Analysis of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

One of Williams’s more famous works and his personal favorite, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955. This three-act play is set in the Pollitts’ stately home, a Southern plantation in the fertile Mississippi Valley.

Act 1

Brick Pollitt emerges from the bathroom at the insistence of his wife, Margaret Pollitt (Maggie the Cat). With his left ankle broken, Brick hobbles around the room and dresses. He is coolly detached from his wife despite her poise and beauty. Maggie tells him that the evening’s festivities will include a birthday party in honor of Brick’s father, Big Daddy Pollitt. She bemoans Brick’s brother, Gooper, and his wife, Mae, and the way they strategically display their children for Big Daddy. Maggie is disgusted by the children, the “no-neck monsters,” who used her dress as a napkin. As it has become known that Big Daddy is dying of cancer, Maggie is competing with Gooper and Mae to secure the family estate for Brick.

Maggie criticizes Mae and her family, the Memphis Flynns. Maggie realizes that Brick is staring at her with cold contempt and she begs to know why. Maggie believes loneliness has changed her, and she prays for the day when their marriage will be rekindled. Maggie asks why Brick remains so handsome despite his alcoholism. She notes that he has not deteriorated as his friend Skipper did. The mention of Skipper’s name sends Brick to the bar to make another drink. Maggie comments that she would surely kill herself if Brick chose not to make love to her anymore. When she realizes that her dramatic overture has not stirred him, she maliciously utters the name Skipper again. Brick fills his drink once more. He drops his crutch and tries to run from Maggie’s pronouncements of Skipper.

Brick waits to hear “the click” in his head, the peaceful feeling he experiences when he drinks enough alcohol. Maggie’s presence and constant nagging to join the party distract him and prevent him from feeling the click. Brick is angered by Maggie’s persistence, and just as their argument crescendos there is a knock at their door. Mae enters with an old trophy of Maggie’s from her sporting days at Mississippi University. Mae orders that this be placed high enough to be out of the reach of her children, to which Maggie replies that if they were well bred they would not be touching things that did not belong to them. Mae retorts that Maggie knows nothing of children because she has none of her own, a vicious truth. Maggie nastily asks Mae why she has given her children “dogs’ names”: Trixie, Buster, Sonny, and so on.

Mae storms out of the bedroom, and Brick begs Maggie not to be so catty. Maggie claims that she cannot control her temper because Brick has turned her into a cat on a hot tin roof. Brick suggests that she jump off the roof and take another lover. Maggie shows her longing affection for him, but he refuses her again. She runs to the door and locks it, turns down the shade, and crawls closer to Brick. She grabs him, and he violently shoves her away as his disgust for her increases.

Big Mama enters the bedroom. Brick runs into the bathroom to hide from his mother, and Maggie finishes getting dressed. Big Mama excitedly announces that Doc Baugh has just informed her that Big Daddy does not have cancer after all. She asks Brick to dress and join the party; otherwise, the party will join him in the bedroom (since he has a broken ankle).

When Big Mama exits, Maggie resumes her talk about their sex life, which declined abruptly. Maggie says that she maintains her figure for Brick because she knows he will return to her. She brags that other men devour her with their looks. She revels in the knowledge that she is still gorgeous.

Brick acknowledges that his father really is terminally ill and his mother is oblivious to this truth. Gooper and Mae thought it best to withhold the truth from Big Daddy and Big Mama in an attempt to put the estate in order.

Maggie returns to the topic of Skipper. Brick tries to avoid the conversation and calls out on the gallery for the party to join him upstairs. Maggie will not desist. She is determined to get to the truth about Brick and Skipper. Brick threatens to hit her with his crutch.

Angrily, Brick demands that Maggie stop trying to taint the memory of Skipper. Maggie relentlessly tells the story of two college football heroes who organized their own team, the Dixie Stars, in order to keep playing after college. Brick was injured midseason, and Skipper also did not have a successful season. Brick runs around the room trying to catch Maggie for her vulgar insinuations regarding his relationship with Skipper. Maggie confesses that Skipper had sex with her to disprove the allegation that he was gay. Maggie had made this allegation the night that Skipper plunged himself into a fatal drug-induced alcoholic coma.

At this admission, Brick falls to the floor with grief. One of the children runs into the room shooting a toy gun. When the child asks why he is on the floor, Brick responds that he tried to kill Aunt Maggie. Maggie yells at the little girl, and she answers smartly that Maggie is just jealous because she cannot have babies as her mommy can. Maggie confides to Brick that she visited a fertility doctor who said there was no reason why they should not be able to have children. Repulsed, Brick asks how she plans to have a child with a man who cannot stand her.

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof/IMDB

Act 2

The partygoers usher Big Daddy into Brick and Maggie’s quarters. The Reverend Tooker converses with Gooper about memorial stained glass windows donated by certain parishioners and widowers. Mae talks about the children’s vaccinations with Doc Baugh, forcing Maggie to blast the radio. Big Daddy demands that the radio be turned off, but when Big Mama enters shouting for Brick, he changes his order so as to drown out the noise.

Big Mama begs Brick to stop drinking and join the family. Big Mama tries to be close to her husband, but she is met with a cold stare of irritation. The servants and Gooper’s children enter with Big Daddy’s birthday cake, singing and dancing in a rehearsed act. Big Mama cries and Big Daddy quarrels with her because she is crying. Big Daddy asks whether Brick was drunk and jumping hurdles at the track field last night. Big Mama shows Big Daddy his cake in hopes of changing the subject. Infuriated by Brick’s asinine actions and Big Mama’s need to cover them, Big Daddy accuses her of never knowing anything in her whole life. Big Mama objects to being treated this way in front of the family, but he continues to accuse her of usurping his position. Everyone gradually leaves the room.

Big Daddy talks about being a self-made man, one of the richest plantation owners in the South. He orders Big Mama to blow out the candles and she refuses. As she leaves the room, she repeats that she always loved him. Big Daddy comments, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true.”

Big Daddy calls Brick back into the room. Maggie enters with a begrudging Brick and she kisses him on the lips as she exits to the gallery. Brick wipes off her kiss and Big Daddy asks why he would object to being kissed by such a beautiful woman. Brick informs him that Maggie and Mae are fighting over the plantation. Big Daddy responds that he intends to live another good 20 years.

They discover Mae eavesdropping on their conversation. Big Daddy threatens to move them out of the room next door because he is tired of getting reports about what goes on between Brick and Maggie every night. Brick is amused that his debacle of a marriage is so important to everyone. When questioned about his refusal to sleep with Maggie, Brick returns to the liquor cabinet. Big Daddy asks Brick to stop drinking.

Big Daddy reminisces about his travels with Big Mama to Europe and the useless things they bought. He comments that one cannot buy back life or any of the memories that have built it. Brick grows restless with these ramblings. Brick says he is not interested in talking to his father because it will turn out as all of their talks do: talking in circles and leading to nowhere in particular. He just wants to hear the quiet click and rest in peace.

Big Daddy is compelled to close the doors and confide to Brick that he was truly frightened about having cancer. He declares that he is going to live life to the fullest now that he knows he is healthy. Big Daddy confesses that he could never tolerate Big Mama, and he now thinks he will pursue women as a hobby. Big Mama crosses through the room to answer the phone. Brick is so ashamed by his father’s disgust for his mother that he exits for fresh air.

Big Mama begs her husband to take back all the awful things he said to her. He responds by throwing her out of the room and locking the door. Brick aimlessly hobbles around the room. Brick says that he is waiting for the click in his brain. Big Daddy vows to cure Brick’s alcoholism.

Brick knows his father’s death is imminent and cannot face his father’s talk of a second chance at life. He tries to leave but Big Daddy violently thrusts him back into the room by the sleeve of his shirt. They begin to fight and Big Mama rushes in to resolve the situation. Big Daddy orders her out and grabs Brick’s crutch so that he is immobile. Big Daddy will not give it back to him until he can answer why he drinks. Brick cannot answer him.

Brick confesses that the “mendacity” of life is plaguing him. Big Daddy explains that mendacity is merely a part of life for everyone with false institutions such as church, government, and marriage. Brick suggests that the only true companion is alcohol. Big Daddy deduces that Brick began drinking when Skipper died. Brick’s cool detachment immediately changes to defensiveness.

Brick asks his father whether he believed his relationship with Skipper was more than just a friendship. The conversation escalates as Brick rants about the insinuations about his relationship with Skipper. Big Daddy doubles over with pain.

Brick describes his friendship with Skipper and their closeness as comrades, not as lovers. Brick regains his composure and speaks frankly to Big Daddy. He admits that Maggie threatened to leave him if he did not marry her and so he did, out of obligation rather than love. She tagged along with Brick and the football team all over the country. When Brick was hospitalized following his injury, Skipper and Maggie continued on the road. Brick witnessed the closeness of their relationship from the confines of his hospital bed. Maggie accused Skipper of being in love with her husband, which provoked Skipper to sleep with Maggie to prove his heterosexuality. When he could not physically complete the act with her, he was convinced that he was gay. This realization was too much for him to handle, and led to his breakdown and subsequent death.

Big Daddy suspects that there are missing pieces of the story. Brick confesses that later that same night Skipper called him at the hospital and professed his love for him. Skipper told Brick about the situation with Maggie, and Brick hung up on him. He never spoke to Skipper again.

Big Daddy concludes that Brick never resolved the issue with Skipper. Brick questions whether anyone ever completely faces the truth, and he challenges Big Daddy about his own reality. Brick declares that there will be no more birthdays for his father. Big Daddy becomes enraged and vows to bury his drunk son before giving the plantation to him. Brick exits as Big Daddy witnesses his birthday fireworks in the evening sky.

Brick returns and tenderly explains to Big Daddy that he told him the truth about his illness because no one else had the courage to face him. Big Daddy exits, condemning his family as liars.

Act 3

Mae and the Reverend Tooker search for Big Daddy, who has retired to bed. Gooper gathers the family to discuss important matters while Maggie searches for Big Daddy. Big Mama basks in the news that her husband is healthy, except for a nervous condition. She calls for Brick, and Gooper quickly informs her that he is outside drinking. When Maggie exits to fetch Brick, Mae charges that Brick revealed the truth about Big Daddy’s health to him. Gooper tries to delicately inform Big Mama about Big Daddy’s condition.

Big Mama expresses concern for Brick’s depression and his decline after Skipper’s death. Brick overhears her as he enters and moves toward the liquor cabinet, silencing the family members in the room. Big Mama sobs and Maggie tries to improve the situation by forcing Brick to sit beside Big Mama; however, Brick leaves the room. Gooper and Dr. Baugh tell Big Mama that Big Daddy is terminally ill with cancer. Hysterical, Big Mama calls for Brick. Gooper goes to her, but she pushes him away and says, “You’re not my real blood.” Mae is astounded by her mother-in-law’s hurtful remark, and she rushes over to plead with Big Mama. The Reverend Tooker quickly escapes this heated moment of family crisis.

Big Mama accuses Gooper of never liking Big Daddy. She accuses him of being happy that his father is dying so that he can finally gain control of the plantation and family assets. Maggie joins in the conversation and is met with insults from Mae, who accuses Brick of being an alcoholic. Maggie denies the charges, explaining that his current inebriation is a result of the difficult news. Big Mama calls for Brick so that she can discuss his taking over the plantation. Astounded by the thought, Gooper quickly instructs Mae to get his briefcase, insisting on handling business contracts he has readied for this occasion.

Mae criticizes Brick’s lifestyle. She claims he is still living in the glory days of his high school football career. Maggie defends her husband once again, and Gooper rages toward her with his fists clenched. Big Mama sweeps Maggie to her side. Maggie tells Gooper that they plan to leave the plantation as soon as Big Daddy dies. Maggie then apologizes to Big Mama. Mae accuses Maggie of being barren, and she divulges that Brick refuses to have sex with his own wife. Gooper shouts at Mae for the plummeting conversation and demands fairness and rights to the plantation. When Brick enters the room, Gooper and Mae make fun of his petty local football stardom. Gooper produces a contract, urging Big Mama to sign it. Maggie contests the document while Brick sings and pours another drink. Big Mama demands that Gooper stop talking as if Big Daddy were already dead. She rejects the contract, demands it be put away, and coddles Brick. Big Mama asks him to have a child with Maggie before Big Daddy dies. Mae scoffs at this remark which prompts Maggie to announce that she is pregnant. Big Mama is elated because she believes a child will sober Brick. Big Mama rushes out to tell Big Daddy the good news. Gooper makes a drink for himself while Mae accuses Maggie of lying.

A thunderous moan of pain overcomes the house. Gooper and Mae run to Big Daddy’s bedroom. Maggie scolds Brick for not backing her story. Brick says that it has not happened yet, the peaceful click in his mind. He asks for a pillow from the bed in preparation for his slumber on the couch, and the peaceful click occurs with Brick’s next drink. Maggie tells her husband that she used to think he was the stronger in their relationship, but now that he drinks, she has become the stronger. Maggie asks him to bed, and she explains that it is her time to conceive. Brick asks how that is possible with a man in love with his liquor. Maggie counters that she has locked the liquor away until he satisfies her. Brick grabs his crutch and attempts to get up, but Maggie steals the crutch away from him.

Big Mama rushes into the bedroom still euphoric with the news of the pregnancy. Big Daddy’s groans are heard, prompting Big Mama to rush out again. Maggie states that the lie is going to become the truth. She proposes that she and Brick get drunk after they have conceived. She switches off the lamp and declares her love for him. Brick comments that it would be funny if her declaration were true.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)/IMDB

COMMENTARY

There are several versions of the final moments of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The ending outlined above is from Williams’s first published version of the play(1955). The version that was created for the premiere production on Broadway (under the direction of Elia Kazan) in 1954 differs from this version in the manipulation of the last lines. Kazan believed the play needed a less harsh ending. In the Kazan version, after Maggie suggests she and Brick conceive a child and get drunk together, Brick states, “I admire you, Maggie.” He then turns out the light, and she likens his “weak” condition to “gold you let go of.” She says she is determined to give him back his life. This version of the play ends with Maggie posing the following question: “And nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof—is there? Is there, Baby?” This version of the script lessens Brick’s tragedy, as he chooses Maggie and their marriage rather than merely surrendering to her.

A third and final version of the script, created for the 1974 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Ashley, is a combination of the two endings. In this version, Big Daddy reappears to tell a joke. Although the severity of Brick’s tragic fate (tragic because he does not want Maggie) is not completely restored in this version, it is, however, less neatly packaged than the 1950s happy ending. Brick still comments on his admiration for Maggie, but when Maggie declares her love for him, Brick responds, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?”

The nuances that are created in the slight manipulation of the last lines dramatically affect the overall weight of the play. The original version’s impact lies in Brick’s tragic turn in his forfeiting dominance to Maggie the Cat, an ingenious shift that occurs in the final seconds of the lengthy play; the second and third versions of the script shift the play’s focus to Maggie. She remains in control of the plot, and the introduction of such sudden and complete tenderness between these mismatched characters seems heavy-handed and inconsistent. In his preface or note of explanation about the changes Kazan wanted in the script, Williams stated, “The moral paralysis of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy, and to show a dramatic progression would obscure the meaning of that tragedy in him . . . because I don’t believe that a conversation, however revelatory, ever effects so immediate a change in the heart or even conduct of a person in Brick’s state of spiritual disrepair.” Williams, however, conceded and made the change because he wanted Kazan to direct the play. Williams admired Kazan and in the same preface he defends the director: “No living playwright, that I can think of, hasn’t something valuable to learn about his own work from a director so keenly perceptive as Elia Kazan.”

In this play, Williams pushes the boundaries of subjects taboo at this time, such as homosexuality (particularly taboo in the South), decay, disease and death, and depression stemming from the mendacity of life. Interestingly, the play is based on the short story “Three Players of a Summer Game,” in which the character Brick Pollitt loves the company of women.

Although he is profane, violent, and gluttonous, Big Daddy is interestingly and surprisingly tolerant. He questions the source of Brick’s alcoholism, implying that Brick’s relationship with Skipper was more than platonic. Big Daddy explains that his plantation was previously owned by two men, and Brick and Maggie’s bedroom was in fact the bedroom of the men who lovingly shared their lives together. In his stage directions to the play, Williams writes, “The room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon.” Whereas Big Daddy is tolerant about this relationship, Brick rages, rails, and cannot accept the idea. Big Daddy validates Brick’s loss. He also addresses his self-possessed tolerance: “Always, anyhow, lived with too much space around me to be infected by ideas of other people. One thing you can grow on a big place more important than cotton!—is tolerance!—I grown it!” At the heart of Big Daddy’s unexpected act of understanding is an enlightened view of himself in relation to the world around him: his rebellious approach to living without societal pressures to conform and his uncommon belief that tolerance for human beings is more important than any cash crop. His tolerance is widely overlooked and underrated in traditional scholarship.

The core of Brick’s pain stems from the phone call in which Skipper revealed to Brick his love and desire for him. Brick’s guilt arises from his insensitive response to Skipper and Skipper’s subsequent suicide. Big Daddy responds to this story by saying, “This disgust with mendacity is disgust with yourself. You!—dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!—before you’d face the truth with him!” Brick’s only defense when cornered in such a profound way is to counter with the attack that Big Daddy is dying of cancer. His rejection of this personal truth runs so deeply, his internalized homophobia is so severe, that in this moment of rare understanding, Brick lashes out, severing the unprecedented connection with his father.

Big Daddy’s dysfunctional and loathsome marriage with Big Mama is mirrored in Brick and Maggie’s relationship. This is another tragic element in the play, as their marriage is destined to become more miserable and unbearable. Maggie and Big Mama are similar creatures in that they both search for the satisfaction of knowing they are admired and loved by their husbands. Brick’s love for Maggie has been usurped by another: the memory of his beloved Skipper, whom Maggie exposed (Maggie “tested” his sexuality when she lured him to bed and he could not perform). Brick blames Maggie for Skipper’s death. As Nancy Tischler comments, “Brick, knowing how Maggie forced this intolerable self-realization on Skipper, sees her as his enemy, while Maggie feels that this, like everything she does, was a testimony of her all-embracing love for Brick” (Tischler, 201). What is left of this marriage is a rudimentary set of assigned roles that Maggie must force upon Brick. It is revealed in the final moments of the play that she indeed proves victorious. Brick gives up and sleeps with the enemy.

Maggie is a strong woman, determined to become a wealthy plantation owner. She does love Brick, but for her it is impossible to separate the idea of Brick from his social position and potential power. Although Brick is the athlete, no one understands competition and winning more than the powerful Maggie. In the original version of the script, it is her strength and her assuming the willful characteristics of Big Daddy that finally reward her. Her trump card is her pregnancy, and upon declaring herself with child, Maggie wins the plantation, conquering Gooper and Mae and their host of “no-neck” children, as well as achieving intimacy with her handsome Brick.

CHARACTERS

Baugh, Dr.

He is the Pollitt family doctor, who delivers the news that Big Daddy is dying of cancer. He relays this awful news at Big Daddy’s birthday party. Dr. Baugh stands in the shadows during heated family arguments.

Big Daddy

A prominent Southern plantation owner and tycoon, Big Daddy is profane, gluttonous, and brutally honest. Big Daddy is terminally ill but is told by his family that his test results prove that he is healthy. In a heated argument with his alcoholic son, Brick Pollitt, regarding Brick’s implied sexual relationship with his friend Skipper, Brick lashes out and tells his father that he is actually dying of cancer. Like Boss Finley of Sweet Bird of Youth, Big Daddy is a powerful figure in his community. Talk of his impending death ushers in a whirlwind of change in which his son, Gooper Pollitt, intends to profit.Big Daddy also shares Boss Finely’s boisterous point of view and outlook on life. He is arguably Williams’s most famous male character.

Big Mama

The wife of Big Daddy. She and Big Daddy have been married nearly 40 years. Despite their years together, Big Mama still searches for ways to know she is loved by Big Daddy. Big Mama is the matriarch of a large family, including Brick and Margaret Pollitt, Gooper and Mae Pollitt, and a host of grandchildren. She is fun-loving and colorful and openly expresses her sincere love for her family. When Big Daddy is diagnosed with cancer, Big Mama refuses to believe the news because she cannot fathom a life without him. She is faced with the decision about which son will run their plantation.

Pollitt, Brick

He is the son of Big Daddy and Big Mama and husband of Margaret “Maggie the Cat” Pollitt. Brick is a jaded soul whose life is spent in an alcohol-induced haze of memories about Skipper, a friend with whom he shared a mutual attraction. When Skipper revealed his love for Brick, Brick did not acknowledge it. Skipper then committed suicide. Brick has never forgiven himself for not being honest with his friend. Brick blames Maggie for revealing the sexual tension that existed between the two men. Maggie is very unhappy because Brick refuses to be intimate with her. Brick eventually gives in to his wife’s continual demands. As the play ends, Brick forfeits his own personal desires to satisfy Maggie. He succumbs to the mendacity of life.

Pollitt, Gooper

He is married to Mae Pollitt. Gooper competes with his parents’ favorite son, Brick Pollitt. This tension escalates as it is revealed that their father, Big Daddy, is dying of cancer andwill leave behind an empire of wealth and the largest plantation in the state of Mississippi. Gooper and Mae have produced several children to please Big Daddy and Big Mama, but their obvious opportunism is scorned by the other members of the family.

Pollitt, Mae

She is the wife of Gooper Pollitt. Mae rails against her brother-in-law and his wife, Brick and Margaret Pollitt. She competes with them by having children to be the heirs of the Pollitt wealth and plantation. Mae is ruthless about securing the rights to the estate, and when it becomes known that Big Daddy is dying of cancer, she and Gooper set up camp at their home, equipped with a contract in preparation for the final moment.

Pollitt, Margaret (Maggie the Cat)

She is the wife of Brick Pollitt. As the title of the play suggests, Maggie is the catalyst for the plot of the play. She married the handsome Brick because she values his social standing and his money and because she loves him. Having grown up in poverty, Maggie has no doubts about the power of wealth, and so she openly competes with her brother-in-law, Gooper Pollitt, and his wife, Mae Pollitt, for the best position in the family. Brick is an alcoholic, and Maggie makes excuses for his behavior and lack of participation in family events, as well as covering up the severity of his condition. When it is revealed that Big Daddy is dying of cancer, Maggie deceives the family by announcing that she is pregnant, in a ploy to inherit the family’s plantation. Despite Brick’s lack of interest in the inheritance or his wife, he decides to play the game with her. Maggie proves triumphant.

Reverend Tooker

He is the Pollitt family’s minister. The Reverend Tooker attends a birthday party for Big Daddy, who donates significant amounts of money to his church. When the news breaks that Big Daddy is dying of cancer, the Reverend Tooker says a quick good-bye instead of consoling the family. His interest in the family seems fueled by financial gain.

FURTHER READING
Bloom, Harold, ed. Tennessee Williams. Modern Critical Views series. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Griffith, Alice. Understanding Tennessee Williams. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Kolin, Philip, ed. Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.
Rader, Dotson. Tennessee: Cry of the Heart. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.
Rondane, Matthew C., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.
Tischler, Nancy. Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan. New York: The Citadel Press, 1965.
Williams, Dakin, and Shepherd Mead. Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography. New York: Arbor House, 1983.Windham, Donald. As if . . . Verona, Italy, 1985.
Yacowar, Maurice. Tennessee Williams and Film. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.



Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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