Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof contains all the elements of good drama: sex, greed, deception, alcoholism, violence and the specter of death. This Pulitzer Prize-winning dissection of a Southern family is receiving a lustrous revival at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre starring Scarlett Johansson and Benjamin Walker as Maggie and Brick Pollitt. How did Williams, a brilliant but troubled dramatist, develop his uniquely poetic voice, and why has Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remained one his most in-demand dramas? We let the cat out of the bag on this classic!
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911, to a family biographers compare to the dysfunctional ones in his plays. In 1931, Williams entered the University of Missouri, where his college roommate nicknamed him “Tennessee” and where he decided to become a playwright after seeing a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghost. By age 24, the workaholic Williams had suffered a nervous breakdown, though he eventually graduated from the University of Iowa.
Based in New Orleans, Williams juggled writing and menial jobs. His break came the winter of 1944, when The Glass Menagerie was successfully produced in Chicago, then became an instant hit in New York. The enormous success of Williams’ next play, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1947, cemented his reputation as a major American playwright. After the Broadway runs of Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo and Camino Real, Williams introduced the Pollitt family, who spend a long night in their Mississippi Delta plantation house at war over the fate of "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile."
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened at Broadway's Morosco Theater on March 24, 1955, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Barbara Bel Geddes as ambitious Maggie and Ben Gazzara as aging football hero Brick, Burl Ives and Mildred Dunnock as Big Daddy and Big Mama Pollitt, and Pat Hingle and Madeleine Sherwood as grasping brother Gooper and his babymaking wife, Mae. Kazan and Williams sparred during rehearsals, and the director convinced the playwright to revise the third act to allow for the return of Big Daddy and a more redeeming resolution between him and Brick.
Maggie the Movie Star
Critics applauded the irresistibly soapy Cat, with Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times calling the play “a stunning drama,” praising Williams’ portrayal of “characters who try to escape from the loneliness of their lives into some form of understanding.” Atkinson considered the play to be Williams’ finest work because “…one of its great achievements is the honesty and simplicity of the craftsmanship.” Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play, and won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize.
An MGM film adaptation by director Richard Brooks opened in theaters on September 20, 1958, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Judith Anderson and Jack Carson, with Ives and Sherwood reprising their stage roles. Williams was displeased with the screenplay, which removed all explicit references to Brick’s possible homosexuality (in deference to Hollywood censors), emphasizing instead the theme of prolonged adolescence, with an upbeat ending. Williams felt that Brick’s repressed sexuality and grief over the death of his beloved pal Skipper was crucial, and he preferred his original ending, which reflected Brick’s weakness and sexual ambivalence.
Despite the playwright’s dismay, the Cat film (promoted with a sexy poster of Taylor in a white slip) was highly acclaimed and nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Taylor and Newman both received Oscar nominations for their performances.
Williams Gets His Ending
In 1974, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, exploded back into the public consciousness with a sizzling production starring Elizabeth Ashley, which moved to Broadway from the American Shakespeare Theatre in Connecticut. Williams restored much of the text he had removed from the original production, including a revised final act. "Tennessee told me that the role had never been played by a southern woman in a major production. Consequently, I knew the language and the cadencies instinctively," Ashley told Broadway.com. "I was in my sexual prime, and I used it flagrantly because that's what Maggie does. That's her weapon."
Cat came to TV in 1976 starring the then husband-and-wife team of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, and featuring Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy and Maureen Stapleton as Big Mama. Another television adaptation, directed by Jack Hofsiss and starring Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, Kim Stanley, David Dukes and Penny Fuller, aired on August 19, 1984, and restored the sexual ambiguities that had been muted in the 1958 film. Stanley and Fuller were nominated for supporting actor Emmys, and Stanley took home the award.
Williams continued to write plays, short stories, novels, poems, essays, screenplays and a volume of memoirs, but he became an increasingly paranoid and depressive alcoholic. Williams was found dead at age 71 in his suite at the Elysee Hotel in New York on February 25, 1983. A medical examiner's report showed that he choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops. Prescription drugs were also found in the hotel room.
Revive! Revive! Revive!
A Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Howard Davies and featuring screen star Kathleen Turner, opened on March 21, 1990, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Turner garnered a Best Actress Tony nomination, though her performance received mixed reviews. Charles Durning, as Big Daddy, received a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play, and Polly Holliday was nominated for her performance as Big Mama.
A 2003 Broadway revival, headlined by film stars Ashley Judd and Jason Patric, opened on November 2 at the Music Box Theatre, and received lukewarm reviews. Ned Beatty and Margo Martindale were singled out by critics, for their work as Big Daddy and Big Mama, and Martindale received the production's only Tony nomination. The Kennedy Center produced a revival in 2004 featuring Mary Stuart Masterson as Maggie, Jeremy Davidson as Brick, George Grizzard as Big Daddy, Dana Ivey as Big Mama and Emily Skinner as Mae.
Cat broke the color barrier with an all-African-American Broadway production directed by Debbie Allen, which opened on March 6, 2008, at the Broadhurst Theatre and became a sellout hit. Terrence Howard made his Broadway debut as Brick, alongside stage veterans James Earl Jones (Big Daddy), Phylicia Rashad (Big Mama) and Anika Noni Rose (Maggie). In November 2009, Allen's production moved to London's West End, where Adrian Lester played Brick opposite Sanaa Lathan as Maggie. The West End staging received the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Play.
A Red-Hot Return for Scarlett Johansson
On January 17, 2013, the third Broadway revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in the past decade opens at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, starring Tony winner Scarlett Johansson as Maggie, Benjamin Walker as Brick, British star Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy, Tony winner Debra Monk as Big Mama and Broadway vets Michael Park and Emily Bergl as Gooper and Mae.
“It’s one of the greatest American plays ever written,” Walker said in a promotional video. “It has endured because it’s about issues we continue to deal with.” Johansson explained she was attracted to Cat because it “feels very fresh, timeless and vivid.” The production, Tony winner Rob Ashford’s directorial debut of a non-musical on Broadway, generated early attention when a character playing the ghost of Skipper was featured on stage during preview performances. The ghost was cut before press performances began.
Almost 60 years after its debut, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues to attract actors and audiences because of its timeless themes and irresistibly juicy relationships. The Pollitt family's secrets unfold slowly, and audiences connect with Williams’ sympathetic portrayal of characters whose fears and loneliness reflect their own.