In a 1975 interview with a reporter for The New York Times, playwright Tennessee Williams addressed, as he was want to do, his sexual orientation:
"Sexuality is a basic part of my nature," he said. "I never considered my homosexuality as anything to be disguised. Neither did I consider it a matter to be over-emphasized. I consider it an accident of nature.
"My life was a series of little adventures unconsummated before I was 28. It was after I went to New Orleans that I selected homosexuality as a way of sexual life. Lucky for me, I made the decision." Then he edited his words: "The decision was made for me."
These quotes from that interview are included here for a reason. Sexuality, and homosexuality, are powerful elements of Williams’ work, and acknowledging and understanding the role sexuality and homosexuality play in his writings is a key to understanding the confrontation between Big Daddy and Brick in the second act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play’s most sympathetic figure is Brick, a former professional football player—a sport long-considered synonymous with male virility—turned-broadcaster who has descended into a life of drink and self-pity, all the while denying his beautiful, vivacious wife, Margaret, or Maggie, the pleasure of his company in bed. The theme of homosexuality is prominent in Williams’ script (a theme that is certainly present but far more sublimated in the otherwise fine 1958 film adaptation of Cat), and it hangs like a noose over the character of Brick. Brick has become sullen and alcoholic because of his guilt over the suicide of his closest friend and one-time football teammate, Skipper. Skipper is, the play strongly suggests a homosexual, and the nature of the relationship between Skipper and Brick is fraught with speculation regarding the two men’s’ sexual orientations. Much of Act I, in fact, introduces the audience to this element of the play, especially when the sexually-deprived Maggie repeatedly goads Brick into reacting to her less-than-subtle suggestions that the men were more than just platonic friends. Note, for instance, Maggie’s comments to Brick in the opening act:
“What were you thinking of when I caught you looking at me like that? Were you thinking of Skipper?”
. . .
“Why I remember when we double-dated at college, Gladys Fitzgerald and I and you and Skipper, it was more like a date between you and Skipper. Gladys and I were just sort of tagging along as if it was necessary to chaperone you!--to make a good public impression—“
The theme of homosexuality so central to Tennessee Williams’ life provides the basis for the drama that permeates Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , which brings us to the dialogue between Big Daddy and Brick that dominates Act II. Big Daddy is a self-made millionaire, having dropped out of school at the tender age of 10 to work on the plantation that would become his own kingdom. A large, virile man, described in Williams’ stage...
instructions as “a tall man with a fierce, anxious look,” Big Daddy is presented by Williams as virtually obsessed with sex as though he, Big Daddy, needs to constantly reaffirm his own heterosexuality and continued ability to enjoy women despite his advancing age and health problems, the full nature of which comprises another of the play’s recurring themes. Big Daddy is introduced in Act II, and this obsession with sex and sexuality serves not only to reinforce his own continued virility but to help him deny to himself the possibility that his favorite son may be a homosexual. Brick is on crutches, having broken his ankle while drunkenly attempting to jump hurdles at a track. Unwilling, or unable, to accept that Brick may be gay, Big Daddy repeatedly teases his emotionally-weakened son with the suggestion that Brick’s injury was caused by hypothetical sexual escapades:
"Was it jumping or humping that you were doing out there? What were you doing out there at three a.m., layin' a woman on that cinder track?"
. . .
"I ast you, Brick, if you was cuttin' you'self a piece o' poon-tang last night on that cinder track? I thought maybe you were chasin' poon-tang on that track an' tripped over something in the heat of the chase--'s that it?"
While Big Daddy believes the lie that his medical prognosis is positive, he has, nevertheless, been forced to confront the reality of his mortality. In the exchange between father and son, and in the context of Brick’s failure to father a child, Big Daddy feels compelled to educate Brick on the vital importance of climbing out of the latter’s protracted, drunken stupor and living life with a purpose:
Y'know how much I'm worth? Guess, Brick! Guess how much I'm worth! Close on ten million in cash an' blue chip stocks, outside, mind you, of twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile! But a man can't buy his life with it, he can't buy back his life with it when his life has been spent, that's one thing not offered in the Europe fire-sale or in the American markets or any markets on earth, a man can't buy his life with it, he can't buy back his life when his life is finished.... That's a sobering thought, a very sobering thought, and that's a thought that I was turning over in my head, over and over and over--until today.... I'm wiser and sadder, Brick, for this experience which I just gone through."
Big Daddy’s reference to “this experience,” the fear that he was dying of cancer, provides another subtext to the play and to the nature of the human relationships in Williams’ play. During that Act II dialogue, Brick expresses his disdain for the “mendacity” he sees all around. “Mendacity,” of course, is defined as lies and deception. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is replete with instances of mendacity. Hypocrisy and deceit are everywhere: Brick’s marriage to Maggie; Gooper and Mae’s constant obsequiousness around Big Daddy; Big Daddy’s loathing of Big Mama, and so on. Every heterosexual relationship in this play is an example of mendacity. That, perhaps, is why Brick’s relationship to Skipper is such an important element of the play. “Skipper and me had a clean, true thing between us!--had a clean friendship, practically all our lives, till Maggie got the idea you're talking about,” Brick complains to Big Daddy. The only pure relationship in the play is that between Brick and Skipper, and it is soured by the shadow of homosexuality hanging over it.
The significance of Big Daddy’s story about the elephant fits neatly into the themes of sexuality, virility, and homosexuality. Back in Act II, Big Daddy is regaling Brick with his fantasies regarding sex, emphasizing that, despite his advancing age, he is not finished with respect to sexual relationships:
“They say you got just so many and each one is numbered. Well, I got a few left in me, a few, and I'm going to pick me a good one to spend 'em on! I'm going to pick me a choice one, I don't care how much she costs, I'll smother her in--minks! Ha ha! I'll strip her naked and smother her in minks and choke her with diamonds! Ha ha! I'll strip her naked and choke her with diamonds and smother her with minks and hump her from hell to breakfast.”
This quote is prelude to Big Daddy’s metaphorical joke about elephants in Act III. Note the following comment following the story about the male elephant that senses the female elephant and struggles to copulate:
“So this ole bull elephant still had a couple of fornications left in him. He reared back his trunk an' got a whiff of that elephant lady next door!”
Big Daddy is the elephant. “Big Daddy”: the name suggests a patriarchal figure who looms above the rest of humanity—at least within the confines of his own little world. And, in addressing, once again, his own continued virility, Big Daddy is reminding Brick that a man’s life is synonymous with carnal knowledge of the opposite sex.