Who was the cat on the hot tin roof?
Elizabeth Taylor was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the skittish Southern belle, Maggie, in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But the real cat was Tennessee Williams himself.
Williams took the title from the phrase “nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.” In the play (which is currently running at Dublin’s Gate Theatre), Maggie is the nervy wife of a stoical young drunk, crippled with anxiety about the collapse of their relationship and his evident distaste for her.,
Tennessee made many of his female leads similarly vulnerable, most famously the tragic Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. It is a vulnerability that resounds through his own life story.
Born in 1911 in Mississippi, his family was afflicted by mental illness. His father was an alcoholic and his elder sister, Rose, was schizophrenic. Tennessee was haunted all his life by depression and neurosis, his “blue devils,” which were “like having wild cats under my skin.” (These quotes, and the others in this piece, are taken from Ronald Hayman’s excellent biography.)
He was also haunted by his own homosexuality. His father, a hard and embittered man, who once had part of his ear bitten off in a fight over a poker game, taunted Tennessee for his effeminacy, calling him Miss Nancy. Tennessee’s friend Gore Vidal later wrote that Tennessee was tormented with a fundamental guilt about his sexuality: “at some deep level Tennessee truly believes that the homosexualist is wrong and the heterosexualist is right.”
He was tormented by “interior storms that show remarkably little from the outside but which create a deep chasm between myself and all other people, even deeper than the relatively ordinary ones of homosexuality and being an artist.”
Despite finding fame and fortune relatively early (he was in his early 30s when he had his first great hit, with The Glass Menagerie), he worked with a frantic, even desperate, energy, and moved constantly, seeking new inspiration and respite from his anxieties. His was “a life full of rented rooms.”
Regularly exhausted, he broke down his life as follows: 35 per cent of his energy went into “the perpetual struggle against lunacy,” 50 per cent went on working, and worry about work, and the remaining 15 per cent was expended on friends and lovers.
But at times of pressure, he put 89 per cent into his work, he said, leaving ten per cent for “the fight against lunacy” and just one per cent for friends and lovers.
Accordingly, his friendships and relationships were erratic. Elia Kazan, who directed the legendary film of Streetcar, with Marlon Brando, said Tennessee “lived like a fugitive from justice,” looking for places “populated by his own kind: artists, romantics, freaks of one kind or another, cast-offs, those rejected by respectable society.”
His biographer, Ronald Hayman, concludes that Tennessee was “better at communicating with strangers – either during a one-night affair or by writing plays.”
Affairs and plays both absorbed his sexual energy. “I cannot write any sort of story unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire,” he said. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that character is Maggie’s husband, Brick, who is “firm and slim as a boy”. In Streetcar, it is Stanley Kowalski, who has an “animal joy in his being.”
Most memorable of all his character descriptions, though, must be that of Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth: he has “the kind of body that white silk pyjamas are, or ought to be, made for.” (Try acting that.)
Working as a scriptwriter in Hollywood during the War, he took advantage of the nightly blackouts (in anticipation of Japanese air raids) that made cruising easier. One notable pick-up was a young sailor. “I wouldn’t believe it if it were not recorded in my journal of that summer, but I screwed him seven times that night,” he later recalled.
And yet, when homosexuality is referenced in his plays, it is with deep ambiguity. Both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar reference gay characters who have died before the play starts, killing themselves following sexual altercations with the plays’ leading ladies.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the male lead, Brick, is ostensibly (by today’s standards) gay, but denying it to himself. (Tennessee later said of the character that he went “no further” sexually with his male friend than holding hands in a shared hotel room, “and yet – his sexual nature was nor innately ‘normal’.”)
Yet in the film of the play, which starred Liz Taylor and Paul Newman, the ambiguous ending is sacrificed for the reassurance of Hollywood romanticism, and Brick’s heterosexuality triumphantly reasserts itself.
(The Gate production is very uneven, but it is far better than the film, which, despite a performance of nuanced vulnerability by Liz Taylor, is tedious and uncertain.)
Tennessee’s career had started when, at 28, he won a playwriting competition for under 25s (he lied about his age). At 32, in 1943, he was hired by the film studio MGM as a scriptwriter. The first job he was given was a rewrite of a vehicle for the 23-year-old sensation, Lana Turner. Tennessee described the film as “a celluloid brassiere,” and said of Turner that she “couldn’t act her way out of her form-fitting brassieres.”
That script was taken off him, and he was given a vehicle for the child actress Margaret O’Brien, whom he described as “a smaller and more loathsome version of Shirley Temple.” He was fired shortly after. By then, though, he had started work on a story that later became the play The Glass Menagerie.
The writer Christopher Isherwood befriended him in Hollywood, and visited his apartment. He described Tennessee working “amidst a litter of dirty coffee cups, crumpled bed linen, and old newspapers… He works till he’s tired, eats when he feels like it, sleeps when he can’t stay awake.”
Work was one way Tennessee sought to escape his “blue devils;” drink and drugs were another. He suffered from repeated nervous exhaustion, anxiety, hypochondria and insomnia, and gradually became addicted to prescribed medicines.
Eventually, they became intertwined. By the mid 1950s, he couldn’t work without being medicated. “(I’m) now half in and half out of the conscious world,” he wrote. “It is pretty good here. All the little black dwarfettes are still scuttling about, and a few hunchbacks, and the gigolo with the great melting eyes and tiny moustache is paying flatter court.”
He wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in that kind of state. Yet it hit a nerve. The Herald Tribune described him as the writer “who comes closest to hurling the actual blood and bone of life onto the stage.” The New York Times called the play “the quintessence of life.”
It may have seemed that he was going to drink or drug himself to death. (While writing Cat, and based for a while on the Riviera, he crashed his car while speeding. But his only injury was from his typewriter, which flew off the back seat and hit him on the head, provoking a bout of insomnia.) But he lived till 1983.
His end, when it came, was pathetic rather than tragic. He retired to bed with a bottle of wine and various drugs, including cocaine, and took two Seconal tablets to help him sleep. He apparently used the cap from a bottle of eye drops to take the tablets, and the cap somehow got caught in his throat, and he choked.
There was nothing romantic about his death, but there was extraordinary romance (of the dark variety) in his plays.