…may throw the first stone, to paraphrase a Biblical injunction. I still remember the “racy” movie posters, featuring Elizabeth Taylor, when this play was first issued as a movie in the 1950’s. I neither saw the movie, nor watched a production of the play. Thanks to a recent reading of The Glass Menagerie I decided that I needed to read more of this quintessential American (and Southern) playwright. “Cat…” was first produced in 1955, and would win the Pulitzer Prize.
The play is set in the largest mansion in the very heart of the rich farmland of the Mississippi delta, near Clarksville. There are three acts, but the time period is continuous. ‘Big Daddy’ is now 65, and owner of the plantation. He is still “rough-hewed,” having once been the overseer of the plantation that was owned by two “sisters” (gays), Jack Straw and Peter Ochello. Homosexuality, a “racy” topic in the 1950’s, is a theme throughout the play. ‘Big Daddy’s’ wife is, sure enough, ‘Big Mama.’ They have two sons, Brick and Gooper, who are each married, respectively, to Maggie and Mae. Each of the women have societal pretenses, one raised in Memphis, and the other Nashville. Gooper is the oldest, and with Mae has five “no-neck” children, with a sixth on the way. Brick and Mae are childless. He is also a serious alcoholic, morose over his lost college athletic “glory days,” and his relationship with his buddy, Skipper, now dead. The reason for Brick and Maggie’s childlessness – that he will not sleep with her – and his probable homosexual relationship with Skipper is developed as the play progresses. ‘Big Mama’ frankly criticizes Maggie for failing to perform her “bed duties,” and keep her son happy. They all live in the mansion house, and are jockeying for the inheritance. It is a “heady” mix.
Mendacity, greed, sexual longing are all themes woven throughout the play. About half this Kindle edition contains various essays of commentary, the most meaningful one from Tennessee Williams himself. The influence and relationship of Williams with the director Elia Kazan is described. I even learned that this play was the favorite of Fidel Castro, who greeted Williams on their first meeting with the exclamation: “Oh, that Cat!” The play’s evolution and various versions are discussed (perhaps more than most people need to know), and an entirely different third act is also included.
Reading, or watching a performance of Williams’ plays is an important part of the “curriculum” of any student of American drama – whatever the age of that student. 5-stars for “The Cat.”