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 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,...
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