Friday, September 16, 2011

Why I love Tennessee Williams' stage directions -- and Elizabeth Taylor, too


In his many plays, Tennessee Williams often wrote stage directions that bordered on philosophical, maybe even existential. Whereas most playwrights would simply write a stage direction such as, "Brick slams down another Kentucky bourbon," Tennessee would often wax poetic.

Case in point are the following stage directions from Act Two of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which I recently reread for the 5,432th time):

"Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can; but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience."

I like to imagine some fledgling community theater director, scratching his or her head, wondering exactly how to depict those particular stage directions? But really, these are instructions not so much for directors but for anyone in general and aspiring playwrights in particular (the ranks of whom I have recently joined).

Speaking of Cat, I recently watched a 1976 TV version starring Laurence Olivier (hamming it up as Big Daddy), Robert Wagner (as Brick), and Natalie Wood (as Maggie the Cat). Wagner and Wood were much better than I expected, and the TV adaptation is at least truer to the original source than the famously bowdlerized 1958 movie. That said, Wood was no Elizabeth Taylor, who played Maggie in the movie. While Wood and Taylor were both gorgeous, the latter possessed more 'steeliness,' which is vital to the character. (Maggie the Cat is basically a female variation on the Marlon Brando character in A Streetcar Named Desire.) For instance, in the 1958 movie, a "no-neck monster" throws ice cream on Taylor. Rest assured that if, in real life, you had thrown ice cream on Elizabeth Taylor, you would not have lived to see sundown.

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