'Cat' and 'Picnic' again
Tennessee Williams discovered William Inge. Inge was writing for the St. Louis Times, and he was tremendously moved by The Glass Menagerie. He interviewed Williams. The two hit it off. Inge confessed he was an aspiring playwright. Williams asked to see what he was working on. Inge shared; Williams admired. Williams recommended Inge to his agent, Audrey Wood. Audrey Wood was impressed and Inge was on his way.
Through much of the fifties, Williams and Inge were two of the most successful playwrights in New York. This year, two of their Pulitzer Prize-winning plays are being revived on Broadway. Inge’s Picnic (which premiered in 1953) and Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) are both portraits of Fifties life far from the east to where their authors had fled and where they became celebrated. (By the by, both works also have a connection to Paul Newman. Picnic was Newman’s first Broadway show. He started in a supporting role, then moved to the lead. He starred in the film version of Cat.)
Picnic takes place in a small town in Kansas and Cat on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta. The weather in both plays is hot. You can practically feel the clothes sticking with sweat to the characters. Former football players are the leading male characters in both. Hal in Picnic is a drifter whose arrival upsets a bunch of single women of different ages. Brick is an alcoholic husband who withholds his affections from his wife. Both guys are defined by their hunkdom and both, to a degree, resent this definition. But neither of them has much in the way of other talents.
What interests me about both plays is the women. In Cat, we tend to sympathize with Maggie, Brick’s wife, because the play begins with her. She has a virtuosic aria sporadically interrupted by her resisting husband in which she vividly explores the dilemma of loving a man who is, at worst, indifferent to her, or, almost as bad, claims to hate her. Brick’s father, an exuberant and vulgar planter everyone calls Big Daddy, has just received news that what he thought was cancer is a minor condition. The news is a lie, and Brick and Maggie know it. Big Daddy is indeed facing the end and one of the questions of the play is whether Brick or his less-than-appetizingly-named brother, Gooper, will be named as heir to the place. Maggie is afraid that if Gooper and his wife Mae get to take the reins, she and Brick will be forced to live on a leash. Since Maggie and Mae can’t stand each other and there is little warmth between Gooper and Brick, this is not a happy prospect. So Maggie is doing whatever she can to curry favor with Big Daddy on Brick’s behalf. Except that Brick doesn’t seem to care much.
We are set up to like Maggie more, but the truth is that she and Mae are both after the same thing. And Brick’s mother, Big Mama, also turns out to be pretty practical and hard-headed when push comes to shove. I think this is Williams suggesting that, while men are prone to distract themselves with self-pity (Brick) and appetite (Big Daddy), the women are the ones who really take care of business.
In Picnic, as I mentioned above, all the women are single—widowed, abandoned or unmarried. The appearance of hunky Hal stirs them up with possibility. The self-described old maid schoolteacher, Rosemary, makes a particular spectacle of herself when, having downed a couple of drinks and put aside her inhibitions, she claws at the young man to the point of ripping his shirt and exposing his (gasp) chest.
For both Williams and Inge, repression of natural instincts was unhealthy. In Splendor in the Grass, a screenplay Inge wrote that was directed by Elia Kazan (who also directed much of Williams’s stage and film work), Deanie (played by the young Natalie Wood) clocks some time in a mental institution as a result of being prevented by the conservative morals of her small town from being allowed to have a healthy relationship with Bud Stamper (played by the young Warren Beatty). And in play after play, Williams equates a healthy expression of romantic urges as a natural part of being human.
Aside from the pleasures that the plays of these two writers offer (and the pleasures of the current productions of their plays), I am interested in the phenomenon of these (and other) gay writers being in the vanguard of writing candidly about heterosexual passion. I don’t have a theory as to why this should be so, but it’s a pattern that continued to be seen in plays by gay writers in later decades. (In 1987, Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally wrote, respectively, Burn This and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune—both about withdrawn women courted passionately by exuberant men who cook for them.)
In history’s rear-view mirror, I see Picnic and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as plays that reflect the values of the fifties. Much of the misery the characters in both plays suffer are a result of repression. One of the theories that some critics offer about some of the plays by Williams and Inge is that, not living at a time when openly gay characters were yet welcome on the stage, they felt obliged to write in a kind of code about being homosexual in America. If you accept this theory, then the stories about the frustration of healthy heterosexual impulses being self-destructive can be interpreted as the self-destructive consequences of gays staying in the closet.
In 1970, Lanford Wilson wrote what I consider to be a breakthrough play called Lemon Sky. In some respects, it resembles Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire. In both cases, a sensitive central character comes to live in a household dominated by an old-fashioned “guy’s guy.” In Streetcar, Blanche confronts her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. In Lemon Sky, teenage Alan confronts a father he hasn’t seen in years. In both cases, the “guy’s guy” drives the sensitive central character from the house. In Streetcar, the play ends with Blanche unmoored from reality and on her way to an institution. In Lemon Sky, at the end, Alan is looking for a home in which he doesn’t have to deny himself.
The new world that Alan/Lanford found was in Greenwich Village in New York in the sixties. Lanford, of course, thrived there, joining Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, William H. Hoffman, Mart Crowley, and Larry Kramer as the first generation of gay playwrights to write open, non-coded plays reflecting their experience.
The endings of Picnic and Cat are seemingly upbeat but, on closer examination, ambiguous. The hunk in Picnic runs off with the local girl he has just met, presumably to marry. In Cat, we sense that Maggie is going to prevail over Brick and at least get him to help in producing the heir Big Daddy so wants from him. But, as I say, on closer examination, Hal and Madge really aren’t very bright; neither of them has any discernable skills and they probably will end up broke and miserable in a crummy apartment somewhere. As for Brick and Maggie, my hunch is that, after Big Daddy’s death, Maggie will take over the running of the plantation while Brick continues to drink in his room.