Books: The Crystal Bucket : Over the Tarp |
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Over the Tarp

With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Granada’s blockbusting series entitled ‘The Best Play of 19—’ really got under way. The previous week’s Pinter piece had been but a curtain-raiser. Here was the main action, with a meaty part for Olivier as a southern fried patriarch.

Southern frard patriarch. The accent gets into your head. Whether the play itself does any more than get on your nerves is another question. I can remember being young enough, long enough ago, to believe that in Tennessee Williams the giant themes of Greek tragedy had returned, all hung about with magnolias. Ignorance of Greek tragedy helped in this view. This was the 1950s, when a lot of intentions were being taken for deeds.

Later on the illusions crumbled. The American theatrical revival was widely seen for what it was. But even when it became generally accepted that most of the Broadway postwar classics were, by thoughtful standards, clap-trap, it was still contended that they worked. You heard a lot about Tennessee Williams’s plays working. And indeed it could still be contended that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof works, in the sense that it coheres and resolves instead of just falling apart.

But at what a cost. Principally to the listener’s ear-drums. Even in this television production the actors had to shout as loudly as they would have had to do on stage, since if they lapsed even briefly into normal tones it would become apparent that every character in the play is doing all the time what normal human beings do only in rare moments of passion — i.e., say exactly what’s on their minds. The convention of raw frankness can only be sustained if all concerned are in a permanent wax. So the actors rant. Rant on stage can look like powerful acting to the uninitiated, but on TV it looks like tat even to a dunce.

In these circumstances, Olivier’s Big Daddy must be counted a triumph. He brought nobility to a role which hasn’t really got any. Tennessee might have thought it did when he wrote it, but what he was counting on, even if he didn’t realise it, was that you would remember broken kings in plays by other hands. His own broken king possesses no qualifications except a zillion acres of cotton to justify him in lashing out with his personality. But Olivier gave the role overtones of Oedipus, Coriolanus, Lear — almost enough overtones to cover up its undertones.

Students of theatrical arcana will know that in Tennessee’s original version of the play Big Daddy did not come back on after the end of Act Two. The play’s director, Elia Kazan, persuaded its author that if the play was to be a success Big Daddy would have to return. After the mandatory struggle with his artistic conscience, Tennessee succumbed to this request (Kazan was, after all, right: in plays that work stage-craft is everything) and brought Big Daddy back on, armed with a show-stopping dirty joke about an elephant’s erection. Understandably eager to play the revised version, Olivier duly made his reappearance, but the joke was missing. It suddenly occurred to me that a lot else was missing: nearly every overt crudity in the play had been scrubbed.

So all those rumours had been true, about the American television executives ringing up Manchester and calling for deletions! There had also been rumours about the stipulated size of dressing rooms for Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner — requirements which allegedly entailed the knocking down of walls. From these revised premises Wood and Wagner sallied forth each day of production to incarnate Maggie the Cat and Brick the Thick respectively. They weren’t all that bad. Maggie is the best part and Natalie made something of it, although light-weight actresses run short of variations when they go over the top — which, needless to say, she had to do. Try underplaying lines like that and see where you get.

As for Robert, he did what Paul Newman did in the movie version. He lurched around looking beautiful and damned. He hasn’t aged a bit since Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef. The gorgeous teeth were kept concealed by turning the mouth down at the corners, thereby indicating the imminence of perdition. There is no limit to the sacrifices actors will make just to get near Olivier, and quite right too. The whole production was a spankingly neat surround for his magisterial talent.

In the first episode of BBC1’s two-part Lady of the Camellias Kate Nelligan had to establish herself in a role whose possibilities you might be excused for thinking Garbo had exhausted. She did astonishingly well — helped, perhaps, by two temporal advantages. Liberal speech about sexual matters having come on a bit since Garbo made Camille, Miss Nelligan had better lines to say. And Garbo was not exactly in the first flush of youth, whereas Miss Nelligan is. Marie Duplessis, the original of Marguerite Gautier, was wise beyond her years, but her years were few.

Marie Duplessis was a kind of artist. Men of genius fell in love with her as with a fellow talent. There is scarcely a dissenting voice about her gifts. Arsine Houssaye called her a clever woman who talked nothing but nonsense (here I attempt to adduce one measly fact that was not in Glenys Roberts’s excellent Radio Times article), but otherwise all were agreed that her company was magic and her love a blessing. Any actress who plays her is being asked to embody life itself. Not to fail in such a role is to succeed wildly. As for Peter Firth’s Armand, he is wet where Robert Taylor was wooden. On the whole I prefer moisture to splinters.

The Shah of Iran was on Panorama (BBC1), telling David Dimbleby that his lucky citizens ‘can express themselves absolutely freely within the framework of the Constitution’. With admirable toughness, David asked, ‘Are you satisfied with the methods that SAVAK uses to get confessions?’ The Shah replied: ‘They are improving every day.’

19 December, 1976

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]