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  • Stage PicturesJo Mielziner & the Art of Set Design
  • Kristine Somerville

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Jo Mielziner, 1945, photographer Ann Rosener, the LIFE Images Collection, courtesy of Getty Images

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“Literalism has no place in theater.”

—Jo Mielziner


The set is the bed-sitting-room of a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. It is along an upstairs gallery which probably runs around the entire house: it has two pairs of very wide doors opening onto the gallery, showing white balustrades against a fair summer sky that fades into dusk and night during the course of the play which occupies precisely the time of its performance excepting, of course, the fifteen minutes of intermission.

Perhaps the style of the room is not what you would expect in the home of the Delta’s biggest cotton planter. (as MARGARET says to BIG DADDY in the beginning of ACT II) it is Victorian with a touch of the Far East. (And as Big Daddy says to Margaret) it hasn’t changed much since it was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon. This may be irrelevant or unnecessary, but I once saw a reproduction of a faded photograph on the verandah of Robert Louis Stevenson’s home on [that] Samoan Island where he spent his last years, and there was a quality of tender light on weathered wood, such as porch-furniture made of bamboo and wicker, exposed to tropical suns and tropical rains, which came to mind when I thought about the set for this play, bringing also to mind the grace and comfort of light, the reassurance it gives, on a late and fair afternoon in summer, the way that no matter what, even dread of death, is gently touched and soothed by it. For the set is the background for a play that deals with human extremities of emotion and needs that softness behind it. [End Page 56]

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Preliminary drawing for the TV/liquor cabinet.

Jo Mielziner, 1955, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, image courtesy of Billy Rose Theater Collection, NYPL, © Jo Mielziner Estate.

The bathroom door, showing only pale blue tile and silver towel-racks, is in one side wall, the hall door in the opposite wall. Two articles of furniture need mention: a big double bed which staging should make a functional part of the set as often as suitable, the surface of which should be lightly raked to make figures on it seen more easily: and against the wall space between the two huge double doors upstage, a monumental monstrosity peculiar to our times, a huge console combination of radio-phonograph (Hi-Fi with three speakers)--TV set and liquor cabinet, bearing [End Page 57] and containing many glasses and bottles, all in one piece, which is a composition of muted silver tones and opalescent tones of reflecting glass, a chromatic link, this thing, between the sepia (tawny gold) tones of the interior and the cool (white and blue) tones of the gallery and sky. This piece of furniture (?:), this monument, is a very complete and compact little shrine to virtually all the comforts and illusions behind which we hide from such things as the characters in the play are faced with....

This set should be far less realistic than I have so far implied in this description of it. I think the walls should dissolve mysteriously into air below the ceiling: the set should be roofed by sky: stars and moon suggested by traces of milky pallor, as if they were observed through a telescope lens out of focus: possibly a spiral nebula might be faintly suggested. At the risk of sounding cornily pretentious, I feel that the “mystery of the cosmos” should be a visible presence in this play, almost as present as an actor in it. When the windstorm occurs...


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