Written by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered in 1955 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the same year. The play is set in a sumptuous mansion owned by Big Daddy, a Mississippi plantation owner. It’s his birthday and all his family plan to make it a memorable one. But what are their motives for appeasing the tyrannical Big Daddy?
His eldest son, Gooper, and his wife Mae, clearly want to ensure they are first in line for a share of the spoils once Big Daddy dies. His other son, Brick, isn’t interested in money – he seems more concerned with drinking himself into an alcoholic stupor. But Brick’s wife, Maggie, has been poor and doesn’t want to be again. If only she could produce a child (Gooper and Mae have an ever increasing brood) then she’s sure that Big Daddy would look kindly on them. But since Brick won’t sleep with her (and indeed barely seems to tolerate her) the chances of this seem slim.
Deceit and lies are the major themes of this play. It’s at the heart of Brick and Maggie’s relationship and it’s also reflected in the way Big Daddy is handled by his family. Big Daddy has terminal cancer, but for some (fairly unfathomable reason) it’s been decided to shield the truth from him and his wife, Big Mamma, at least for this evening. So that he can enjoy one last happy birthday?
Since he’s something of a monster (witness the way he speaks to Big Mamma immediately after he believes he’s been given the all-clear by the doctors) maybe not. Possibly Gooper and Mae decided that it would give them a better chance of maneuvering events to their best advantage – it’s plain they want to control the plantation and cut Brick and Maggie out completely.
Given the lies we hear throughout the piece, it becomes increasingly difficult to parse the truth from the untruths (no doubt what Williams intended). When Maggie makes a late shock announcement that she’s pregnant, it’s something which is hard to accept (especially given what we know about the state of their marriage) although both Big Daddy and Big Mamma do – or at least say they do. Once Maggie and Brick are alone she tells him they now have to make the lie come true. She also tells him that she loves him, a statement which Brick seems to doubt.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has two stand-out characters – Maggie and Big Daddy – although the others are far from ciphers. Act one mainly features Maggie and Brick and it’s clearly been designed as a tour-de-force for the actress playing her. Brick remains a passive, inactive character for most of the act, only sparking into life when Maggie suggests that his relationship with his late best friend, Skipper, was – on Skipper’s side at least – something more than friendship.
Real-life husband and wife Robert Wagner (Brick) and Natalie Wood (Maggie) were ideal casting, even if Wagner was probably a little too old to play an ex-football star a few years after his retirement. But Wood is more than capable of taking Maggie’s lengthy monologues and breathing life into them – revealing Maggie in all her insecure glory – whilst Wagner looks on in a suitably immobile fashion. As the play progresses, Brick begins to spark into life a little more, but Wagner rarely breaks a sweat in the scenes he shares with his wife. Not really a criticism, since that’s how the part’s written, but it’s very much the case that he finds himself totally overshadowed by Wood. Although the two-handed scenes between Wagner and Olivier do give Wagner more of a chance to indulge in some dramatic fireworks.
Big Daddy is relentless in his goading of Big Mamma, finally causing her to tearfully tell him that she’s always loved him (“even your hate”) which gives him pause for thought. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”
Olivier, complete with a white wig and moustache, seems to be enjoying himself as Big Daddy. It offers him the chance to take a character on an emotional ride from elation to despair and there’s plenty of show-boating moments which he no doubt would have relished. Maureen Stapleton (who won an Oscar in 1981 for her role in Reds) is memorable in the small, but key, part of Big Mamma.
Gooper and Mae have less to do (they mainly exist to contrast with Brick and Maggie) but Jack Hedley and Mary Peach still manage to wring what they can from the roles, especially during the climatic scenes as the truth is eventually revealed.
Running just under 100 minutes, the adaptation sticks very close to the original. Although the play is wholly set in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, here the action is opened up a little by moving around the house. There’s a few interesting camera angles (a low shot from Brick’s POV on the floor showing the impressive ceiling, for example) but in the main it’s content to remain a studio-bound, static and faithful recording of the original theatrical production.