Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams (1955)

Summary:  Adult brothers Brick and Gooper, accompanied by their wives and (in Gooper's case) children, are visiting their parents at the family plantation situated on 28,000 acres in Mississippi.  Big Daddy, their father, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and the brothers must find a way to relay the bad news to both of their parents, while each jockeying for a larger portion of the family inheritance (over ten million dollars in liquid assets alone).

While the circumstances create a tense situation; the primary tension of the play surrounds Brick's sexuality. Brick has been married to Maggie for years, though the two have never produced a child.  Maggie (the highly sexualized cat on a hot tin roof) and Big Daddy both accost Brick about his sexuality and the drinking problem that began when his best "friend" Skipper died.  

Early in the play, Maggie tells Brick, "Later tonight I'm going to tell you I love you an' maybe by that time you'll be drunk enough to believe me" (38).  In the final scene of the play, Maggie announces to the family that she is pregnant with Brick's child, thus making "Big Daddy's dream come true" and securing their larger portion of the family fortune (168).  In the final moments of the play, the family leaves the room and Maggie tells Brick that she has locked up the liquor and won't give it back until he has sex with her.  She states, "Tonight we're going to make the lie true, and when that's done, I'll bring the liquor back here and we'll get drunk together, here, tonight, in this place that death has come into" (173).  She adds that she loves him, and the play concludes with Brick's final statement, "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?" (173).  

Thoughts:  For months, I've been thinking that I had read this play before and simply didn't remember it, but that is not the case.  This was definitely my first read of this play and I greatly enjoyed it.

Seven years after winning his first Pulitzer for A Streetcar Named Desire, this play involves many of the same subject areas (dysfunctional family, tension with in-laws, gay issues, alcohol, fighting).  Earlier in the project, I wrote about being in awe of Edward Albee's fight scenes...and this is an area where Tennessee Williams also excels, particularly within the confines of a very tense family situation.  While Maggie is constantly complaining about the children being vaguely annoying, they have little effect on the play with one exception.  When she is attempting to scold one of her nieces, the child (named Dixie) says to her, "You're jealous!  You're just jealous because you can't have babies!"  (62).  Williams' stage direction before Dixie's line reads, "With a precocious instinct for the cruelest thing."  Even the children at the periphery of this family know how to throw trump cards in a fight.

While Williams' plays are favorites of actors, he also uses stage directions to make the texts highly readable.  Instead of using stage directions simply for the most basic of blocking and emotional cues, he includes a great deal of information about his characters in these italicized pieces of text.  Moments after Big Daddy has suggested that Brick's relationship with Skipper was, "not, well, exactly normal", the stage directions note: 

"Brick's detachment is at last broken through.  His heart is accelerated; his forehead sweat-beaded, his breath becomes more rapid and his voice hoarse.  The thing they're discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick's side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them.  The fact that if it existed it had to be disavowed to "keep face" in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the "mendacity" that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with.  It may be the root of his collapse.  Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important.  The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem.  I'm trying to catch the true quality of existence in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent--fiercely charged!--interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.  Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself.  This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can:  but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.  

[The following scene should be played with great concentration, with most of the power leashed but palpable in what is left unspoken.]" Act 2, 116-117). 

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