Cat on a hot tin roof
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi on March 26, 1911 to a family that his biographers are fond of comparing to the dysfunctional ones of his plays. Williams’s father, Cornelius, was an inveterate gambler and drunkard whose indulgences kept the family constantly on the move. Williams’s sister, Rose, was a schizophrenic ultimately forced to undergo a frontal lobotomy by their mother, Edwina. This event—recounted in Suddenly Last Summer—particularly horrified Williams, who became his sister’s caretaker. In 1931 Williams left home to begin studies at the University of Missouri. While at school, he both received the nickname Tennessee from a college roommate and decided to become a playwright upon seeing a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Williams’s plans were abruptly thwarted by his father, who demanded that he leave school to come work at his shoe factory. There, he befriended a man named Stanley Kowalski, who would later appear as the antihero of his perhaps most famous play.
Ultimately Williams resumed his schooling at Washington University, finishing his degree at the University of Iowa where he locally produced some of his plays. He then moved on to New Orleans where he staged his first major success with The Glass Menagerie (1945). Steeped, like many of Williams’s works, in what irresistibly appear as biographical references, the play imagines the tumultuous struggles between of a son, his disabled sister, and their controlling mother Amanda. Shortly after Menagerie closed, the playwright went to work on a new piece about a woman stood up by her fiancé, producing his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Another Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, followed in 1955. The crux of this latter work concerns the conflicts of a Mississippi family following the diagnosis of its patriarch, Big Daddy’s, stomach cancer and the revelation of his darling alcoholic son’s homosexuality. Cat premiered in New York under the direction of Elia Kazan, who revised the third act to give the play a more redemptive resolution. In 1958, director Richard Brooks adapted Cat into a hugely popular film starring a stunning Elizabeth Taylor, an improbably handsome Paul Newman, and corpulent Burl Ives. To Williams’s dismay, Brooks excised all explicit references to Brick’s homosexuality in deference to the studio censors.
In 1979, Williams moved to Gainesville, Florida working with the Hippodrome State Theatre. Williams died in 1983 when he choked on a plastic bottle cap. He is generally recognized as one of the greatest writers to emerge from the American South as well as a chief architect of the new American drama that followed in the wake of World War II. Certainly his plays shocked their contemporary audiences in their unprecedented treatment of the violence, rape, incest, alcoholism, and other secret traumas that haunt the everyday. Ultimately their insight, however, goes far beyond their "shock value"—that is, their capacity to offend conventional morality. If such were the case, Williams’s impassioned, seductive, and often nightmarish visions of American life would be far easier to forget.
Brick is taking a shower in the bedroom he shares with his wife, Maggie. While undressing, Maggie complains that his brother Gooper and wife Mae have been having their monstrous children perform for Big Daddy, incessantly reminding him of their own childlessness. Now that Daddy is dying of cancer, Mae and Gooper are trying to cut them out of the estate. The doctors have lied to Daddy and Mama, claiming that Daddy only suffers from a spastic colon, but tonight the truth will be revealed.
Brick is not helping any with his incessant drinking and much-publicized stunt on the high school athletic field. Brick broke his ankle jumping hurdles. Maggie is confident of their advantage, because Big Daddy dotes on Brick, abhors Gooper and his wife, and has a "lech" for Maggie herself. Suddenly Maggie catches sight of Brick staring at her in the mirror. She cries that she knows she has become hard and frantic. Living with someone who does not love her has made her a "cat on a hot tin roof."
Fiercely Maggie locks the door and draws the curtains. As she attempts to seduce him, Brick warns her against making a fool of herself. Maggie murmurs she has realized her mistake: she should not have confessed to making love with Skipper.
Maggie continues and says that Brick and Skipper’s love was sad and awful because it could never be satisfied or even talked about. Maggie recalls how on their double dates in college it always seemed the boys were out together. The night of the Thanksgiving game, Maggie confronted Skipper on his desire. He made a pitiful attempt to prove her wrong.
Threatening to kill her, Brick hurls his crutch at her. Maggie insists that now is her time of the month to conceive and they must make love. Brick wonders how she plans to have a child by a man who cannot stand her. Big Daddy enters ferociously and greets Brick. The servants enter with Daddy’s cake, and a grotesque sing-a-long commences. Daddy furiously orders everyone to stop. Mama sobs that he has never believed that she loved him. "Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true" Daddy murmurs.
Daddy bellows for Brick. Maggie delivers him, giving him a kiss on the mouth that he immediately wipes off. Daddy asks Brick why he wiped off her kiss. Mae and Gooper have been saying that he won’t sleep with Maggie. As Brick freshens his drink, Daddy asks him about his drinking problem. Brick cannot explain.
Drawing Brick close, Daddy recalls his world tour with Mama. He anxiously closes the doors and asks if Brick has ever been terrified of anything. He aims to cut loose and get himself a woman. Brick explains that he has not gotten the click in his head that makes him peaceful, and he attempts to flee his father. Daddy makes Brick a deal: he will give him a drink if he tells him why he drinks. Daddy knows that Brick is lying since he started drinking when Skipper died. Daddy asks if there was something "abnormal" in their friendship.
Daddy replies that having just come from "death’s country," he is not easily shocked. Brick insists that his friendship with Skipper was clean and true until Maggie got the idea Daddy is talking about. Upon his back injury, she put the idea into Skipper’s head, and he became a lush and died. Daddy knows he is not telling the full story and Brick says that Skipper made a drunken confession to him over the phone, and Brick hung up on him. Brick’s disgust with mendacity is disgust with himself. Daddy curses the "lying dying liars" around him and goes to bed.
Mae appears, and the family soon follows. Now that Daddy has gone to bed, they can finally talk. The family surrounds Mama and begins to tell her of Daddy’s cancer. Mama calls for Brick, her "only son." She implores Maggie to help straighten Brick out so he can take over the place. Gooper protests and says he has always resented Daddy’s love for Brick. Gooper and Mae present Mama with a drafted will and Mama rejects it in disgust.
Mama embraces the distant Brick, begging him to provide Big Daddy with a grandson before he dies. Suddenly Maggie announces that she and Brick are to have a child. Sobbing, Mama flees jubilantly to tell Big Daddy. Mae accuses Maggie of lying. Maggie thanks Brick for saving her face. Brick puts down three shots, finds his click, and exits indifferently. Maggie forlornly gathers Brick’s liquor bottles and locks them away, refusing to release it until he has sated her. Desperately she declares her love for him. The distant Brick can only reply: "Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?"
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Manliness and Homosexuality
Like many of Williams’s works, Cat concerns itself with the elaboration of a certain fantasy of broken manliness, in this case a manliness left crippled by the homosexual desire it must keep in abeyance.
Brick is Cat‘s broken man. The favorite son and longed-for lover of a wealthy plantation family, he possesses the charm of those who have given up and assumed a pose of indifference before the world. Brick—a "brick" of a man—embodies an almost archetypal masculinity. Brick’s "enviable coolness," however, is the coolness of repression, a repression that keeps his desires at bay. Brick is an alcoholic who cannot avow the desire in his relationship with his dead friend Skipper. Turning from his desire, he has depressively distanced himself from the world with a screen of liquor. He is reduced to the daily, mechanical search for his click that gives him peace.
Brick mourns his love for Skipper, a love imagined in almost mythic dimensions. For Brick, it is the only true and good thing in his life. His mourning is made all the more difficult by the desire he cannot avow. As Maggie notes, theirs is a love that dare not speak its name, a love that could not be satisfied or discussed. Thus Daddy, assuming the position of judge, will force Brick to confront this love. Brick’s attempts at dodging him are crucial to the way the play imagines manliness. As Daddy approaches what has been tenuously repressed, Brick empties his words of all significance. As he tells Daddy, their talks never "materialize" and nothing is really said. When Daddy presses him, Brick reveals why he yearns for "solid quiet."
Ultimately the revelation of the desire in his friendship with Skipper cracks Brick’s cool. His horror at the thought of being identified with the litany of epithets that he recites ("Fairies"), his disgust at the gossipmongers about him, only points to a fear that they might be true.
As Brick pronounces to Big Daddy, mendacity is the system in which men live. Mendacity here refers to the mores that keep what Williams’s dubs the "inadmissible thing" that is repressed at all costs. The two primary objects of repression in Cat are Brick’s homosexual desires and Daddy’s imminent death. After the men are forced to confront these secrets, Mama will desperately invest all her future hopes in the dream of Brick becoming a family man. The responsibilities of fatherhood would somehow stop his drinking, the estate could go to the rightful heir, and the perpetuation of the family line through Brick is Daddy’s immortality. The idyllic fantasy of the family restored, however, is yet another of the play’s lies or Maggie’s invention of a coming child.
The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The cat refers to a particular fantasy of femininity and feminine desire. The play’s primary cat is Maggie, a typically hysterical, dissatisfied Williams heroine who prostrates herself before Brick. Maggie’s loneliness has made her a "cat," hard, anxious, and bitter. The exhilaration of Williams’s dramaturgy lies in the force of the audience’s identification with this heroine, a woman desperate in her sense of lack, masochistically bound to man who does not want her, and made all the more beautiful in her envy, longing, and dispossession.
Maggie’s dispossession also rests in her childlessness. Certainly her childlessness calls her status as "normal" wife and woman into question. Without a child, moreover, her and Brick’s place in Big Daddy’s household is not assured. The child functions entirely here to assure their bid as Daddy’s rightful heirs.
The Father and Son
In Cat, the father and son appear in a decidedly narcissistic relation. Daddy’s narcissistic love for Brick is clear. As Williams notes, Brick bears the charmingly masculine indifference Daddy must have in his youth. As Mama will note at the close of the play, Daddy wants above all that Brick provide him a grandson who is as much like his son as Brick is like himself. Brick is his rightful heir, his means of immortality.
The mirror relation between the men becomes especially clear Brick and Daddy will "show-down" over their respective secrets. Both Daddy’s sojourn in "death’s country" and Brick’s being "almost not alive" in his drunkenness make them "accidentally truthful." Thus, unlike the characters about them, they present themselves as the only ones who have never lied to each other. Both stand on polar limits of the system of mendacity that is life, Brick being the drunkard and Daddy the dead man.
Father and son will come to double each other in their roles as revealer and recipient of the other’s "inadmissible thing." Thus Daddy will force Brick to confront the desire in his friendship with Skipper and receive his death sentence in return. In matching the revelation of his repressed desire with that of Daddy’s death, Brick turns things "upside down." Daddy comes to stand in the place he just occupied. The revelation is a violent act, robbing Daddy of his second life. As Brick the duality of the exchange that has just ensued: "You told me! I told you!"
Brick and Daddy’s final struggle marks the reverse side of the narcissistic love between them, the aggressive logic of "either you go or I go" between those who mirror each other too closely.
Against the beautiful, childless couple, the image of the family, and the mother in particular, will appear hilariously grotesque. Mae and Gooper have spawned a litter of "no-necked monsters" fit for the county fair; Mae, the cotton carnival queen besmirched by proxy, is a "monster of fertility"; and the sounds of the screeching children continually invade the scene. This side of the family will continually stage burlesques of familial love and devotion, such as Daddy’s birthday party in Act II.
The Off-Stage Telephone
Cat makes great use of off-stage sound, marking the presence of spies in the household. The telephone recurs a number of times. Initially Mama and Maggie’s conversations rehearse the lie that keeps Big Daddy and Mama ignorant of the machinations afoot, the lie that Daddy will live. The telephone will then return at Brick and Big Daddy’s showdown to provoke the revelation of what has remained inadmissible until then. Here a phone call, as if a call from the dead, evokes Skipper’s final confession to his friend. Upon Brick’s revelation of Daddy’s cancer, the telephone communicates Daddy’s unspoken protest: "no, no, you got it all wrong! Upside down! Are you crazy?"
The Exotic Lanas
Before confronting Brick on Skipper, Daddy takes a rather strange detour through his travels with Big Mama to Europe and North Africa. Daddy’s memories of his travels introduce a motif familiar to Williams’s readers: the Mediterranean/North Africa as a primal space, a space savagery, lawlessness, and sexual excess, all things that civilization would repress. These exotic locales and their inhabitants become ciphers for the desires that remain repressed at the home. It is not for nothing that later Brick tells of a fraternity pledge who flees to North Africa when the brothers discover that he is a sodomite.
We should note the following symbolic objects in Cat. First, Brick and Maggie’s bed—the place where, as Big Mama will subsequently observe, the rocks in their marriage lie—belongs to the plantation’s original owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello. As Williams writes, the ghost of the men’s love haunts the stage.
Second a gloriously grotesque console, combining a radio-phonograph, television, and liquor cabinet, towers over the room. As Williams notes, it serves as shrine to the "comforts and illusions" behind which we hide from the things the characters face. Notice the moments when Brick will turn on the radio, refresh his drink, thereby raising a screen between him and the household.
Finally we should note Brick’s phallic crutch. Its removal at the hands of Maggie and Big Daddy symbolize Brick’s castration, a castration concomitant with the revelation of his unmanly homosexual desires. This crippling of the most masculine of men is crucial to Brick’s "sexiness." The crutch’s continuous restoration and removal—in a sort of game of "now he has it, now he doesn’t"—appeals to the fetishistic one.