Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams uses his unconventional “hero,” Brick, to craft a sad story of desire which mirrors his own. Brick has become an alcoholic to distance himself from the world around him and “deal” with his problems by simply avoiding them. Though not identical, the inner struggles revealed in Brick are much like those that Williams encountered in his own life (Jones). But this only to be inferred, as Williams asserts, “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” (85). So Williams divulges parts of himself discreetly in Brick’s character through his struggle with homosexuality (which though never stated directly is clearly woven into the narrative) and his disapproval of conventional societal norms, such as the desire for marriage and children (of which Brick wants neither). If we take Williams’ personal experiences into account we are able to more fully understand Brick’s character and infer a new level of depth that Williams gives to him. After all, it is a playwrights duty, confides Williams, to stay away from “pat conclusions [and] facile definitions which can make a play just a play, [instead of] a snare for the truth of human consciousness” (85).

Because of these beliefs Williams provides his plays with a sense of blatant honesty. With this strategy he was able to pave the way for a new type of American theatre; one where life was portrayed in a more realistic way than before. For Brick, this honesty means dealing with the fact that he is confined in his marriage to Maggie (who he does not love but stays with to keep up appearances) as well as the memory of his best friend, Skipper, who pushed Brick to question their feelings for each other (though he refuses to do so). By creating what would be viewed in the Fifties as very unconventional relationships between Brick, Maggie, and Skipper, Williams is ultimately critiquing and challenging the sexuality and the institution of marriage.

The triangular relationship between Brick, Maggie, and Skipper also reveals an ineffable desire in Brick—one that can only be settled by the “click” which he gets from drinking. After Skipper makes what Brick refers to as a “drunken confession” over the phone, Brick hangs up on him and reveals that this is the “last time [they] ever spoke to each other in [their] lives” (92). Big Daddy reproaches Brick, yelling, “You!—dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!—before you’d face the truth with him!” (92). Still Brick does not agree, but instead calls Skipper’s confession “his truth, not mine” (92). But Williams does not intend for his audience to believe this is how Brick feels. Rather, Williams crafts a narrative which suggests that Brick is haunted by his friend Skipper and longs to let go of the guilt he feels from Skipper’s death. Brick denies reciprocating Skipper’s feelings because he couldn’t bear the judgment society would place on him, telling Big Daddy, “Don’t you know how people feel about things like that? How, how disgusted they are at things like that” (88)?  But it is this denial and societal pressure which causes Skipper to commit suicide and Brick to feel that it is his fault Skipper is no longer alive. Hence Williams is indirectly revealing the true reason that Brick must achieve “the click that [he] gets in [his] head that makes [him] peaceful” (73). He is struggling to deal with his own feelings of guilt and anger.

Though the play never clearly states whether or not Brick is actually homosexual, Williams makes it clear that he struggles with this notion. Williams relates this to the guilt that Brick feels which causes him to drink. Brick later tells Big Daddy the reason for his alcoholism is what he calls “mendacity.” When Big Daddy asks him who it is that has been lying he vaguely replies, “No one single person and no one lie…” (80), but Big Daddy doesn’t buy this. Instead he encourages Brick to come to terms with the true reason he drinks, telling him the “disgust with mendacity [is really] disgust with [himself]” (92). He mentions this because Big Daddy (and Williams alike) wants to reveal that the true mendacity that Brick is talking about is not caused by other people, but rather by that Brick’s denial of his “inappropriate” love for Skipper (Jones). Though Brick never admits it, his continued alcoholism suggests this is the real dishonesty which he must deal with, which links back to the idea of the “click” being a disappearance of the inability to live with his own deceitful actions. This deception has caused Brick to be angry, not only with Skipper for putting him in the compromising position in the first place which brings into question his own masculinity, but also with himself for being unable to deal with the truth because of the fear of societal rejection and the idea of being called a “queer” (86).

This struggle Brick has with homosexuality in a time where it was viewed as unacceptable and unthinkable is not unlike that which Williams underwent in his own life. The very idea of being gay in the Fifties was not openly discussed, and Williams brings this issue to the forefront with Brick’s constant de-masculinization of gay people (which he uses as a defense mechanism for his own feelings), referring to them as “queers” and “fairies” (89). Because of this, Williams has strategically de-masculinized Brick by representing him as a crippled “hero” who broke his ankle while trying to live in the past, “jumpin’ hurdles [at] two or three in the morning [on the high school athletic field]” (18). Thus Brick must use a crutch to stand, and because of his accident he, quite literally, cannot stand on his own two feet without it. Each time Brick has the crutch taken away it is symbolic of his masculinity being stolen from him, and he can’t stand it (Sparknotes). When he drops his crutch the first time Maggie asks that he “lean on [her]” but Brick purposefully refuses, exclaiming that he “[doesn’t] want to lean on [her], [he] just wants his crutch” (26). Much like depending on a crutch strips him of his independence, being gay (in his eyes) would strip him of his masculinity, and he simply can’t stand the idea of being without it. It is the very notion of Brick’s intense fear and disgust of his potential homosexuality which indicates the reality of his uncertainty.

Maggie lets on that she is also conscious of Brick’s questionable sexuality, confiding in him that she knows he and Skipper “had something that had to be kept on ice…and death was the only icebox where [they] could keep it” (44). But she is still very careful to never directly mention what this “thing” to be “kept on ice” is, indicating even more so the forbidden nature of the subject. Even in her tirade about Skipper, Maggie reassures Brick that she’s well aware that “it was only Skipper that harboured even any unconscious desire for anything not perfectly pure between [the] two” (44), acting as if she does not want to accuse Brick of a crime of sorts.

It is the relationship that is developed between Brick and Maggie which makes it apparent that he only stays with her to keep up the appearances for society, his family, and perhaps (to an extent) even for himself. Though she is his wife, Brick makes it clear that he cannot stand her and reminds her of the “conditions on which [he] agreed to stay on living with [her]” (28). These conditions are that Brick will not leave Maggie as long as he doesn’t have to sleep with her. He even pushes her to have an affair because he has absolutely no investment in the marriage or Maggie, though he tries to convince himself otherwise. He makes a feeble attempt at reinstating his reasons for staying in the marriage as conventional ones during his fight when he asks, “I married you, Maggie. Why would I marry you, Maggie, if I was…?” (44). But this attempt is feeble at best, and Maggie disregards it as she continues to tell about her mission with Skipper, begging him to “Stop lovin’ [her] husband or tell him he’s got to let you admit it to him” (45)!

The relationship between Brick and Maggie strongly contests the social norms. These are brought under further question by Williams given the fact that what Maggie wants and what Brick wants bears absolutely no resemblance to each other. Brick does not care about inheriting Big Daddy’s plantation nor does he want to have children, which Maggie desires because they offer her the confirmation from society. Instead, Brick’s only desire is to return to a state of happiness. When he starts singing, “Show me the way to go home” (116), Williams is revealing that Brick is not “home.” However, he is still holding onto the desire to return to the Edenic time of his life, when he was a professional athlete and Skipper was still alive, before he was immersed in his own guilt. Since Skipper is gone, Williams is making a statement that it is impossible to return to this (as much for himself and society as it is for Brick_, and instead Brick must forever live with the unfinished business between Skipper and himself, left to deal with his feelings on his own. It is a never-ending cycle of ineffable, insatiable desire; a realistic account of struggle in the Fifties, which is exactly what Williams intended it to be.


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4 thoughts on “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

  1. This was an enjoyable piece to read. I liked your approach to Williams in the aspect of homosexuality and developing identity in an unforgiving society, but I find much more in his work in his ability to represent these emotions and ideas. With Tennessee Williams, in the context of our class, I think it’s interesting to consider his place in the American Canon and really what role in general does the theatre play in Literature. On one hand the aspects of homosexuality and it’s role in society plays hard on the multicultural aspect of the canon. But from a theatrical side, Williams’ inclusion in the canon is slightly different. In reading Williams, I think the biggest thing that jumps out at me, aside from the messages in the dialogue, is his ability to create meaning and portray emotion through action and movement. In a modern world like this, with the technological advancements in media and communication that we live with, I think it’s important to note the importance of interpretation in all kinds of works. We not only read but we also interpret visual cues like form, color, body language, and facial gestures. I think this is why Williams is so important to the canon, in his ability to communicate with more than just words. Like Samuel Beckett, in many of his plays the dialogue takes a back seat to the action and movement in the play, as well as the set design and use of props. It’s an interesting argument in including a playwright in the Literary canon, but you certainly wrote a great piece on the multicultural aspects of Williams’ work.

    -Jimmy Litherland

  2. I think the wonderful thing about this story is that it illuminates the debilitating, even fatal consequences of self-denial; each of the main characters prove to be their own worst enemy. Maggie unwittingly denies herself of her real needs that go beyond inheriting a plantation or pro-creating. Brick drowns himself in alcohol to escape reality, because he is fully aware of his self-denial and resents the phony life he’s built. Skipper was so tormented by his own confusion that he commit suicide. Maggie, Brick, and Skipper were each looking for love and acceptance, and could have had those things if they would follow their instincts. A quote that comes to mind from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”- “the fear of being impolite overrides the fear of pain,” and I think it’s applicable to these characters who will sacrifice their own happiness for the purpose of being ‘right’ in the eyes of society.

    Addendum- If you’re obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor like I am, you should watch “Giant” with her, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. It’s amazing.

  3. Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie has always been one of my favorite plays; I originally planned to do my project on him, but I decided not to. It was a relief to have a classmate focus on his work, especially since I learned a lot. The reason I loved your presentation is because it clarified for me the many suspected beliefs I had about Williams. The readings you assigned had many similarities with what I was familiar with, and much of your reasoning (for Canonization) applies to his universal character. I went back and reread his play after your readings and presentation, and I thoroughly enjoyed this. Now (toward semester’s end) that I have a better understanding of the literary Canon, I agree with Jimmy’s comment that Williams uses work that is both literarily and visually appealing. I always felt that William guided my attention through immersion. For this reason, I think Williams’ Canonization important when considering the literature that preceded modern film and immersive (visual, audio, literary elements) entertainment.

    Omar

  4. Lauren,

    A well-written and interesting project. I find that people in this course have often been very interested in Williams, whereas most other dramatists are largely ignored. I have wondered why people find him so fascinating, and this project does a good job of addressing Williams’s place in American literature.

    The place I would think more about is with your statement, near the end of the biography:

    “Using a combination of realism, naturalism, and expressionism, Williams wrote more than 24 full length plays. …In the end, Williams created a new type of theatre which had never been seen before, where the characters themselves were more important than the story line.”

    This is a solid observation and one that would be good to forefront instead of keeping buried at the end of the section. Then, you can frame the reading of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” through the analytical approach you set up with that statement and this one:

    “…there is more to Williams’s characters than meets the eye. He encourages his audience to look past the written word and find the true underlying meaning, not just in who the character is and how they feel, but often times in what they are saying as well.”

    Thus, your section on the play could start with this idea: “Because of these beliefs Williams provides his plays with a sense of blatant honesty. With this strategy he was able to pave the way for a new type of American theatre; one where life was portrayed in a more realistic way than before.” Then, you could show how the characters and play work to achieve this goal. Finally, you can link the biographical information and the character issues as they are presented through the dramatic presentation of the drama.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking project.

    Best,

    Tracy

    Also, check out this page on Williams:

    http://wuster338fall2011.wordpress.com/student-pages/tennessee-williams/

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