Monday, April 09, 2012


More thoughts upon seeing Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

In the 1958 film version of Cat  Elizabeth Taylor gives a sharp performance as Maggie the Cat, Paul Newman portrays an anguished Brick, and Burl Ives is the wise, omnipotent, and fatally vulnerable Big Daddy.

Film censorship in the 50s cut the dialog between Big Daddy and Brick considerably, taking me back to the script that Joe gave me in 2010. Some things have changed greatly since  Tennessee Williams wrote this play; some things have not. The play is clearly about the lies we tell each other and, more importantly, the lies we tell ourselves. Williams exposes as well the gulf between those who are selfish and incapable of love, and those for whom love is essential, not only love for others, but love of life. One irony of the play is the sterility of Gooper and Mae despite all their children, and the potent fertility of Maggie despite being childless.

What interests me, as always, is the philosophical presentation of Eros and Thanatos, love and death. Brick is unable until the end of the play to love Maggie, again ironically, because he failed to love Skipper. He refuses to confront the truth of their love for each other until the key scenes between his father and himself. Big Daddy turns out to be more tolerant and understanding of homosexual love than Brick, who experienced it and ran from it, leaving Skipper to commit suicide. Only by confronting his own homophobia, by acknowledging the true nature of the love that existed between himself and his friend, can Brick finally forgive himself and accept the relationship he has with his wife.

The final irony of the play is that Big Daddy can live fully only by accepting his approaching death. In the dialogs with Brick he sees his own mistakes, he turns from the material wealth he has to the wealth of humanity around him, the love of his son, the loyalty of his servants and workers, appreciation for the value of the final days of his life. 

The play may be dated, and the film  inhibited, but the themes it explores are not. We are still influenced by the vast mendacity that surrounds us in the shallow mores of society, the hypocrisy of religion, and the materialism of many around us, often including our families. Conformity is as difficult as ever to escape, no less for those of us who are creative and artistic than those who are athletes and jocks like Brick. Originality and authenticity are mere words to most of us; achieving them requires us to risk being "Beaten down dark stairs" by people in authority, by those who are quick to judge by codes of conduct-- and worst of all by those we love and trust.

Whenever I see a play of this caliber, or see a profound film, or read a good novel, or  listen to certain songs and music, I wonder if it is possible that people experience such art without effect. My identity, my values, whatever authenticity I have, all grow and evolve thanks to the art and philosophy I encounter. What good is any art or philosophy that doesn't shape the way we live and the choices we make?


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