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.

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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.

James Baldwin, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956): Destructive Love

Considering that Giovanni, the Italian bartender who begins a relationship with the narrator, an American expat in Paris, is executed for the murder of the owner of a gay bar at the end of the novel Giovanni’s Room, we might assume that he is the destructive one.  Indeed, it is Giovanni that has the emotional outbreaks and displays his feelings for all to see.  Reading this novel, I could not help but feel that the true destructive force was David – the expat – who was capable of keeping his emotions quite tied up.  David is the narrator of the novel, but there is no reason to trust that his confession is fully honest.  He tries – and is mostly successful – in keeping his emotions tied down.  But in doing so he destroyed a number of people’s lives, contributing to the deaths of two, and ruining his own relationships.  On this theme, there is really not special about the theme of homosexuality.  David could as easily have been a conflicted heterosexual, leading to the same destruction, even though he would not have been conflicted for the same reasons.   I do not want to downplay how traumatic David’s homosexuality may have been for him.  Much of the novel involves his struggle with it, his lies to his family, his effort to sustain a heterosexual relationship with the charming Hella, his guilt over his feelings for Giovanni, and the relative sexual freedom he enjoyed as an expat.  These would all be framed different had David not been imagined as a homosexual.  That said, no shortage of heterosexuals have experiences pressures to marry within their class, to respect long dead marital vows, or to protect their relationship with their children.  Romantic expectations affect us all.  Their tyrannical power is simply more clearly seen in works covering the most oppressed sexual minorities.

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Baldwin’s novel is broken up into two parts.  The first sets up David’s relationship with Giovanni, which grew out of the relative boredom David felt as Hella traveled in Spain.  Through his homosexual friend Jacques, David is introduced to Giovanni and the gay bar that would be so important in the plot.  Jacques invited David to recklessness with a very convincing monologues that can be applied to numerous situations.  All that is required for a full realization of life’s potential is the absence of a concern about the future.  Liberty requires a degree of recklessness.  “Love him, love him and let him love you.  Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?   And how long, at the best, can it last?  since you are both men and still have everywhere to go?  Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark.  And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his.  But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.  You play it safe long enough and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and and forever and forever–like me.” (267)  If is convincing enough that David is chooses to begin a relationship with Giovanni.

The second part of the novel focuses on the destructive nature of David’s decisions.  One could almost say that the root of his problems was that he was not projectural or destructive enough.  He took Jacques’ advice seriously in the short-term but did not carry it out.  (Can any of us?)  His family expectations and his relationship with Hella convince him to move out of Giovanni’s room.  Fearing the future, David picks up a homely woman, only to leave her.  It seems he wanted to prove that he could play heterosexual prior to Hella’s return.  Almost simultaneously Giovanni is fired from his job and  ends up scraping by on the charity of his friends.  David greeted the returning Hella with a marriage proposal (which also works as a cover to get some money from his father).  Giovanni is distraught by David moving out and by his lack of work or money.  Giovanni brutally kills the bar owner, Guillaume.  The events leading up to the murder were his confession to Giovanni that he was essentially used up (“Giovanni, like a falling move star, has lost his drawing power.”)  A bar like his needed an unknown, mystery man.  Giovanni is put on trial and the newspapers reveal all the notiorious details of his life in Paris.  He is executed at the same time that the narrator tells his story.  The final loose end is the collapse of Hella and David’s relationship, which was destroyed by the exposure of his homosexuality.  She discovered him with a sailor.  In the second half, David’s most destructive act was his attempt to reinvest in his relationship with Hella, considering he had the chance to escape.  Who knows if there was any future for Giovanni and David.  It is also wrong to assume that there was nothing meaningful in his plans with Hella.  It was David’s attempt to have it all that was so destructive.  Did he have any alternatives?  He could have listened to Jacques’ advice and stopped playing it safe, stopped despising his flesh and desires.  Yes, it would have required a painful and honest moment with Hella and himself.  It might have avoided the broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken souls that we are left with at the end of Giovanni’s Room.

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A final biographical note on Baldwin in Europe is in order.  Baldwin lived in France between 1950 and 1954.  This novel was published two years later.  Not as dramatic as the events of Giovanni’s Room happened to Baldwin.  The biographical sketch at the end of the “Library of America” volume suggests he spent most of his time writing.  He likely knew about expats scraping by and can speak from personal experience and observation about the comparative freedoms expats enjoy.  These are themes in the novel.  While it is true that expats (often Zygmunt Bauman’s tourists) have liberties that people closer to home lack, we should not overstate the significance of this.  At best, it can be a lifestyle approach to freedom.  Not all of us are capable of moving abroad and most that do move abroad do so as economic migrants and often find their life in a new land to be one of drudgery, labor, and exploitation.  David (like Baldwin) came to France with a bank account, connections, and a U.S. Passport.

Enjoy a James Baldwin interview, recorded in 1963, mostly on race issues.