The Many Faces of Truth

n cat on a hot tin roof tennessee williams PDVD_006

When Tennessee Williams wrote (and re-wrote…and re-wrote) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for each theatrical production, he reported going through three stages of interaction with the various stakeholders in theater, all having to do with the relativity of truth. As artists, each director, actor, and even producer wants to leave their creative carbon footprint on the stage. Williams couldn’t begrudge them that, but he did, for some time, agonize over the constant bickering about manuscript purity and its manifestation on stage.

Like Arthur Miller, Williams’s presence is keenly felt in the stage directions, to my personal delight. Mid-way through the action, he feels the need to share the following:

“The bird I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent–fiercely charged!–interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. 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[!]”

With such conviction, it’s easy to see why he’d say there are times when the only living soul that really understands how to take a manuscript into performance is the author himself. I wonder what Barthes would have said to that? What about the mystery of the character to his or her creator?

In any case, truth is what we want to believe.

This calls to mind a great quotable moment from the Spanish indie film Tambien la Lluvia, where the brave Catholic priest Antonio de Montesinos ascended the pulpit and spoke his version of the truth. It happened to be a version that fought for the defeated, denounced the Spanish colonizers, and imperiled the speaker’s life. He said,

“La verdad tiene muchos a su contra; la mentira muchos a su favor.”

In other (English) words, “The Truth has many enemies; the Lie has many friends.”

Perhaps that’s a good litmus test for uncovering the capital “T” Truth? One simple question:

Whom does it serve?

If the answer is you or the hands that feed you, force yourself to take a step back.

Let’s get back to Cat, where a running theme was mendacity–the inescapable condition of civilization, it seems. Only two ways to evade it: drinking or death. Brick chose the first, at least until it led to the second. He was like Cordelia from King Lear, refusing to peddle for inheritance, refusing to add to the mendacity of the world. And with that knowing smirk, he was also like The Comedian from Watchmen, the only one in on the joke.

Big Daddy understood this delicate relation to the world via mortality. Act Two, while sandwiched in the middle, dominates the play like uncured, applewood smoked bacon. Here, Big Daddy tells Brick: “Ignorance of mortality–is a comfort. A man don’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing…and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it.”

It’s of course fitting that he understands it as such, since he is on death’s door, yet lied to about it. We are all just “Lyin’, dyin’ liars.”

Whom does it serve? Everyone. And no one.

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