to an increasingly frosty relationship with Merlo. In these years Williams’ notebook entries were haunted by the destructive spectre of addiction, namely alcoholism and a reliance on the prescription drug, Seconal, a sedative to combat insomnia and anxiety.
“Just taken: 2 phenobarbs, 1 seconal, 1 martini. Now already the magic begins to work. But I know it isn’t right, it isn’t well, this cycle of sedation.”
Drinking heavily during his recovery he began reflecting on his addiction in a story called Three Against Grenada, a meditation on southern drinkers which featured a young Mississippi character of great promise who succumbs to alcoholism, by the name of Brick Bishop.
“Everything else disappears behind the comforting veil of his liquor,” he wrote of Brick, “or is seen through it with indifference and dimness”.
The story was rewritten many times and eventually published in The New Yorker as a short story, Three Players of a Summer Game. The character of Brick and his battle with addiction, so clearly linked to Williams’ own, was the beginning of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He knew he had stumbled upon a worthwhile creative trail.
The complete and unemotional surrender he described in his notebooks and personified in Brick was not Williams’ totality. He had a determination to survive and an unquenchable desire to be loved which is epitomised in the passionate, combative character of Maggie the Cat. This dogged determination to carry on became not merely a character, but a central theme of Cat. “Vitality is the hero of the play!” he wrote. “The character you can ‘root for’ is not a person but a quality in people that makes them survive.”
The marital struggle between the despondent, self-medicating Brick and the ambitious, frustrated Maggie was a struggle within Williams himself. “Perhaps if I had not been so tormented myself it would have been less authentic,” he wrote of Cat in a letter to a friend in 1954.
This article is an excerpt from a longer essay published in the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof program, which also features a director's note from Kip Williams, an interview with lighting desiger Nick Schlieper, photographs and sketches from the rehearsal room and plenty more.
Pick up a copy from the Roslyn Packer Theatre foyer for $12, or pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 29 Apr – 8 Jun 2018, Rosyln Packer Theatre
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