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Cat on an IKEA Bookshelf

My monthly play reading series announced this week that their January selection would be Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Naturally, I went looking for a copy of the script to familiarize myself with it over the next few weeks. It didn’t take long; my parents’ old paperback copy of the play is on my bookshelf. It doesn’t list the date of its printing, but from the advertisements for other Signet paperbacks on its back pages I can tell that it would have been 1970.

(Ye gods, that’s nearly half a century ago.)

Go to the Drama Book Store to buy a playscript (while you can, at any rate – they’re closing, which is a very bad thing) and you’ll encounter one of two familiar things. You’ll either find the classic script copies from Samuel French or Dramatists, with their monochromatic colors – the ones that get licensed in bulk when your high school drama club mounts Arsenic and Old Lace. If it’s a recognized literary classic (like, say, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), you’ll find a trade paperback, usually with a scholarly forward or something similar. In either case, the publishers of American plays operate on the assumption that it’s theater professionals purchasing these editions, and the books are therefore tailored to this specialty market.

That wasn’t always the case.

The 1970 paperback edition of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which I possess was a mass-market paperback. “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” is plastered across it as a banner headline. The title font is the same as the lurid late-70s and early-80s horror books I grew up with. Those advertisements on the back which I mentioned? They’re for other potboilers from Signet paperbacks, like Love Story.

This paperback wasn’t sold at the Drama Book Store. It was sold at the supermarket.

It’s wild to think that there was a time, not so very long ago, when American plays were marketed to a mass audience like that. When playwrights were household names in households nowhere near a theater. When Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire were best-sellers, and commanded that degree of attention from the culture at large. I’m envious, as I’m sure most writers would be. We’d give anything to matter to that degree.

The trade-off, however, is that only those few playwrights got this sort of treatment. Other titans of the time? Saroyan, Inge? You wouldn’t find their plays in the supermarket paperback section. The whole rich panoply of mid-twentieth century drama? Reduced to the names Miller and Williams, and reduced further to three titles or so for each of them. There are plenty of people who remain convinced that those two authors – the ones whose paperbacks were sold at the supermarket – were the nation’s only playwrights. People who even today, when more extraordinary playwrights are active than at any other point in my lifetime, wonder why they haven’t heard of any new playwrights.

It would be nice to be sold in a supermarket. But those supermarkets never seem to sell what you need, and I’d rather have the variety.

Of course, my group’s reading is going to use the revised version of the script, which I don’t have. I wonder what’s on the cover of that edition.

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