Yes, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a Musical! The Story Behind Tennessee Williams’ Broadway Hit

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play written by Tennessee Williams in 1955. It is set on a Mississippi plantation during the mid-1950s and focuses on the conflicts within a wealthy Southern family. The play examines themes of greed, lies, the ignorance of reality, and the power of sexuality.

The story centers around Maggie, a beautiful young woman unhappily married to Brick, a former football star and the son of Big Daddy, a wealthy cotton tycoon. On Brick’s birthday, his family gathers at the plantation to celebrate Big Daddy’s recent clean bill of health. However, Big Daddy is actually dying of cancer and the family has lied to him about his prognosis. As the play unfolds, family secrets and lies are revealed, and Maggie and Brick struggle to save their crumbling marriage.

The Play

cat on a hot tin roof first opened on broadway in 1955, directed by elia kazan
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was written by American playwright Tennessee Williams. It made its Broadway debut at the Morosco Theatre on March 24, 1955 and ran for 694 performances. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, Burl Ives as Big Daddy, and Ben Gazzara as Brick.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Pulitzer committee praised the play as a “distinguished drama which . . . penetrates deeply into the universal meaning of family relationship – both as they exist in present day Southern culture and as they reflect standards common to all humanity.”

The play marked a new direction for Williams, who had previously focused on sensitive protagonists. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he created an angry family drama that was his first popular success and established him as a major force in 20th century American theater.

Broadway Production

The original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened at the Morosco Theatre on March 24, 1955. It was directed by Elia Kazan and featured Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie and Ben Gazzara as Brick. According to Playbill, it ran for a total of 694 performances before closing on November 17, 1956 [1].

Barbara Bel Geddes, best known for her role as Miss Ellie in the TV series Dallas, originated the role of Maggie the Cat on Broadway. Ben Gazzara played her alcoholic husband Brick Pollitt. Both actors received praise for their powerful performances. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote that “Miss Bel Geddes and Mr. Gazzara give performances of astonishing power” [2].

Elia Kazan’s direction brought out the emotional intensity and psychological drama within Williams’ script. The play tackled complex themes like greed, sexual desire and dysfunction against the backdrop of a wealthy Southern family. While not without controversy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was both a critical and commercial success during its initial Broadway run.

1958 Film Adaptation

the 1958 film adaptation starred elizabeth taylor, paul newman and burl ives

In 1958, the play was made into a film directed by Richard Brooks and starring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, Paul Newman as Brick, and Burl Ives as Big Daddy. Some key facts about the 1958 film adaptation include:

The film was directed by Richard Brooks, who adapted the screenplay himself (Source). Brooks made several changes from the original play, including removing references to Brick’s homosexual desires.

The main stars were Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, Paul Newman as Brick, and Burl Ives as Big Daddy. Taylor and Newman were at the peak of their fame and popularity at this time (Source).

The film was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Newman), Best Actress (Taylor), Best Supporting Actor (Ives), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. However, it did not win any Oscars (Source).

Themes

Some of the major themes explored in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are dysfunctional family dynamics, greed and materialism, and the façades of truth people construct. The Pollitt family is extremely dysfunctional, with family members constantly bickering, competing for Big Daddy’s inheritance, and hiding truths from one another (SparkNotes). Big Daddy and Big Mama have a strained relationship, Brick is withdrawn and aloof, while Gooper and Mae are greedy and scheming. This family dysfunction stems from the inability to communicate openly and honestly.

major themes include dysfunctional families, greed, and personal façades

Greed and materialism is another key theme, as Gooper and Mae angle to inherit Big Daddy’s wealth and are envious of Brick’s status as favorite son (LitCharts). The family is preoccupied with wealth, status, and appearances over genuine relationships. Finally, much of the play examines the facades the characters construct to hide unpleasant truths. Brick’s alcoholism, Big Daddy’s fatal health issues, and Brick and Maggie’s strained marriage are all truths initially hidden behind pleasant appearances and lies.

Characters

The main characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are:

Brick Pollitt – The troubled former football hero who drinks to numb his pain and distances himself from his wife Margaret. Cited from https://www.sparknotes.com/drama/cat/characters/

Margaret “Maggie” Pollitt – Brick’s determined and passionate wife who struggles to regain Brick’s affection. Referenced from https://www.litcharts.com/lit/cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof/characters

Big Daddy Pollitt – The wealthy plantation owner and Brick’s father who is obsessed with leaving his wealth to his son. Cited from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_on_a_Hot_Tin_Roof

Mae “Sister Woman” Pollitt – Big Daddy’s wife and Brick’s mother. Referenced from https://www.sparknotes.com/drama/cat/characters/

Gooper “Brother Man” Pollitt – Big Daddy’s eldest son who competes with Brick to inherit the plantation. Cited from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_on_a_Hot_Tin_Roof

Plot Summary

The play is set at the plantation home of wealthy cotton tycoon Big Daddy Pollitt in the Mississippi Delta. Brick, an alcoholic ex-football player, drinks away his days and resists the affections of his wife, Maggie. Big Daddy’s cancer diagnosis during his 65th birthday celebration brings the family together. Throughout the play, family tensions arise over Big Daddy’s fortune and inheritance.

Brick’s drinking worsened after the suicide of his friend Skipper, leading to estrangement from Maggie. Maggie believes Skipper confessed romantic feelings for Brick before his death, which Brick denies. Maggie also suspects Brick’s football career ended over his refusal to give up his friendship with Skipper [1].

During the celebration, the family learns Big Daddy does not have long to live despite incorrect initial diagnoses. Big Daddy’s wife Big Mama is in denial about his true condition. Meanwhile, Brick’s brother Gooper and his wife Mae angle for control over the family fortune. Gooper and Mae’s “no-neck monsters,” their children, would inherit if Brick and Maggie have no heir.

Tensions heighten between Brick and Maggie, who can provide Big Daddy’s desired grandson. After an argument with Big Daddy, Brick explains he set up the drinking and suicide of his depressing friend Skipper. However, Brick remains vague about their relationship and denies having feelings beyond friendship for Skipper [2].

Critical Reception

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof received mostly positive reviews upon its premiere, with critics praising Tennessee Williams’ writing and well-developed characters. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called it a “superb drama” and described Big Daddy as “one of the monumental figures of our time.” The play was noted for its emotional intensity and poetic dialogue.

However, some critics felt the play was too long and the third act was weaker than the first two. They also questioned the ambiguous ending which left some matters unresolved. Harold Clurman of The Nation felt the ending was “inconclusive” and objected to the “calculated opacity” in some of the dialogue and characters’ motivations. But overall the play was recognized as a powerful portrayal of a Southern family in crisis.

Legacy

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is considered a classic of American theater. Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play in 1955. It has had numerous successful Broadway revivals, including a production starring Elizabeth Ashley and Keir Dullea in 1974 that ran for nearly a year, and a revival starring Ashley Judd and Jason Patric in 2003.

the play has had numerous successful broadway revivals over the decades

There have been several film adaptations of the play as well. The most famous is the 1958 film directed by Richard Brooks and starring Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie. Despite some censorship to downplay the homosexual themes, the film was a box office success and garnered 6 Academy Award nominations.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof inspired a whole genre of dysfunctional family dramas that explored taboo themes like greed, sexual desire and dysfunction. The play paved the way for other writers to explore previously forbidden topics on the stage. Its influence can be seen in everything from family TV dramas to films like American Beauty.

Conclusion

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is considered one of Tennessee Williams’ greatest works and a classic of American theater. The play explores complex themes of greed, secrets, mendacity, and sexuality through the dysfunctional Pollitt family. Key points about the play include:

  • It debuted on Broadway in 1955, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara and Burl Ives. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955.
  • The 1958 film adaptation directed by Richard Brooks starred Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives, garnering multiple Oscar nominations.
  • Brick’s repressed homosexuality, Maggie’s determination, Big Daddy’s imminent death, and the family’s greed create dramatic tension and intriguing characters.
  • Williams uses the “cat on a hot tin roof” metaphor throughout to symbolize the characters’ discomfort with facing truths about themselves and each other.

The play had a significant impact on American theater. Its searing examination of truth, lies, greed and sexuality broke taboos and expanded the range of acceptable dramatic themes. Williams’ artful dialogue and complicated characters inspired later playwrights to tackle previously forbidden topics. The play’s success solidified Williams’ reputation and ushered in a golden age of American drama.

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