Essays and Criticism
In Search of Blessings
Many early critics argued that the central conflict of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Brick's struggle with homosexuality—his reluctance to either admit his own homosexual tendencies or to understand those of his friend, Skipper. These critics saw Maggie's desire for a child as an attempt to counterbalance Brick's ambivalence and win him back to his "true" sexual nature. Yet the play is not explicit in explaining his desires or true motivations. Walter Kerr, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, referred to Brick's "private wounds and secret drives" as "a secret half-told" about which Williams is less than candid. Williams defended himself against this accusation by asserting that "The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that...interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis." In other words, Williams denied that homosexuality per se was the central issue of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Whether or not homosexuality is central, Brick, who appears in every scene of the play, is clearly a pivotal character.
Benjamin Nelson, in his book Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work, argued that the play was not at all about Brick's sexuality but about his idealism and "tragic disillusionment." Brick tells Big Daddy that he drinks out of "disgust" with "mendacity." New Republic critic Roger Ashton also suggested that the play is interested in "truth as a motivating force in human life." Williams's corroborated this reading by saying in a 1957 interview, "I meant for the audience to discover how people erect false values by not facing what is true to their natures, by having to live a lie."
Certainly the characters in the play demonstrate an unusual preoccupation with telling or withholding the truth, about Big Daddy's cancer, about the true nature of Bnck' s relationship with Skipper, and about Brick's role in Skipper's death. If the play revolves around the revelation of truth or around the characters' ability to withstand or tell the truth, then one expects that these issues will get resolved out at the end. In Big Daddy's case, they are. He receives the truth about his cancer from Brick, howls in rage at those who withheld this truth from him, then goes offstage, ostensibly to die. Unfortunately, this all takes place in Act II with an entire act left in the play. According to the "truth" reading, the third act would show how Brick resolves his relationship to truth and mendacity. This question is left unanswered, however, and a great deal of stage time is spent with Brick's inner thoughts hidden.
The final act, which Williams revised three times to total four versions, has received a great deal of criticism; the majority of negative criticism condemned the act as a poor ending to a powerful play. Many critics have argued that the heart of the play lies in the confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy and that once they say their piece to each other (in Act II), the story is essentially over. Yet the play meanders around and around in a contest between Gooper, Mae, and Maggie regarding the estate. Another reading of the play, one which takes into account the importance of the distribution of property in the play, helps to justify the actions of the final Act. The attention to the estate in Act III may not in fact be a flaw in balance but rather a continuation of an important conflict that actually frames and puts into context the central conflict between Brick and Big Daddy.
A clue to reconciling the secondary characters' conflict over the property with the friction between Brick and his father lies in the inscription Williams included on the title page of the play. It is from Dylan Thomas's poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night"
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan's poem is an exhortation to fight against death, to live fully until the very last moment of life. The last two lines are often quoted when a person is dying. The phrase, "rage, rage" recalls Shakespeare's King Lear in his moment of madness preceding his death. His madness stems from his daughters' rejection of him once he has given them all of his wealth and property; he realizes that they care more for his kingdom and wealth than for him as a person. Wandering cold and alone, he shouts impotently against a storm, "Rage! Blow!" Like King Lear, Big Daddy also recognizes the inherent greed in his offspring, and in the moments before his death, he too rages impotently ("Lying dying liars!") while his children continue to compete for his fortune.
The first two lines of the Thomas poem also bear relevance to Williams's play. These are the less frequently...
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Willams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, among other related themes, clearly a play about the sexual ambivalence of males toward females. Even the minor characters for whom little or no conflict is presented, are to various degrees or in various ways epicene in nature; the preacher humorously so; the two former owners of the plantation (while they lived) openly and complacently so; and Brick's older brother and foil, shielded by his maternalistic wife's appalling (to Maggie at least) fertility, unconsciously so. (Witness how his and his wife's laments over Big Mamma's lack of affection for him are bluntly explained by the mother: "Gooper never liked Daddy.") Add to this revelation the at least rough similarity between Big Mamma's and Mae's deficient emotional and intellectual development, and Gooper, for what it matters, can be seen as a typically Oedipal son in an obliviously blissful marriage to a woman redolent of his mother if possibly more affectionate.
But there is far more substantial motivation in the play for Big Daddy's preference for Brick as favorite son and heir-apparent than Gooper's repressed hostility for the father, revealed by his transparent hypocrisy and insensitive greed. The reason for Big Daddy's persistent affection for Brick and his reluctance to disinherit him in spite of Brick's childless state and his increasingly irresponsible alcoholism lies in the subtle sexual affinities the father shares with his troubled son.
These affinities are quintessential to the meaning of the play, and Williams in his original version, before acquiescing to a revised third act for Broadway, takes great care to develop them not only through the action but even through form, by a canny (and I think heretofore unnoticed) use of parallel and finally, climactically, identical lines of dialogue.
As the action builds in the brutal second act, Big Daddy shocks his son by alluding to his knowledge of and tolerance for homosexual experiences. When...
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Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was heralded by some as the play in which homosexuality was at last to be presented without evasion. But the miracle has still not happened.
The cat of the title is the heroine, the roof her husband; he would like her to jump off, that is, find a lover. Driven by passions he neither understands nor controls, he takes to drink and envies the moon; the hot cat and the cool moon being the two chief symbols and points of reference in the play. The boy says he has taken to drink because "mendacity is the system we live in." His father, however, explains that this is an evasion: the real reason is that he is running away from homosexuality. At this point, the author abruptly changes the subject to the father's mortal illness, and he never really gets back to it. One does not of course demand that he"cure'' the boy, only that he present him: he should tell the audience, even if he does not tell the boy himself, whether a "cure" is possible, and, if not, whether homosexuality is something this individual can accept as the truth about himself. At present, one can only agree with the father that the story is fatally incomplete.
If some things in Mr. Williams' story are too vaguely defined, others are defined in a manner far too summary and definite. The characters, for example, are pushed around by an obsessively and mechanically sexual interpretation of life. "How good is he (or she) in bed?" is what everyone asks of everyone. Now it seems to me that there are people, even in the world of Tennessee Williams who would not ask this question, especially not of those who are near and dear. And what does the query mean? A girl seems good in bed if you like her; otherwise, she seems bad in bed; and for most of us that is the heart of the matter. Mr. Williams, who apparently disagrees, sends his people to bed rather arbitrarily. The husband's friend, in the new play, goes there with the wife to prove he is not homosexual. She must have been seeing Tea and Sympathy, for she cooperates. In the circumstances we can hardly be surprised that he proves impotent; yet he reaches the startlingly excessive conclusion that he is homosexual; and kills himself. Surely the author can't be assuming that a man is either 100 percent heterosexual or 100 percent homosexual? One wouldn't know; the whole thing is disposed of so grandly in quick, if lengthy, narratives. It is perhaps characteristic that the plot depends for its plausibility upon our not questioning that if a man and woman come together once, a child will result.
Not all the characters are credible. If a girl has a hunch that her husband is homosexual, does she simply clamor for him to sleep with her? Not, certainly, if she is the kind of girl portrayed at the Morosco by Barbara Bel Geddes. Which brings me to the relation of play and production. It seems to be a relation of exact antithesis. When the curtain first goes up, Mr. Williams sends on stage a girl whose dress has been spilled on at dinner; but, so far as the audience can see, the dress is as spotless as it is golden and sparkling. It is the same with her personality and character. From the author: a rather ordinary girl, bornee, perhaps stupid, shabby genteel. From the production: Barbara Bel Geddes, the very type of non-shabby, upper-class gentility, wholesome as a soap ad. It is the same with other characters. Burl Ives may not be right for Williams' shocking vulgarian of a father, but his pleasantness certainly keeps (to use his own vocabulary) the audience from puking. Ben Gazzara may not seem Southern, or a football player, or a TV announcer (the...
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