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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) is set on a family estate in the Mississippi Delta and tells the story of a Southern family in crisis. It explores the various relationships between members of Big Daddy Pollitt's family, focusing on the relationship between the character Brick and his wife, Maggie. A major theme of the play is Brick's repressed homosexual feelings for his dead friend Skipper. The play's references to homosexuality caused quite a stir in the 1950s and led to censorship attempts both in the United States and abroad.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a huge commercial and critical success, running for 694 performances on Broadway from 1955 to 1956. It was nominated for four Tony Awards and won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Since its original Broadway production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been revived countless times in theaters around the world. A highly acclaimed film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman was produced in 1958, and television adaptations followed in the 1970s and '80s.

1. Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on a terrace in Tangier, Morocco.

Williams was one of several American writers (Truman Capote, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, to name a few others) who spent time in Tangier in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s relaxed attitudes toward homosexuality made Tangier and other Moroccan cities magnets for gay tourists trying to escape their own oppressive societies. Western tourists were also attracted to the Moroccan coast for its beauty, history, and varied cultural influences.

2. The original director of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof convinced Williams to make major changes to the script.

The director, Elia Kazan, asked Williams to replace the third act of his original script. He wanted the character Maggie to be shown more sympathetically and for the dying Big Daddy to reappear. Desperate for a Broadway hit—"He wanted it passionately," according to Kazan—Williams acquiesced to the director's requests, eventually publishing both versions. According to a writer for the Guardian, Williams's original version is "leaner and sparer."

3. Williams won his second Pulitzer Prize for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize "For the original American play, performed in New York, which shall best represent in marked fashion the educational value and power of the stage, preferably dealing with American life." The prize money was $500. He also won his third New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He had won his first Pulitzer in 1948 for A Streetcar Named Desire.

4. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Williams's favorite of his plays.

In his memoir Williams explained that it was his favorite for two reasons. First, he was proud of its "tight classical unity." Second, he was proud of "a kind of crude eloquence of expression in Big Daddy that I have managed to give no other character of my creation."

5. Critics debated whether Williams's handling of homosexuality went too far or not far enough.

British-born American critic Eric Bentley criticized Williams for not exploring Brick's homosexuality further. Having been led to believe that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof openly presents homosexuality, he warned, "The miracle still has not happened."

Meanwhile in England, the Lord Chamberlain took great offense to the homosexual references in the play. He told the play's producers to make 34 changes to the script before it could be performed in London. These changes included deleting entire pages that referred to Brick's homosexuality, as well as phrases such as "ducking sissies" and "queers." Seeing homosexuality as central to the play, Williams refused. Instead the producers figured out that they could circumvent censorship laws by temporarily turning the theater into a private club.

6. The production of the film adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was delayed by a tragic plane crash.

Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Maggie in the 1958 film. Only a week after production began, Taylor's husband, Mike Todd, died when his private plane—named "Lucky Liz"—crashed, killing everyone on board. Understandably, Taylor took some time off from work to deal with her loss. She arrived back on set a few weeks later, appearing a lot thinner and weaker.

7. The homosexual themes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were removed from the 1958 film version.

Because of the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral guidelines that were applied to most American movies released between 1930 and 1968, almost all homosexual themes and references were eliminated from the film adaptation. Public performances had been banned in London for the same reason. The film was nonetheless highly acclaimed by both critics and audiences.

8. Williams hated the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof so much that he told audience members to go home.

Williams said to the people waiting in line for tickets at one performance, "This movie will set the industry back 50 years! Go home!" According to a writer for the Village Voice, "Williams is said to have disliked the adaptation due to its inability to fully grapple with the themes of homophobia and sexism."

9. Williams revised Cat on a Hot Tin Roof substantially in the 1970s.

In a 1973 interview Williams explained that he had never been happy about the changes he had made to the play at the request of the original director, Elia Kazan. For a 1973 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he produced a new version of the play that combined elements of the 1955 Broadway version and his original version. He restored his original conclusion to the play and tweaked it again for a 1974 production, this time replacing euphemisms (such as "rutting" and "ducking") with actual swear words.

10. In 2008 a Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starred an all-black cast for the first time in the play's history.

Traditionally, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and most other American plays that came out of the mid-20th century have largely been performed by all-white casts. In the late 20th and early 21st century, however, some directors have experimented with nontraditional casting. The director of the 2008 revival, Debbie Allen, explained that she didn't want the cast's race to be the focus: "The idea of all-black really isn't an issue," she said. "The characters are so universal. I know them. We're coming into it like an explorer, just discovering the lives of the people."

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