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Austin Shakespeare: Why Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof?’

Posted on November 12, 2018 by LONG CENTER STAFF

Fall has finally arrived, and with that means the first of Austin Shakespeare’s two productions in our Rollins Studio Theatre, this season. Opening November 16th is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ iconic, steamy masterpiece that won him a Pulitzer Prize. Catch one of the 12 performances before & after Thanksgiving, and read on for some background from Austin Shakespeare Director Ann Ciccolella.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Austin Shakespeare | The Long Center for the Performing ArtsTennessee Williams believed that our lives are continually ambiguous; as a poet and playwright, he stripped away pretense to reveal the darkness of our depths—but he also celebrated his characters’ nobility and idealism. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his favorite play, Tennessee’s poetic impulse expressed itself in symbolism, especially in the determination of Maggie to stay on that “hot tin roof” even when conflicts got tremendously fiery. The story centers around her husband Brick’s defiance. A beloved son and football hero in his youth, Brick returns to his family’s Mississippi plantation for his father’s (Big Daddy’s) 65th birthday, and finds himself confronting his father who is dying of cancer. Now turning into an alcoholic, Brick defies both his father and his wife, “Maggie the cat.” They are determined to bring Brick back from the edge of giving up on his future.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Austin Shakespeare | The Long Center for the Performing ArtsThe attraction to Brick is his self-contained nobility—contrasted with Big Daddy’s “red-neck” vulgarity. However, each man reveals in the play his darker side and his better side in an unexpected reversal in their confrontation. The mystery of the son’s tragedy is locked in the truth behind his best friend, Skipper’s alcoholism and death.

Tennessee Williams himself struggled with alcoholism his whole life. But Cat is not as autobiographical as The Glass Menagerie or as plot driven as Streetcar Named Desire. Cat holds its magnetism in sexual attraction and conflict. The Paul Newman/Liz Taylor film was sanitized of the play’s sexual tensions—and eliminated any ambiguity in the ending. Our production returns to the version Tennessee Williams preferred. Brick’s friendship with Skipper is “pure,” but Brick believes Maggie’s assumptions soiled it, and finally destroyed Skipper. You will judge her defense of the truth as she sees it.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is now studied as part of contemporary Queer Theory in literature. Austin audiences will have the opportunity to discuss their responses in Talk Backs following every performance. But on Saturday, December 1, Dr. Eric Colleary, who taught the play in his LGBT Theatre History class, will discuss his reaction with the audience. Eric is now Cline Curator of Theatre and Performing Arts at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin.

To learn more about Tennessee Williams and Cat, look at John Lahr’s Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh and Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. There’s also this great video interview of John Lahr with playwright Tony Kushner.