Describe how mental and physical disability manifest themselves in the three Tennessee Williams plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Suddenly Last Summer. 

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tennessee Williams once said "I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really." Such a quote comes from his own experience with his sister, Rose, as well as his upbringing, where people who "verge upon hysteria" seem to dominate.  This quote helps to explain why characters with mental and physical disabilities manifest themselves in his dramas.  In Sweet Bird of Youth, one sees where disability presents itself.  Chance Wayne's experiences in the armed services set the stage for his mental background. His emotional displacement is enhanced through his work as a gigolo and his inability to start over with ease.  The physical disability brought about by castration threatened by Boss Finley and Tom Junior is another significant aspect of his character.  Chance's characterization manifests the issue of mental disability that is such a part of his experience and narrative.  

In Suddenly Last Summer, the manifestation of disability is a significant part of the plot and its characters.  For example, Catherine Holly is destabilized through Sebastian's death.  Violet's insistence on a lobotomy for Catherine is reflective of the mental disability that Williams's sister, Rose, experienced at the hands of their mother.  The mental degradation that Catherine experience parallels the physical withering that Sebastian undergoes.  Along these lines, Sebastian's homosexuality and the torment this caused both within him and within members of the family is another example of how mental disability manifests itself in the drama.  The inability to accept homosexuality as a natural part of consciousness causes a great deal of psychological degradation. Through these depictions, Suddenly Last Summer is reflective of Williams's manifestation of physical and mental disabilities.

Finally, Brick experiences a great deal of disability in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. His physical disability caused from playing football is matched by an emotional or mental disability to trust another human being and to trust himself.  The latent homosexuality that Brick might have experienced towards Skipper's love is at the root of his problems with Maggie and Big Daddy.  Williams develops Brick's character as one torn apart by different levels of mendacity.  Big Daddy himself has to deal with the reality of mendacity from those around him as well as the physical disability brought about by cancer and his own limited mortality.  In these instances, Williams creates characters that are defined by their physical and emotional or mental disabilities.  The manifestation of these disabilities bring about characters who are scared of living and terrified of the alternative, ones whose strength is tested by the physical and mental conditions within them.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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