In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the cat is Maggie Pollitt, married to Brick, the favorite son of a wealthy plantation owner, Big Daddy, and the hot tin roof is the desperate measure she takes to regain her husband’s sexual interest and to lay claim to her husband’s family fortune. Opposing her are Gooper Pollitt, Brick’s brother, and Gooper’s family, consisting of his pregnant wife and their five children (Williams’s famous “no-neck monsters”). Finally there is Big Mama, whose current status with her husband is much like Maggie’s with Brick.
The estrangement between the silently suffering Brick and his loquacious father is the result of Brick’s dropping out of professional football and sportscasting and his turning to alcohol. Pained by the suicide of his best friend, Skipper, Brick says he must drink until he hears a “click” in his head, a guarantor of relief from his pain. Big Daddy’s inability to understand Brick is fueled by rumors that Brick and Skipper’s closeness was homosexual in nature. The strain between Maggie and Brick is caused by Maggie’s having gone to Skipper to confront him with his possible homosexuality. Shortly thereafter, Skipper committed suicide. Brick’s loss of Skipper is intensified by Maggie’s having made something dirty of what he said was a pure love.
Contrasting strongly with Brick, Gooper is successful both as a lawyer and as a prolific breeder of children. Gooper’s family, particularly his wife, resents Big Daddy’s favoritism regarding Brick and take advantage of every opportunity to change the situation. Thus the battle lines are drawn on what was to be a festive occasion, a celebration of Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday. Maggie, playing on Big Daddy’s favoritism, lies about being pregnant and then attempts to seduce Brick into making her pregnant. In a climactic scene between Big Daddy and Brick, the latter drops a bombshell: the true prognosis of his father’s cancerous condition.
The play exists in several versions, the original having been altered by Elia Kazan for the premiere in New York in 1955. The original version was partly restored in 1974 and completely performed in 1990. In the three major productions, Barbara Bel Geddes, Elizabeth Ashley, and Kathleen Turner, respectively, played Maggie, the different versions allowing each to play distinctively different Maggies. In the original version, Brick does not support Maggie in her lie to Big Daddy, and it is uncertain whether Maggie has wooed Brick from his alcoholism and whether in his own mind Brick was convinced that his feeling for Skipper was platonic. Also, Big Daddy does not reappear on stage after his big scene with Brick.
The play’s structure is unwieldy and irregular, in contrast with the rhythmically expressionistic structure of The Glass Menagerie or the rapidly developing tensions in A Streetcar Named Desire. Maggie’s long speeches are like operatic arias, accompanied by the equally long silences of Brick. Similarly, the towering role of Big Daddy seems at times to vie with Maggie’s. Both have the same purpose: to rescue Brick and to rehabilitate him.
Despite Maggie’s titular role, her sexual attractiveness, and her sympathy-evoking, if “mendacious,” attempts to triumph over Gooper’s family, it is the strong emotional honesty between Big Daddy and Brick for which Williams writes his most compelling moment in the play. Big Daddy’s sudden and unexpected confrontation with the imminence of his death (at a time when he was looking forward once more to testing his sexual prowess) and Brick’s silent suffering of pain and guilt over Skipper’s death brilliantly counterpoint Maggie’s attempt to create life, even when that attempt involves a distant husband and a lie that she...
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hopes to turn into a truth.
The big scene between Big Daddy and Brick is magisterial in the former’s disclosure of all the lies he has put up with all of his married life and his true feelings toward Big Mama, Gooper, Mae, and their five noisy children. Torn between his hatred of them and his reluctance to make Brick, an alcoholic, the legatee of his will, he insists on honesty from Brick regarding his drinking and his relationship with Skipper. It is Big Daddy’s reference to homosexual innuendoes regarding Skipper that causes Brick to disclose Maggie’s jealousy of his clean friendship with Skipper during their road trips as professional football players. He accuses Maggie of destroying Skipper by suggesting to him a “dirty” relationship. Big Daddy, however, refuses to allow Brick to “pass the buck,” whereupon Brick, inflamed, taunts Big Daddy with the irony of the requisite happy returns of his sixty-fifth birthday “when ev’rybody but you knows there won’t be any.”
One truth after another tumbles from the opera-like duet between father and son, replacing the lies with which both have lived. Big Daddy’s anger is that of a man betrayed, as he leaves the stage howling with rage. Although he does not appear in act 3, he is heard offstage crying out in pain. The scene between Big Daddy and Brick is one of two legendary father-son confrontations in American drama, the other being that between Biff and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
With much of the humor and theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire, but without its compact structure, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains a compelling play. The names of Big Daddy, Maggie, and Brick have been imprinted permanently on the American stage along with those of Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield; Blanche DuBois; and Stanley Kowalski.
The Pollitt family assembles to celebrate Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday. While Brick showers, Maggie describes the birthday dinner, telling how badly Gooper’s five children behaved and how their mother, Mae, used them to impress Big Daddy. Brick comes out of the bathroom on crutches, having broken his ankle jumping hurdles.
Maggie informs Brick that a medical report arrived that day with the news that Big Daddy is dying of cancer. She also explains that Mae and Gooper want to send Brick to a hospital for alcoholics so that they can control Big Daddy’s money. Maggie believes, however, that Big Daddy dislikes Gooper and his family and that he has a “lech” for her.
Maggie admits that she has become “catty” because Brick refuses to sleep with her and she is lonely. She does, however, intend to win back his love. After hinting that Brick’s problems stem from someone named Skipper, she asks Brick to drink less. He replies that he needs to drink until he hears a “click” in his head that gives him peace. Maggie complains that her current situation makes her as tense as “a cat on a hot tin roof.”
Big Mama enters to say how happy she is; she was told that Big Daddy has a spastic colon, not cancer. Brick retreats to the bathroom as she enters. After asking about Brick’s drinking, Big Mama tells Maggie that sexual problems must be causing their marital troubles and childlessness.
When Big Mama leaves, Maggie again urges Brick to sleep with her; he suggests a divorce instead. Maggie returns to the subject of Big Daddy’s cancer, explaining that the family will tell Big Mama the truth later. Then, ignoring Brick’s anger, she recounts the story of Skipper, Brick’s college friend whose homosexual love Brick cannot or will not return. Maggie says that she forced Skipper to face his feelings for Brick. To prove her wrong, Skipper tried to make love to her but could not. He later died of drink. Maggie reminds Brick that although Skipper is dead, she, Maggie, is alive and able to conceive a child. Brick asks how she plans to do that when he hates her.
At that moment, the family enters, bearing Big Daddy’s birthday cake. Big Daddy becomes annoyed that others, especially Big Mama, appear to be trying to run his life. Since he no longer believes he is threatened by a terminal illness, he announces that he is resuming control of the family. Hurt, Big Mama realizes that Big Daddy never believed she loves him. When she tells him that she loves even his hatefulness, Big Daddy says to himself that it would be funny if that were true.
Eventually, the others drift out, leaving Brick and Big Daddy alone. Although he wants a serious discussion with Brick, Big Daddy talks instead about his trip to Europe. Brick wonders why communication is so difficult between him and Big Daddy. Big Daddy admits that he is afraid of cancer and that he is not ready to die. When Brick acknowledges his alcoholism, Big Daddy asks why he drinks. Because of disgust with the world’s “mendacity,” Brick answers, a reason Big Daddy does not accept. Most lives are based on lies, he says, and Brick must live with this fact. Big Daddy suggests that Brick is drinking because of guilt over Skipper’s homosexuality and death. Brick angrily protests that he did not share Skipper’s feelings or even discuss them; when Skipper tried to explain over the telephone, Brick hung up. That, then, is the real reason for Brick’s drinking, Big Daddy says: Brick is disgusted with himself because he refused to face his friend’s truth. Brick retaliates by telling Big Daddy the truth about his cancer. Shattered, Big Daddy leaves, damning all liars as he goes.
In the original ending, the family and the doctor enter to tell Big Mama about Big Daddy’s cancer. She at first refuses to believe them. Brick, meanwhile, goes to the balcony to drink, but he returns as Gooper tries to persuade Big Mama to sign legal control of the plantation over to him. Angrily, Big Mama refuses. As her final answer, she shouts Big Daddy’s favorite word, “crap.”
Big Mama then urges Brick to give Big Daddy a grandson. To everyone’s surprise, Maggie announces that she is pregnant. Though Mae and Gooper disbelieve the news, they cannot disprove it and finally leave. At that moment, Brick hears the “click” in his head. Maggie refuses to allow him this escape and throws away his crutch, pointing out that she emptied the liquor cabinet. As she turns out the light, Maggie assures Brick that she does love him. Brick says to himself that it would be funny if that were true.
In the Broadway production ending, the family, after much preparation, tells Big Mama the truth about Big Daddy’s cancer. While she tries to digest the news, Gooper explains why Big Mama should give him legal control of the estate. After dismissing Gooper’s legal plans with Big Daddy’s favorite word, “crap,” Big Mama reminds Brick and Maggie that Big Daddy hopes they will have a son.
The loud talk brings Big Daddy back to the room. He relates a crude joke about a fornicating elephant, perhaps to remind Brick that sex is natural and necessary. Maggie then announces her pregnancy. Although Mae and Gooper refuse to believe her, Big Daddy professes to do so. When Brick and Maggie are at last alone, Maggie throws his liquor off the balcony while he watches with growing admiration. Finally, Brick and Maggie sit together on the bed as Maggie vows to use her love to help restore Brick to life.