Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749
When Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened at the Morosco Theatre in 1955 it starred Ben Gazzara as Brick, Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, and folk singer Burl Ives (in his first dramatic production) as Big Daddy. Reviewers considered the play a powerhouse of emotion and they recognized that...
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When Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened at the Morosco Theatre in 1955 it starred Ben Gazzara as Brick, Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, and folk singer Burl Ives (in his first dramatic production) as Big Daddy. Reviewers considered the play a powerhouse of emotion and they recognized that Williams had broken out of the slump he had been in since his success with A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. But they refused him unequivocal praise; instead, many of them chided Williams for toying around the edges of the play's "real" topic: homosexuality.
Walter Kerr, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, praised the performers only to accuse Williams of being "less than candid," of mislaying or deliberately hiding the "key" to the play. Eric Bentley, in New York magazine, noted too much concern about how everyone is doing in bed and declared that a writer has a duty not to be vague and unequivocal about his true topic. Although, in a 1955 interview with Arthur Waters for Theatre Arts, Williams flatly denied that Brick was a homosexual, a few sentences later he admitted that Brick felt some "unrealized abnormal tendencies" at "some time in his life." Of course, this interview could only serve to reaffirm a belief that Williams was ambivalent about the topic and that this ambivalence carried through to his play. Another fifteen years would pass before Williams would publicly discuss his own homosexuality, and his admission would do little to defray the commonly held opinion that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fails to engage the topic of homosexuality forthrightly. When the play was revived nineteen years after its initial opening, in a more sexually liberated America, the furor over the topic of homosexuality had abated, and both the language and the Pollitts' dramatic problems seemed more quaint than shocking.
Reviews of the 1974 revival shifted in focus but were no less harsh than the 1955 reviews. John Simon wrote in New York that the play was "worthy commercial fare, but not art," and he found fault with symbolism that recurred "ad nauseum." Simon called Brick a "nonentity," whose realization that the mendacity he hates is his own is made ambiguous by Williams's failure to explain whether Brick betrayed "his friend or his homosexuality." Other critics also sought to resurrect the play from overemphasis on the theme of homosexuality, suggesting that the core theme is and always had been about truth. Roger Ashton recognized this in 1955, asserting in his review in the New Republic: "Mr. Williams in this play is interested in something far more significant than one man's psychological makeup. He is interested in what may and may not be said about the truth as a motivating source in human life.''
From the very beginning, critics have focused on the play's violent passions and language. Marya Mannes in the Reporter called the 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a "special and compelling study of violence.'' Richard Hayes of Commonweal found it little more than an expression of this violence, with no central organizing structure: he judged the play "lacks almost wholly some binding integrity of experience." Robert Hatch writing for the Nation concurred, saying that, "without love and hope, discussion of vice and virtue becomes academic."
It is true that the play leaves several important questions unanswered, such as who will inherit the Pollitt plantation, whether Maggie will convince Brick to make the lie of her pregnancy true, and whether Brick will own up to his role in Skipper's death. In fact, director Elia Kazan had asked Williams to rewrite the third act to resolve what he felt was the play's flawed dramatic progression. Even with Williams's revisions to Act III, the play's narrative difficulties persisted. Nevertheless, critics had to admit that Williams had captured an intensity of feeling few others could accomplish. What the play may lack in narrative unity and progression it makes up for in lyric expressionism. The play is an aesthetic paradox: according to New York Post critic Richard Watts it is "insistently vulgar, morbid, neurotic and ugly [but it] still maintains a quality of exotic lyricism."
Despite the misgivings of the press, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a commercial success. It ran for 694 performances and won Williams his third New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and his second Pulitzer Prize. Today Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is counted as one of Williams's three significant contributions to American theater, along with A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.