What is the importance of long stage directions in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams?
Tennessee Williams employed lengthy stage directions in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because of the complexity of the relationships involved and because of the subtext of potentially repressed homosexuality that runs through the play. When the main characters are introduced, Williams is deliberate in establishing the physical attractiveness and virility of Brick and Maggie, the couple at the center of the play whose strained relationship provides the subtext. In addition to those “attributes,” Williams wants the audience to recognize that, despite this couple’s attractiveness, it is a dysfunctional relationship and one that involves the abuse of alcohol. Note in the following excerpt from the stage direction the playwright’s description of the young, handsome, and seemingly troubled character of Brick:
He is still slim and firm as a boy.—His liquor hasn't started tearing him down outside. He has the additional charm of that cool air of detachment that people have who have given up the struggle. But now and then, when disturbed, something flashes behind it, like lightning in a fair sky, which shows that at some deeper level he is far from peaceful.
These are intricate and difficult stage directions to impose upon an actor, but Brick is a complicated character haunted by demons yet to be revealed. Similarly, the character of Maggie, the highly sexualized and beautiful woman whose marriage to the athlete-turned-alcoholic may hinge on the open revelation of a fundamental flaw in their relationship, is torn between her desire to be loved by the virile and handsome Brick and her innate need to present the proper façade to Brick’s imposing father and his obnoxious, scheming sister. In the following stage direction, which takes place in the context of yet another argument between Brick and Maggie, Williams forces his actor to visibly repress the truth she does not wish to acknowledge while buffeting an increasingly fragile façade of normality:
She forcibly controls what must have been an impulse to cry out. We see her deliberately, very forcibly going all the way back to the world in which you can talk about ordinary matters.
In addition to the depiction of a marriage possibly built upon a lie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also depicts the difficult relationship between the tortured Brick and his imposing and professionally successful father, whose medical condition provides another subtext against which Brick and Maggie’s marriage is drawn. Big Daddy is the alpha male in this house, and his love and devotion to his favorite son provides much of the play’s drama. It is in the interaction between father and son that the subtext of homosexuality involving Brick’s relationship with his deceased friend Skipper plays out most forcefully. It is within this context that one of Williams’s longest stage directions is provided:
Brick's detachment is at last broken through. . . . The thing they're discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick's side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them. The fact that if it existed it had to be disavowed to "keep face" in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the "mendacity" that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with. . . . The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. 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. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can—but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just play, not a snare for the truth of human experience. The following scene should be played with great concentration, with most of the power leashed but palpable in what is left unspoken.
This exceedingly lengthy stage direction illustrates the playwright’s determination to depict the full complexity of human relationships. Note the sentence in the middle of the above passage: “I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people . . . interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” Williams, who knew a thing or two about the complexities of the human condition, desperately hoped to convey that complexity on the stage, and it is in his stage directions that the requirement for above-average acting is evident: “The power leashed but palpable in what is left unspoken” constitutes a very demanding expectation of the actors involved.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof contains numerous examples of lengthy stage directions. Tennessee Williams had a firm grasp on the type of human dynamics he wanted to convey. Only by providing such detailed and voluminous stage directions could he hope to see his vision realized on the stage (and, it should be noted, on the screen).
The stage directions for this particular play are almost a story in themselves. They are very descriptive and prescriptive, indicating that there was more to his play than the dialogue and the actions written into it were presenting. The length and thoroughness of these stage directions are important because they help the director and the actors to understand some of the story within the story.
For example, when describing the bed-sitting-room where most of the play takes place and where Brick and Maggie are staying, Williams says it
“must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon" (Williams).
When we think about Brick and his guilt and sadness over Skipper, many critics have argued that Brick is so upset at Skipper's death because they were not just friends, but lovers. Where might they get that impression? From the stage notes. The stage direction above says "a tenderness which was uncommon," referring to Brick and Skipper. While the play's dialogue and action never overtly state that this relationship was homosexual, the stage directions often did imply just that. Given that this play was written and performed in the 1950s when homosexuality could not be talked about in a major play or movie or book, if the storyline involved a homosexual character, that needed to be implied and the lengthy stage directions for this play were able to do that for the directors who chose to heed them.
Tennessee Williams provides long, detailed stage directions in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because the speech of his characters is at times truncated and elliptical. What the characters cannot, and do not, say to each other is at times compensated for by the stage directions.
For example, after Margaret tells Brick that Big Daddy favors them over Big Daddy's other children, she calls the children screaming below, "scream monsters." Her remark, which is intended to be funny, is followed by this stage direction:
[Turns to Brick with a sudden, gay, charming smile which fades as she notices that be is not looking at her but into fading gold space with a troubled expression. It is constant rejection that makes her humor "bitchy".]
The clarification provided in the stage directions helps the audience understand the way in which Brick does not share Margaret's humor and helps the audience understand that there is a gulf between Brick and Margaret. She wants to make fun of Big Daddy's other children to gain favor with Brick, but he ignores her futile attempt at humor and companionship. His look into the distance helps the audience understand that Brick and Margaret are not connecting.