I saw an incredible production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” last night at the Tennessee Williams Festival in Provincetown. If you need a refresher on the plot, “Brick” is a former high school athlete who can’t get over the suicide of his close friend Skipper. Brick’s wife Maggie is frustrated by his total sexual and emotional withdrawal from her in the wake of Skipper’s suicide. Having injured himself by running hurdles drunk at night on the track of his old high school, Brick holds a crutch throughout the play, literalizing his state of dependence and a kind of “arrested development” that would have clearly signaled homosexuality to a 1950s audience. At one point, Brick worries aloud that his father (“Big Daddy”) might think that he and Skipper were “doing sodomy” together. Rumors are everywhere. People are “sneakin’ an’ spyin’.“ The past is an open wound.
As I have thought about the play since I saw it last night, I have realized that it tells essentially the same story as Natsume Sōseki’s novel Kokoro. “Brick” would be a perfect name for the socially and emotionally withdrawn character “Sensei” in Kokoro, who is also haunted by the suicide of a close friend; “K” is Sensei’s Skipper. Brick’s wife Maggie, who “…always felt sort of left out because she and me [Brick] never got any closer together” makes love with Skipper ” because it made both of us feel a little bit closer” to the distant Brick. Maggie actually combines aspects of Sensei’s wife Okusan, who was also involved with K, and the younger narrator “I” in Sōseki’s novel. Like Okusan, Maggie is excluded from and envious of the closeness her husband has with his dead male friend. She also makes Brick remember a past he would rather forget, as “I” does with Sensei. When Maggie brings up Skipper once again despite Brick asking her not to, her fabulous line…”I’m sorry. I never could keep my fingers off a sore!” …made me think of “I” who can’t stop himself from prying into Sensei’s past. “Am I a nuisance Sensei?” he asks.
Meanwhile, Brick’s older brother Gooper and his wife plot to steal Brick’s inheritance from Big Daddy, who has been diagnosed with cancer, although everyone says it is nothing but a “spastic colon.” Gooper and his wife have five children, which they believe gives them more claim to Big Daddy’s money. This inheritance plot is also similar to Kokoro which has not one but two dying fathers. Sensei’s uncle cheats him out of his inheritance and the younger narrator’s brother may do the same to him. The scene where the latter’s father is given an enema resonates with Big Daddy’s “spastic colon”: both connote homosexuality and anxieties about filiation and inheritance.
In a ploy to secure their inheritance from Big Daddy, Maggie lies and says she is pregnant with Brick’s baby. The play ends with her asking Brick to make the lie true. Whether he does or not remains unclear. Brick is not dead yet. He and Maggie could have that baby and achieve some degree of heterosexual “normality” if Brick could get over Skipper and recover from his “arrested development.” Kokoro suggests that the younger narrator “I” might have a child with Okusan, thus achieving what Sensei could not. But neither Williams’s play nor Sōseki’s novel really believes in that kind of redemption.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” premiered in 1955. Kokoro was published in 1914 but it acquired its current reputation as the great masterpiece of modern Japanese literature only when its themes of a traumatic past, unresolved mourning, and homosexual panic, having remained latent in the work for decades, began to resonate more powerfully in the 1950s amid the lingering trauma of WWII and the paranoia of the Cold War. Ichikawa Kon’s film version of Kokoro came out in 1955, the same year as “Cat,” so there can be no direct influence. But here is Tennessee in 1959 telling Yukio Mishima that he has recently read Edwin McClellan’s 1957 translation of Kokoro. The mention comes right after he says that “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is the only one of his plays that treats homosexuality directly, although the real subject of the play is “mendacity.” Americans are liars, he says, while in the Japanese literature he has read, including Kokoro, he finds an “honor for truth.” He doesn’t say much more, except that he was “very impressed,” but something clearly resonated for Williams in Sōseki’s work, just as the themes shared by Kokoro and the “Cat” hit a nerve in 1950’s America and Japan.