Saturday 23 November 2019

Tennessee Williams and his life as the cat on a hot tin roof

Colin Murphy

Elizabeth Taylor may have played the original cat on a hot tin roof, in the 1958 film, but the real cat was the writer, Tennessee Williams.

Williams took the title for his play, and film, from the phrase "nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof". At the centre of the play, which is currently running at Dublin's Gate Theatre, is a skittish young Southern belle, Maggie (Liz Taylor's character).

Maggie is plagued by nerves as she watches her husband retreat from her into wilful alcoholism. This vulnerability echoes throughout Tennessee Williams's famous female leads -- most iconically in Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

And it is a vulnerability that resounds through Tennessee's 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 by depression and neurosis -- his "blue devils".

He was also haunted by his own homosexuality. Gore Vidal wrote of Tennessee's guilt over his sexuality: "At some deep level Tennessee truly believes that the homosexualist is wrong and the heterosexualist is right." (These quotes, and the others in this piece, are taken from Ronald Hayman's excellent biography.)

Tennessee lived an itinerant life, constantly fleeing his demons. By his own account, 35pc of his energy went into "the perpetual struggle against lunacy", 50pc went on work, and the remaining 15pc was expended on friends and lovers.

His friendships and relationships were erratic. Elia Kazan, who directed the legendary film of Streetcar, 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".

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 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".

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 men who have died before the play starts, having killed themselves following altercations with the plays' leading ladies.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the male lead, Brick -- played by Paul Newman -- is apparently gay, but in denial. Yet in the film, the ambiguous ending was sacrificed for Hollywood romanticism, and Brick's heterosexuality triumphantly reasserted itself.

Tennessee made some of his early money as a scriptwriter at MGM. The first script 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".

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, he had started work on a story that would become the play The Glass Menagerie.

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 prescription medicines.

By the mid-1950s, he couldn't work without medication. "(I'm) now half in and half out of the conscious world," he wrote. "It is pretty good here."

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 on to 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. But he lived till 1983.

His end, when it came, aged 71, was pathetic rather than tragic. He retired to bed with a bottle of wine and various drugs, and took two Seconal tablets to help him sleep. He apparently used the cap from a bottle of eye drops to take the tablets; 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.

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