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What makes a director turn a serious tragedy into a garish comedy on stage?

A review for Debbie Allen's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams*

West End theaters attract many tourists and therefore are oriented towards a wide audience. People who come to see a West End production expect to be entertained rather than challenged with existential, ethical, or moral questions. Debbie Allen’s popular Broadway production of a well-known play by Tennessee Williams seems to have been welcomed at Novello Theatre with this expectation. The very fact the play is advertised as “Sexy, starry entertainment” tells us that it is not striving for high artistic value. The combination of a popular venue and an all-black cast suggested to a casual entertainment consumer that a play with a catchy name Cat On A Hot Tin Roof would be a pleasurable evening pastime, humorous and not emotionally demanding, almost like a television show*. Black sitcoms have become increasingly popular in the past years, not only among the black community, but with all types of audience. It would not be surprising to find out that many people were expecting exactly this type of show, being unfamiliar with the text of the play or with the playwright himself. In his somewhat depressing play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Tennessee Williams addresses serious issues, such as alcoholism, homophobia, the boundaries of privacy, relationship between parents and children, unhappy marriages, rivalry between the members of the same family, their struggle for money, selfishness, and lies. But the people in the theater reacted as if it was a play about a casual family dinner. This was caused by a combination of choices Debbie Allen made about the attributes of the production (stage and costume design, acting, and music) that covered up the manifest tragic content of the play and allowed the audience to take it very lightly.

First, the tense, chaotic atmosphere created in the text is muted down by the opulent decorations. The color scheme chosen for the stage set consists of different shades of pink, purple, peach, and gold, with lush decorative details, such as and a splendid chandelier (which distracted me even more than the inappropriate laughter of the audience). It could be said that the designer’s (Morgan Large) intention is to emphasize the contrast between the luxurious beautiful living and the poor, superficial moral lives of the characters, but it completely destroys the depressing effect that reading the text produces. In stage directions, the author gives a very detailed layout of the room, he emphasizes the material of the furniture (wicker) and many other elements: a head piece of the bed with giant cornucopias (symbols of fertility), a painting of two cupids (love), a plain flat couch with a grey blanket, and particularly, one pillow on a double bed. All these details that Williams gives are supposed to sharpen the conflict between the husband and wife, their unsuccessful and childless marriage, and Brick’s indifferent attitude towards life. The author’s directions are completely ignored: the marital bed in strewn with puffy pillows and Brick’s couch is a baroque masterpiece of red and gold. Instead of emphasizing the tragic aspect of the play as was intended by the author, this production uses decorations to impress the spectators with extent of Big Daddy’s riches and brings out a different (but perhaps more recognizable) theme that money does not bring happiness.

In the production, the actors costumes are exaggerated to highlight their status, but this exaggeration takes away from the realism of the production and makes the characters comical: Mae has on a nauseously-sweet pink dress, her husband Gooper wears an inappropriate for a family celebration formal suit and his dandy red socks and a handkerchief, and Big Mamma accentuates her aging body with an oversupply of bright purple frills. In the text Williams includes many references of clothes: the white lacy dress of Maggie, her attempt to dress Brick in monogrammed silk shirts with star-shaped sapphire cuff-links in Act 1, her present to Big Daddy, a cashmere robe, “the softest material I’ve ever felt” (77) and Chinese slippers. The fact that Maggie is so concerned with clothing reflects her fear of poverty associated with her past, which explain her eagerness to inherit Big Daddy’s estate. She often looks into the mirror and talks about her looks, not only because she takes pride in them, but also because she is so insecure about her womanly appeal, instigated by Brick’s indifference to her, and to try to provoke some sort of desire or jealousy in him. All of these details in the text create a pitiful image of Maggie. In the production, however, she appears as a spoiled narcissistic woman. The way she tries on different dresses, contently combs her hair, poses in front of the mirror, and frolics in front of Brick does not inspire any sympathy. If when reading the play I felt a liking towards Maggie, after seeing the pretentious, vain, and hollow character that Sanaa Lathan portrayed on stage I could understand Brick’s repulsion towards her.

A great part of what makes the characters take on such a different psychological appearance on stage is the intonation with which they deliver their lines. To go back to Sanaa’s character Maggie, whose lines are the first to be taken in by the public and to set up the mood of the performance, her tone is not at all like what can be expected from reading the text. Her voice sounds sassy, spoiled, and annoying. If anything, it inspires sympathy for Brick who had to endure all this purposeless and gossipy talk. Nothing in the lines of the play suggests humor, but it is her intonation that makes the audience laugh in places like when she talks about sending Brick to Silver Hill (8).  From the very start it establishes an easy attitude towards the rest of the production. In result, later when characters say some of the most dramatic lines of the play, they are not taken seriously, as in the scene where Big Daddy tells Big Mamma to go away and comments on her tearful “… in all these years you never believed that I loved you” (38) with a cynic and bitter “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?” (39).  It is unimaginable that such awful words can inspire anyone’s laughter, and it does not occur because the public consists of heartless people, but because James Earl Jones says his lines pointedly to the audience, with a slight chuck, instead of grimly to himself, as Williams specifies it in the script. Another instance where the words completely lose their original sense is when Brick is telling Big Daddy about his relationship with Skipper (Act 2): in the text his lines are printed in all capitals, indicating extreme agitation and raised voice with which they should be pronounced to convey Brick’s sensitivity to the subject; but in the production he is relatively calm in the same scene, rejecting all suspicions about his possible homosexuality.

Even more important to the audience’s perception of the play than the intonation are the gestures and mimic of the actors. An obvious example is the priest, who has a very small part in the play. In the text his role is to disturb the main characters in crucial moments and during serious conversation and to their point out their dependence on “conventional moral patterns”, as Maggie put it (28). When the family members ask him to stay until Big Daddy’s report is announced as if he would offer moral support, while in reality neither Big Daddy nor the priest care about each other’s presence. In those rare occasions in the production when emotional tension faintly begins to rise, this caricature figure of the Priest breaks it up with his ridiculous smile, and makes the audience immediately lose their concentration on the tragic aspect of what is happening in the play. The other outrageously inappropriate gesture is Big Daddy’s expression of his restless temperament. Even if it is meant to be part of his portrait, his life-loving nature, this vulgar gesture is repeated a few too many times and can produce nothing but uncomfortable laughter. Furthermore, in scenes where Mae and Gooper are hiding behind the doors eavesdropping or when they sing Happy Birthday to Big Daddy, their poses and grimaces are too exaggerated to be taken seriously.

Even the music does not help to bring attention to the important points of the play. On the contrary, it washes off some of the dramatic effect. Act 2 ends on a very sad note, when Big Daddy discovers the truth about his illness, and although the production softens his despair, at least it does not make people laugh. But when the curtain falls, the trombone plays this high-pitched drunken-sounding, wobbly, ludicrous tune that allows audience to go and buy popcorn instead of leaving them transfixed by the emotional impact of the scene. The abandonment of many sound cues, which Williams has carefully placed to accentuate crucial points, is a great disappointment as well. For example, during Maggie and Brick’s lopsided dialogue (meaning that Maggie is the one who talks for the most part and Brick sometimes reluctantly answers to her inquiries) in Act 1, there are repeated hawk cries that are intended to aggravate her loneliness and torture of Brick’s indifference, as after the words “…the fact that you drink, and I’ve borne no children” (25).  In the production this important means of subconscious impart on the audience was for some reason neglected by the sound director. 

The director Debbie Allen made a conscious decision about how she wanted to present the play. She and the technical crew under her leadership changed many elements that were specified in the text to achieve a completely different atmosphere from the one created by Tennessee Williams. In her interpretation a depressing, hopeless, painfully sarcastic tragedy becomes an entertaining dark comedy, a casual sitcom uncomplicated by moral and ethical dilemmas. Let not blame the director for turning a deep and serious play into a shallow show, for it might have been her intent to sacrifice the artistic value of her production for the sake of gaining popularity among the audience.

*I do not consider myself an expert on casting and did not, by any means, try to imply that the all black casting  was the reason for the production's unwelcome reception. For a more informed opinion, please read an insightful blog by a director and African American and Southern literature historian, Matthew Teutsch:

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