Tennessee Williams was obsessed by dishonesty, betrayal, and deliberate cruelty. As Blanche Dubois says in Streetcar:
Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the most unforgiveable thing in my opinion, and the one thing in which I have never, ever been guilty.In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth he is particularly eloquent about this obsession and both plays are so brutally honest that they were significantly altered when produced for Broadway and Hollywood. Although both Cat and Sweet Bird were finely nuanced and left room for redemption, they looked so unflinchingly at ambition, self-interest, and moral indifference that they could never have been written with an entirely happy ending.
Both Elia Kazan’s rewrite for the Broadway production of Cat and Richard Brooks’ and James Poe’s Hollywood screenplay are far more hopeful and romantic than Williams’ vision ever was. Brook’s screenplay of Sweet Bird of Youth similarly distorted the playwright’s intent.
Hollywood, of course, is in the business of happy endings. In The Player, Robert Altman’s satire on Hollywood, Griffin Mill and June Gudmunsdottir have this exchange. Mill, a producer is explaining why he turned down June’s lover’s script:
Griffin Mill: It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.Yet what is it about these two plays which required such alteration? Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello are produced for both stage and screen with few major edits. While Hamlet is always edited for time (if unedited it would be a four-hour play), it is rarely altered to change the intent of Shakespeare. Othello murdered out of jealousy, ignorance, and misogyny and was unrepentant about his murder of Desdemona, explaining to his judges that he did the world a favor by eliminating another duplicitous, deceiving woman. Macbeth was cruel and morally indifferent and one of the playwright’s least sympathetic characters. Hamlet was a tangle of sexual frustrations, moral confusion, and a lack of will. Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Albany, and Cornwall have no redeeming features and display the worst of human nature.
June: What elements?
Griffin Mill: Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.
June: What about reality?
Shakespeare’s vision is far more disturbing than anything Williams ever devised; and yet he is the playwright that producers tamper with.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Brick is obsessed by ‘mendacity’, and although he criticizes others for their refusal to face the truth, he knows that he is the most dishonest of all. While others lie to fool others, Brick lies to fool himself; and because he cannot face his own truth, he drinks to forget it.
Gooper and his wife keep the truth about his cancer to give them more time to ingratiate themselves to be the principal beneficiaries of his will; and Big Daddy’s wife is complicit in this mendacious and self-serving silence.
Big Daddy has lied to his wife for years; but neither leaves her nor confronts her with his distaste for her ignorant loyalty and lack of spirit and will.
Maggie believes she is honest, but she lies, deceives, and manipulates more than anyone else. She justifies her duplicity by saying:
Always I had to suck up to people I couldn’t stand because they had money and I was as poor as Job’s turkey. You don’t know what that’s like….how it feels to be as poor as Job’s turkey and have to suck up to relatives you hated because they had money and all you had was a bunch of hand-me-down clothes and a few old moldy three percent government bonds…Later she makes very clear what she wants out of Brick – to make him not into the Adonis she loved at Ole Miss but into the respectable burgher who can responsibly inherit Big Daddy’s wealth and manage his vast holdings:
You’re a perfect candidate for Rainbow Hill (drug rehab clinic for the rich), Baby, and that’s where they aim to ship you – over my dead body! Then Brother Man (Brick’s brother) could get a-hold of the purse strings and dole out remittances to us, maybe get the power of attorney and sign checks for us and cut off our credit wherever, whenever he wanted…Well, you’ve been doin’ just about everything in our power to bring it about, to aid and abet them in this scheme of theirs…Maggie does everything she can to discredit Gooper and Mae. She ingratiates herself with Big Daddy, knowing that he is sexually attracted to her. She is solicitous to Big Momma and plays the role of dutiful daughter-in-law.
In a world of mendacity Maggie believes she is the only one capable of dealing with the complexity of truth. In one way she is right, for she can indeed see through appearance and recognize the truth about others and herself. She is the first to acknowledge Big Daddy's cancer and the illusions the family creates. "Nobody says, 'You're dying.' You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves."
She feel that by confessing her motivations, she will bring Brick out of his self-absorbed funk and join her in her ambitions:
I'm not good. I don't know why people have to pretend to be good, nobody's good. The rich or the well-to-do can afford to respect moral patterns, conventional moral patterns, but I could never afford to, yeah, but--I'm honest! Give me credit for just that, will you please?She indeed is not good. She deliberately destroys Brick’s close friend, Skipper, by exposing his homosexuality, humiliating his ineptness with her and all women, and encouraging his suicide. She lies about her pregnancy and is as manipulative and scheming of any character in the play.
In the final lines of the play, Maggie tells Brick that she really loves him, and he responds, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”
In Kazan’s Broadway edition, the play ends instead with this soliloquy by Maggie:
Oh you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of – and I can! I’m determined to do it – and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a hot tin roof – is there? Is there, baby?In the original version Williams’ offers a conditional hope that Brick might have been wrong in his dismissal of Maggie as another mendacious member of the family; and that Maggie might indeed be more than the selfish, manipulative woman she clearly seemed to be. Yet it is clear that the hope is far less than conditional. It is manufactured and a familiar expression of Maggie’s will and Brick’s weakness.
The Broadway version dismisses the idea of hope and personal redemption and replaces it with a can-do optimism. Maggie is a benign Hedda Gabler, a woman of will and purpose; but far from the malicious and amoral designs of Ibsen’s character, one who can act in both her interest and that of someone else.
Sweet Bird of Youth is a play about ambition and deceit. Chance Wayne is a gigolo with Hollywood ambitions, and when he meets and preys on Alexandra del Lago, an aging Hollywood star who feels weak, vulnerable, and hopeless after what she believes is a disastrous screen performance – one which shows her as an old woman with faded talent.
Chance services and uses her in the hopes of getting a Hollywood screen test. When he meets her he is as wounded as she is – both aging performers of their profession; and she begins to love him for his weak misunderstanding of mortality. They, at the moment of the play, are one and the same.
At the most critical moment of the play when she is feeling most needy, most dependent, most human, and most generous, he rejects her for the young lover he was forced to abandon a number of years before. When she receives a call from Walter Winchell, an influential Hollywood columnist, telling her that her movie was not the disaster she fled from, but an unequivocal success, she reverts to her old, arrogant, mean, and selfish self and rejects Chance.
The movie version has a Hollywood ending. Alexandra del Lago returns to Hollywood to acclaim, and Chance although beaten up by Boss Finley’s thugs, goes off with Heavenly, his young former lover.
The original Williams version ends with Chance getting castrated by Finley’s son; but before he is, he and Alexandra talk philosophically about time, age, and death.
CHANCE: Princess, the age of some people can only be calculated by the level of – level of – rot in them. And by that measure, I’m ancient.Is Tennessee Williams’ vision distorted for Hollywood when Shakespeare’s is not because his characters are modern and therefore more recognizable? Is it because with a few tweaks and edits his plays can easily be transformed into Hollywood?
PRINCESS: What am I? – I know, dead, as old as Egypt…Isn’t it funny? We’re sitting side by side in this room, like we were occupying the same bench on a train – going on together…
CHANCE: No, listen. I didn’t know there was a clock in this room.
PRINCESS: I guess there’s a clock in every room people live in…
CHANCE: It goes tick-tick, it’s quieter than your heart-beat, but it’s slow dynamiter, a gradual explosion, blasting the world we lived in to burnt-out pieces….
PRINCESS: Yes, time…
CHANCE: Gnaws away like a rat gnaws off its own foot caught in a trap; and then with its foot gnawed off, and the rat set free, couldn’t run, couldn’t go, bled and died…
Williams’s plays are very close to melodrama. His lyrical language, his delicate, vulnerable characters, undercurrents of sexuality, vaguely disguised themes of incest are saved only by the persistence of his belief. Dishonesty, deceit, mendacity, and especially human cruelty are unforgivable.
There is something very melodramatic if not campy about Blanche Dubois and her ‘kindness of strangers’, something very close to caricature about Stanley. Suddenly Last Summer is very much grand guignol with murder, cannibalism, and incest the themes.
The plays of Williams like those of Arthur Miller, O’Neill, and Albee make good Hollywood because of their inherent melodrama. Mourning Becomes Electra is almost laughingly soap opera. All My Sons although a powerful morality play, is pretentious and very easily caricatured. Albee is the least melodramatic of his colleagues, but American Dream is no less grand guignol than O’Neill’s early plays.
Tweaking any of these plays to make them Hollywood-ready is no surprise. They were meant for the movies and are great American entertainment.
Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekov are uncompromisingly honest and very pessimistic about the human condition. although their plays have been adapted for the screen, they are period pieces, part of a classical theatre archive rather than real movies.
The screen adaptations of Williams have all been big box-office hits, with good reason. Important themes – life, death, struggle, etc. – are there, but massaged into happy endings and redemption.
He may be America’s greatest playwright, but for many he skates too close to afternoon television.