Sunday, November 03, 2019

Take A Sad Play And Make It Better

The Beatles' song "Help!" was slower in its original form, until the band rocked it up.  And while some may claim the hit version overpowered the sadness of the tune, it's hard to deny it's a great single.

I was thinking of that when reading about the relationship between Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan in John Lahr's fine biography of the former.  Williams was an established playwright with The Glass Menagerie under his belt when Kazan took on what would be his most famous work, A Streetcar Named Desire.  A lot of things made that play one of the most memorable in Broadway history, but no small part of it can be credited to Kazan's sculpting of the 1947 production.

By the mid-50s, Williams hadn't had a hit in a while, and so with his new script, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, he needed Kazan--who had plenty of hits, on stage and on screen, without Williams--more than Kazan needed him.  He had to entice Kazan.

Kazan could see it was a powerful work, perhaps the equal of Streetcar.  But he had his problems, especially with the third act.  Before Kazan would commit, he wanted changes, and he wanted more once he was on board.

The biggest change he got out of Williams was the return of Big Daddy in act three, as well as a softening of Brick and a more hopeful ending.  Williams could have resisted and the play would have gone on anyway, but he gave in.  Still, after it opened and was a huge hit, Williams would often complain about how he'd sold out his vision.

Later productions sometimes reverted to the original third act.  And the publication of the play included both versions.  So we can compare the two.  Artistically, it's hard to say, but stage-wise, it's pretty easy.  There's real life logic and stage logic.  Certain things are simply more effective on stage--resolution over irresolution; a protagonist moving forward rather than being stuck in one place; a character who gets bad news and then, rather than leaving the stage, responds to it.

I can't blame Kazan for wanting these changes.  But on top of that, I think he made the play better.  Williams whined all the way to the bank, but just because he didn't the play wasn't as "tough" as he wanted it didn't mean it was ruined.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ITs a complicated issue- how much control to cede to the original artist version. Even when the artist changes his mind. Star Wars was better when Han shot first and the banthas were hairy and ape masks were in the cantina

8:47 AM, November 03, 2019  

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