Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

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BBC Radio 3, 16 March 2008

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of those classics whose sheer familiarity might have blunted its dramatic force. Memories of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in Richard Brooks’ sanitized film adaptation tend to obscure the fact that Williams’ play represents a plea for sexual tolerance in a world riddled with conformity. The mid-50s was a time when the ideology of domesticity dominated official American culture: women were actively encouraged to get married, have children and look after the home while men functioned as breadwinners. Only then, it was assumed, would the population increase sufficiently to put the country on its feet once again after the Second World War. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof shows the underlying repressiveness of this ideology.


Andy Jordan’s radio revival proved a revelation, as it showed how Maggie (Elizabeth McGovern) and Brick (Marcus D’Amico) were fundamentally lonely people, unable either to communicate with one another or fulfill their family responsibilities. Instead they elected to live in a world of self-absorption, symbolically expressed by Brick’s obsessive drinking. Although Tennessee Williams can hardly be described as modernist (in the mold of Beckett, for instance), he shares their preoccupation with non-communication. Brick and Maggie might talk endlessly, but they seldom listen to each other. Jordan underlined this through the technique of overlapping voices; frequently the ends of sentences were lost.


Jordan also focused on the idea of individual suffering in a society committed to a specific goal – as symbolized by Gooper (Clive Carter) and Mae (Alison Steadman), who already have five children with a sixth on the way. In such a world, alternative sexualities mean nothing to anyone. Jordan underlined this aspect through abrupt changes of mood – a soliloquy was followed by the introduction of another sound effect (the opening of a door, a childish scream, and so on), suggesting that no one was actually bothering to acknowledge another person’s views. The only sympathy that Maggie and Brick could expect, as they talked about their respective difficulties, was from the listeners themselves.


The performances were uniformly excellent from McGovern, Joss Ackland as Big Daddy, Gemma Jones as Big Mama. If Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (broadcast a week earlier) showed how individuals were dehumanized in early twentieth century America, this revival of Cat showed that little had changed three decades later.

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