Pussy Galore

There's more than one way to stage a Cat

For 50 years the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which opens at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis this week, has been one of Tennessee Williams' most popular plays. In the half-century since its Broadway debut (only A Streetcar Named Desire ran longer there), it has been regularly revived on stage and on television.

Yet incredibly enough there is no single, standard acting edition of Cat. When the play was published, Williams exposed a rift between himself and director Elia Kazan as to how the drama should end. So the printed text included two third acts: the one that was staged on Broadway and the playwright's preferred script. But that was only the beginning of the confusion. In the years to come, various directors prevailed upon the obliging playwright to revise Cat for regional revivals.

"This play is absolutely up for grabs," says Marshall W. Mason, director of the Rep's Cat. "There is no correct, final, approved version that is this play. There are at least five different versions."

Marshall Mason revisits Tennessee.
Marshall Mason revisits Tennessee.

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Which of the five is Mason going to use? None of the above.

"I'm doing my own version," he says.

And thereby hangs a tale -- and a career.

In 1959, just four years after Cat debuted on Broadway, Marshall Mason was studying acting at Northwestern University and coming to terms with the fact that he wasn't as good an actor as he'd hoped to be. He was on the verge of switching to pre-law when a teacher suggested he might try directing. Mason had never considered the option, but there was one play -- and one only -- that he wanted to stage: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "I think it came from Tennessee's gut in a way that none of his other plays really do," Mason says. "I loved that play as if I had written it myself."

Which, in a way, is what Mason proceeded to do. At Northwestern he assembled a 70-minute cutting of Act One and Act Two only. "The third act is much weaker than the first two," he explains. "The first two acts provide a complete play with a complete message about the necessity for lying and the tragedy of how we cannot have pure ideals; we must compromise in order to live out our lives. The third act is only necessary if you really want to wind the story up."

The success of that student production changed Mason's life. He went on to become a prolific director. As the founding artistic director of off-Broadway's Circle Rep, he was closely allied with playwrights of his own generation like Lanford Wilson. But he also developed a friendship with Williams when he staged Tennessee's little-known Battle of Angels (which had closed in Boston during its pre-Broadway run), at the Circle. "He gave me a free hand to reshape the play," Mason recalls. "And he was very happy with the result." The two were about to revise one of Williams' final dramas, Something Cloudy, Something Clear, when Tennessee died unexpectedly on February 25, 1983 -- on Mason's 43rd birthday.

Now, 46 years after his first encounter with Cat, Mason is directing the play again. The foundation of his Rep production is that Northwestern cutting. He has also assembled a brief third act that borrows lines from various versions, including the 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives.

Mason's version views the story as a triad in which Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy are equally vital. "I don't see a leading role in this play," he says. "The title does suggest that the emphasis is on Maggie the Cat, but perhaps that's because in the long run Maggie is the only one of the three who survives."

Perhaps the ultimate survivor is Williams himself. More than two decades after his death, his plays continue to be staged around the world. "The most striking thing to me about Tennessee was his incredible sense of honesty," says Mason. "It was all about truth-telling. He would say anything, whether it was proper or right or social. If it was true, he'd say it. That's what he does in Cat, and that's why it's one of his very best."

 
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