Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cat's Condition

The recent Indiana University Theater production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof did not disappoint, as I feared it would. I was concerned that it might pale against the memory of a London production some ten years ago that starred Brendan Frazer and Ned Beatty in the roles of Brick and Big Daddy. It did not. It was well acted and admirably staged.

What struck me instead was how commonplace and less fraught the two central dramatic themes—cancer and homosexuality—have become since the play was first performed in 1955. Mendacity is the catchword. Everyone is lying. Big Daddy has been lied to about his aggressive cancer, which will soon kill him. Brick is lying about his relationship with Skipper, a “pure” friendship that nowadays can only be seen as latently, if not overtly, gay. But Brick’s lie is as much for himself as for the family, and his own mendacity drives him to drink.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1963) achieved recognition as a playwright after years of toiling in obscurity. His star finally rose with the 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie. He was at his best in the 1940s and 1950s. Williams’ genre is Southern tragedy. His plots tend to be Shakespearean in character. In Cat the king is dying. Big Daddy’s plantation empire is at stake. Rival brothers and their rapacious wives have gathered for the end that everyone except the king knows is coming. Big Daddy has been kept in the dark by the family’s treacherous secrecy and his own self-delusion. Big Daddy is lying to himself as much as Brick is lying to himself about their respective conditions.

But the conditions have lost the punch they had half a century ago. Cancer, while potentially devastating, is no longer spoken of in whispers. In Cat it is regarded as an automatic death sentence, which it usually was in the 1950s. Similarly, Brick’s homosexuality, whether he ever acted on it or not, is a dirty secret, one that has driven him into alcoholism—and drove his “friend” Skipper to suicide. Of course, homophobia and guilt still drive people to suicide today; the cyberbullying and gay teen suicide statistics are appalling. But being gay—or having homosexual thoughts—are no longer discussed only in whispers. More than a dozen U.S. states and several counties allow gay marriage. The world has changed. Mendacity regarding cancer and homosexuality is no longer the norm, no longer the stuff of great drama.

Williams’ Cat is well crafted, a classic perhaps, but no longer contemporary. The larger issues of the dying king and the lies people tell to delude themselves and others are as timeless as they are in Shakespeare. But the twin vehicles of Williams’ drama—cancer and homosexuality—throw the play into the class of historical drama. They are horse-and-buggy themes in a hybrid electric era. That said, it is no less watchable. Cat still offers an evening of compelling drama.