A second chance for Tennessee Williams

After winning acclaim for his plays "The Glass Menagerie" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Streetcar Named Desire," Tennessee Williams felt his career was slipping away.

Critics had panned his 1953 play "Camino Real" as incomprehensible, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Dramaturg Lydia Garcia told an audience gathered in OSF's Carpenter Hall on Saturday.

Dozens came to hear her insider's take on Williams and his plays during the first of a series of OSF spring lectures that offer insight into plays and playwrights.

"Critics couldn't figure out the story," Garcia said about the badly received 1953 play. "Williams' career was in a state of disrepair. He was in danger of falling into oblivion."

Williams was writing a new play and began working with theater and film director Elia Kazan, who quickly began pressing for rewrites.

The revised play — the now-classic "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" — opened on Broadway in 1955 and was a popular and critical success, earning Williams another Pulitzer.

The ending in Williams' early version of the play was bitter, but pushed by Kazan, Williams made the ending for the Broadway version more positive.

The play deals with members of a family circling like sharks around wealthy but cancer-ridden Big Daddy.

Big Daddy's son, Brick, has given up on life, while Brick's wife Maggie still has ambitions and desires.

Williams wanted to end the play with Brick saying he wishes he could believe that Maggie loves him.

Under Kazan's influence, Williams changed the play, even inserting a line where Brick says he admires Maggie, while Maggie declares that she can make Brick want to live again through the power of her love.

Williams later discussed the difficulties he had in bowing to popular demands in a 1957 interview. The interviewer asked him why he didn't write about "nice" people.

"It's hard enough for me to write what I want to write without me trying to write what people want me to write which I don't want to write," Williams retorted.

A 1958 film of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" eviscerated Williams' play still further.

Screenwriters had to deal with censorship codes that banned them from making any references to homosexuality.

In the play, Brick's depression and desire to drink himself to death is related to the death of his best friend, Skipper. The play suggests that Brick and Skipper may have been attracted to each other.

The screenwriters removed that subtext of the play.

"The movie couldn't get into all that," Garcia said. "It became a movie about Brick not being able to grow up."

Williams himself was gay but didn't publicly come out until 1970 during a television interview with David Frost — the same Frost of "Frost/Nixon" fame who got former President Richard Nixon to tacitly admit his guilt in Watergate during a 1977 interview.

Williams met the love of his life in 1963. They were together for many years until Williams' partner died of a heart attack.

In the 1970s, American society was changing.

That helped set the stage for Williams to rewrite "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" yet again.

"Fortunately for him, sometimes a writer does get a second chance," Garcia said. "In the 1970s, Williams was approached about revisiting 'Cat.' Homosexuality could be treated more openly. He wrote the 'Cat' he always intended to write."

The revised version of the play opened in 1974 and was a success. It contained a far more ambiguous ending than the hopeful ending from the 1955 Broadway hit.

OSF opened the newer version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in the Angus Bowmer Theatre on Feb. 20. It will run through July 4.

"What is 'Cat' about? Nothing short of the truth — the truth of the human experience, the truth about family, the truth about relationships," Garcia said.

OSF has scheduled other lectures for people interested in getting an insider's perspective on the 2010 season. The noon lectures take place in historic Carpenter Hall, just uphill from the OSF Box Office. Tickets are $8 for adults who aren't OSF members, $7 for members and $6 for youths ages six through 17.

The talks will cover:

  • "Well" on March 20 with Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit;
  • "Pride and Prejudice" on April 3 with Director Libby Appel;
  • "Hamlet" on April 17 with Artistic Director Bill Rauch;
  • "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on May 1, with Director Christopher Liam Moore discussing family dynamics in the play;
  • OSF's first 50 years as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Associate Producer Kimberley Jean Barry will be the speaker.

For more information, visit www.osfashland.org.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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