Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

photo (2)Arguably Tennessee Williams’s best-known or best-regarded play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may be familiar to some of us for the 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor (shown on the cover of my copy from the local library) and Paul Newman. It won Williams the Pulitzer in 1955.

The action takes place in a few rooms and on the full-length upstairs gallery of a Mississippi Delta plantation home. In the opening scene, young wife Margaret is complaining to her husband, Brick, about his family: his brother Gooper (what a name!) and Gooper’s wife Mae are obnoxious people, with five children and a sixth on the way, bent on securing the plantation for themselves as inheritance, as Big Daddy is dying of cancer. Brick is no longer sleeping with Margaret, for reasons that go unexplained, at least by Brick himself. Margaret (and the rest of the family) are concerned with Brick’s drinking; and there is much innuendo directed towards his relationship with a now-dead friend named Skipper. The play, in three acts, with no break in time – so that the action of the play takes the same time as the playing of it – portrays discussions between various family members around these issues. Brick drinks too much; he doesn’t sleep with his wife; they’re expected to have a baby, at least one, to try and compete with Gooper and Mae’s outstanding performance in that department, despite which Brick is still the favored son. Big Daddy has been told he does not have cancer, but this is a lie to protect him, a lie that Brick exposes.

The nastiness of Mae is perhaps the least subtle element of this play – she is every inch a schemer – but overall it’s very well balanced in terms of what is said and what is left unsaid. The greatest victory Williams scores here, in my opinion, is atmosphere. It’s hot; there isn’t enough air flow, and the characters are mostly anxious to keep doors closed so that other family members don’t hear what is said. There are many secrets: the extent of Brick’s drinking; Margaret’s infidelity with Skipper (intended to prove his sexuality); the question of Brick’s sexuality; Big Daddy’s diagnosis of advanced and inoperable cancer. The secrets and the hot, still air are claustrophobic; and add to this “Maggie the Cat”‘s sensuality, her desire for her still-attractive husband, and her attempts to get him back into the marital bed, and we have a sultry, charged scene.

I observed about this play – but I think it’s true of all Williams’s work – that he writes quite lengthy and detailed and imaginative stage directions. There is almost a novel living within this play, so much does he put into his narratives about scenery and the manner the actors should take. It also occurred to me that some of his directions to the players were fanciful and difficult to act out; for example: “Big Mama has a dignity at this moment; she almost stops being fat.” How is Big Mama’s actor supposed to play that out?? On the other hand, Williams often releases his characters (more typically of a play script) into dialogue or monologue and lets them run. I think the characters we meet here are very well matched to help one another release truths, or hide them, or release untruths, as they will.

There’s no question that this is a beautiful piece of artwork, and another that I would very much like to see performed.

Themes include “mendacity,” as Brick continually refers to it: most overtly in regards to Big Daddy’s prognosis, but also relating to the inheritance that Gooper and Mae want so badly; Brick’s relationship with the late Skipper; and his relationship with his wife, and their likelihood of having children. A more understated theme, but one that shouldn’t be overlooked in the face of Williams’s own relationship with alcohol, is Brick’s alcoholism. This is something he doesn’t work particularly to keep hidden; the family is aware that he drinks a lot, but Big Daddy is surprised to hear about the “click” in Brick’s head that he needs before he can feel all right, and that can only be achieved by drink. I didn’t bother counting the drinks Brick takes before he feels the click, but it’s quite a few, and I believe was finally reached by three shots in quick succession. The poor guy. Adding to the claustrophobic, anxious, heated atmosphere I described above, Brick is on crutches, having twisted an ankle recreating his youthful athletic triumphs while drunk the night before; and instead of sitting and resting it, he’s jumpy, can’t stop moving. The people who want to communicate with him (Margaret, Big Daddy) try to take his crutch away to still him, but he continues to hobble. I think there is clearly some symbolism there. This wouldn’t be the same play if Brick weren’t crippled, or if he were to sit docilely and put his foot up on a pillow.

Another achievement for Tennessee Williams; and can someone produce this one locally for me, please?

Rating: 8 trips to Echo Spring.

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