Tennessee Williams: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955)

Life is important. There’s nothing else to hold onto. A man that drinks is throwing his life away. Don’t do it, hold onto your life. There’s nothing else to hold onto. (Big Daddy, 927)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was first performed in 1955. It was written by Tennessee Williams and direct by Elia Kazan (who previously directed the Broadway version of A Streetcar Named Desire). The entire play takes place over the course of a single evening in the wealthy plantation household. The news has just arrived that the patriarch of the family. Big Daddy, will soon die of cancer. The imminence of this unavoidable date is made clear in the third act. There are two major related tensions throughout the play. The first about when the break the news to Big Daddy and Big Mama and how to talk to them about the inheritance, which Big Daddy has postponed dealing with by not writing a will. The second tension is about the younger son Brick, who has started drinking after the death of his close friend Skipper. As we learn later in the play, not long before he died, Skipper confessed homosexual desires toward Brick. Brick becomes disgusted with the “mendacity” of life, his family, and himself. He starts drinking, refuses to have sex with his wife Margaret (who apparel he was always a bit sexually aloof toward). This sparks rumors in the household that Brick shared Skipper’s homosexuality. Margaret’s inability to convince of a child connects these two tensions. Brick’s brother and sister-in-law have many children and use that to bolster their claim to the inheritance, although Big Daddy and Big Mama clearly favor Brick. I am sure the plot is mostly well-known, so I will get right into it.

cat

Williams was fascinated and horrified by the emotional burden placed on people by their family. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the clearest examples of family suppressing honesty and openness about desire that I can think of in literature. Saying that is immediately undermined by the fact that there is a whole lot of confessional in the three hours that follow the play’s story. Margaret confesses sleeping with Skipper again. While it turns out that was Skipper’s attempt to know the truth about his sexuality, Margaret saw it as a more spiritual effort to be closer to Brick. She also confesses to her sexual needs. Brick’s elder brother, Gooper, more or less confesses to his clear desire to inherit the plantation despite the lack of sentiment between him and the family. The doctors and the family confess to Big Mama and Big Daddy about the cancer diagnosis. Brick confesses to Big Daddy about why he drinks and the details of his love for Skipper. Big Daddy confesses to everyone his contempt for his wife. Big Daddy confesses in private to Brick about his own sexual desires and his regret for not experiencing more women when he could. With all this confessing you would think they were the most open family in the United States. Yet, this explosive night comes at the end of years of lies, subterfuge, and false faces. As Brick explains, he drinks because of disgust over “mendacity.”

I would like to take a close look at Big Daddy. His confession is not a death bed confession. He comes back from the doctor rejuvenated. Sick for quite a while, he was certain he was to die. The family and the doctors tell him that he will live and that he has only a “spastic colon.” This is presumably to protect Big Daddy on his birthday party, but we suspect the real reason for the subterfuge is to give Mae (Brick’s sister-in-law) and Gooper time to prepare their scheme to secure the plantation. No, Big Daddy’s confession is a confession of someone reborn into the world. He feels momentarily reborn. He wants to use this fresh start to knock Brick out of his premature death through the same kind of embrace of radical honesty. I am convinced that Big Daddy wanted to knock Brick correct so that they could go off together on some sort of adventure.

The core of Big Daddy’s confession is that he has been sexually repressed by his obligation to his family, the plantation, and to his wife. Big Mama is surprised at the contempt Big Daddy levels are her. I did not read this as the lies of a long-suffering wife. It sounded to me that she was authentically shocked. Big Daddy is bringing something new to the table and we need to read it as a blueprint for the future, a future he believes will go on for a number of years.

Ignorance—of morality—is a comfort. A man don’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing which is the way that anything living should go, go without knowing, without any knowledge of it, and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it. [. . .] Yes, boy. I’ll tell you something that you might not guess. I still have desire for woman and this is my sixty-fifth birthday. [. . .] It is, remarkable and admirable both. I realize now that I never had me enough. I let many chances slip by because of scruples about it, scruples, convention—crap . . . . All that stuff is bull, bull, bull!—It took the shadow of death to make me see it. Now that shadow’s lifted, I’m doing to cut loose and have, what is it they call it, have me a—ball! (932–933)

A few minutes later, he takes on a less lurid and more philosophical tone, highlighting the absolute confinement that the plantation and his family has burdened him with. When he discusses cancer it is in the terms of imprisonment.

The human machine is not no different from the animal machine or the fish machine or the bird machine or the reptile machine or the insect machine! It’s just a whole God damn lot more complicated and consequently more trouble to keep together. Yep. I thought I had it. The earth shook under my foot, the sky come down like the black lid of a kettle and I couldn’t breathe!—Today!!—that lid was lifted, I drew my first free breath in —how many years? (937–938)

I cannot help to read that as a long-term perspective on his marriage. I do not want to give too much sympathy to Big Daddy. He is, after all, a quite brutal planter. He made his fortune starting as an overseers (and we know how those tended to be during the height of Jim Crow). If the plantation household was a den of mendacity, it was that way due to the design of Big Daddy. His brutality to his wife and elder son is hard to read at times. Yet, for one evening he was also to taste the freedom from the moral burden of the family. This is a harness around people of all classes and of all ages. It is also comforting to know that he is not alone. Many other characters taste a bit of freedom from that “disgust” that Brick is most honest about.

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