By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is widely regarded as Tennessee Williams’s greatest play, and in it we find an echo of many of America’s main social and political preoccupations and struggles of the 1950s. But the way Williams taps into the national psyche at a particular point in US history is subtle, and requires closer analysis. Before we offer an analysis of the play, however, it might be worth recapping the plot of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: summary
Big Daddy, a wealthy plantation owner who lives somewhere on the Mississippi delta, is dying, and everyone except his wife, Big Mama, acknowledges it. The couple’s son, Brick, is married to Margaret, but Brick seems uninterested in his wife sexually (she is the ‘cat on a hot tin roof’ because of her lack of satisfaction). Brick has turned to drink in the wake of his friend Skipper’s death.
Big Daddy confronts his son about his suspected homosexuality (which was a criminal act at the time the play was written), believing Brick had sex with Skipper. (Spoiler: he did.)
In contrast to Brick and Margaret, who are childless, there is Brick’s older brother, Gooper, whose wife Mae is currently expecting the couple’s sixth child. When the family force Big Mama to confront the reality of her husband’s terminal condition, they discuss what should happen to the plantation and estate after Big Daddy’s death.
Gooper and Mae want to look after it, but Big Mama rejects such an idea. Margaret argues that she should be in charge.
She then announces – in a shocking moment – that she is pregnant with her first child. Nobody believes her, so she sets about trying to make the statement true by seducing her husband, locking away his drink, and conceiving a grandchild for Big Daddy, who dies shortly before the end of the play.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: analysis
The action of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof progresses with an inexorable energy, with each new act picking up at the exact point the previous act ended. As Big Mama is forced to face up to the fact that her husband, who seems the very paragon of virility and the life force, is dying, and Brick is forced to confront the lie that lurks behind his sexless marriage to Margaret, so we, as spectators, are dragged forwards through the relentless family drama with barely a moment to catch our breath.
Masculinity is a key theme of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: what does a ‘good’ husband and family man look like? Brick and Margaret are made to feel inadequate because, unlike Brick’s brother Gooper and his wife Mae, they don’t have any children, and because of the rumours (which turn out to be true) surrounding Brick’s homosexuality.
And, of course, Brick stands in stark contrast to his father, whose name throughout the play, Big Daddy, emphasises both his status as patriarch of the family and his almighty power over everyone’s life.
But as Big Daddy is dying, the play also raises questions about the interplay between different generations and what one leaves behind: Big Daddy has left behind children and, via Gooper, has grandchildren, but the family disagrees over who should manage his estate when he has passed on. (Curiously, the name Big Daddy was taken up by the famous American wrestler, who used it as his professional wrestling name. He was born Shirley Crabtree, and named ‘Shirley’ after the title character of a Charlotte Brontë novel. This may make him the only person whose real name and stage name were inspired by works of literature.)
Margaret feels forced to act in a desperate manner in order to ensure that she, not Mae, ends up with Big Daddy’s plantation after he dies, and the only way she can conceive of usurping Mae is literally to conceive – to ensure that she falls pregnant with Brick’s child.
Of course, the play’s setting on a plantation on the Mississippi also raises questions relating to race relations in the US in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement had begun to gather momentum (the play’s premiere was in the same year that Rosa Parks famously took a stand and refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger).
Williams acknowledges this important background to the play’s setting without making race the play’s principal theme (although in the second version of the play’s third and final act, which he wrote at the suggestion of the play’s director, he made the black servants more prominent on stage).
Why does this setting matter? It was a world that Williams knew fairly well (as he knew about living as a homosexual man at a time when it was criminalised and socially unmentionable), but it also reminds us that Big Daddy represents, on some level, the uncertainty of the United States at the time.
The Cold War between the US and the USSR was raging, the Soviet Union was developing its own atomic bombs, and America itself seemed riven by internecine suspicions and conflicts surrounding suspected Communist activity (McCarthyism, of course, also provided the backdrop to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, another classic American play of this era).
And, as the 1950s advanced, the second-class status of black Americans would also start to unravel as the Civil Rights movement became more mainstream. The America that Big Daddy lived and thrived in is, like Big Daddy himself, dying.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an example of naturalistic drama: that is, it reflects the realities of normal life (especially domestic life) and tries to recreate the family dramas of real people in an authentic way.
There is no Brechtian ‘distancing’ or metatheatrical breaking of the fourth wall: we are invited to become absorbed into the lives of the characters via some emotionally engaging performances (the director of the original production, Elia Kazan, was famed for his work in naturalist theatre).
Comparisons are difficult: so often “greatest” means the highest gross. It occurs to me that the embryo of the #ME TOO
movement lies in both plays, and (just incidentally) I never remember Brick’s wife being called anything but “Maggie” or
“Maggie the Cat.”
I am tempted to disagree with the observation that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is “widely regarded as Tennessee Williams’s greatest play”. That status surely belongs to A Streetcar Named Desire. Although I personally prefer Cat to Streetcar, I seriously doubt that I’m in the majority. Part of the reason for this may be that, unlike the film version of Cat (which is beautifully performed but takes a lot of the teeth out of the original material), the film version of Streetcar was a massive success both artistically and commercially. Millions of audiences who don’t live in big cities with thriving live theatre have seen a legitimate interpretation of Streetcar, but only a sanitized interpretation of Cat.
Thanks, Matthew, and I think that’s a fair point. I suppose when I write ‘widely regarded’ I mean critically rather than commercially or in the popular imagination, though even then, I’m aware the point is debatable!