Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905
As the author of The Glass Menagerie (1944), the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and many other plays, Tennessee Williams was one of the leading American dramatists of the twentieth century. Born in Mississippi, Williams used the South and southerners as a vehicle for exploring the confusing and even inexplicable minds and relationships of human beings. Although his plays have been criticized as too symbolic and theatrical, as well as philosophically murky, no one disputes his success in creating a gallery of memorable characters who grapple with some of humankind’s most significant issues: love, sex, power, age, family, self-awareness, honesty, the past, dreams, and death.
At once tragic and comic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama, examines the mysterious and even grotesque interconnections that define a family. The play also delineates the struggle of individuals within the family to define a self. On the surface, the play is realistic: The lapsed time of the story is equal to the time of performance; the characters are complex and human; the situation, a family birthday party, is ordinary. Yet despite the surface realism, the play can better be described as expressionistic. The set Williams calls for is dominated by a large bed and large liquor cabinet symbolizing sex and escape. The language is poetic, and the characters have nearly as many monologues as conversations. The action, too, is episodic and symbolic. The specific tensions of the Pollitt family are staged in a series of emblematic confrontations: husband and wife, youth and age, past and present, wealth and poverty, homosexuality and heterosexuality, truth and lies, love and hate, life and death.
Williams does not, however, allow the audience to choose one option over another or even to define each term clearly. Although he favors life and honesty, for example, he never promises that either is possible or even always desirable. Each side has its allure and validity. Big Daddy and Maggie are most directly associated with life and truth, yet both have important limitations. Maggie yearns for a child and vows to restore Brick to life; she insists that Brick must value her honesty if nothing else. In many respects, she is the healthiest and most appealing character in the play. In the end, though, she must pretend to be pregnant to affirm life, and that affirmation has as much to do with her need for financial security as with any real desire for children. Nor do the fertile Mae and Gooper represent a viable commitment to life: They have produced only rude, screeching “no-neck monsters” who function as a sort of Greek chorus of futility.
Big Daddy, in the words of Dylan Thomas that Williams uses as an epigram, does not “go gentle into that good night” of death; instead, he clings to life and to truth so fiercely that his energy overflows into the vulgarity and garrulity that make him larger than life. He refuses to allow Brick the refuge of drink and dissembling. Yet despite his powerful life force, Big Daddy is dying; his physical cancer mirrors the metaphorical corruption that touches the whole family and, by extension, the entire South. His dedication to honesty is complicated by his own lifelong “mendacity.” Ironically, it is the self-destructive Brick, whose broken ankle symbolizes his broken spirit and who must rely on both literal and figurative crutches, who voices perhaps the most pertinent questions about honesty: “Who can face truth?” he asks Big Daddy. “Can you?”
Closely connected with the question of life are the topics of sex and homosexuality, which made Cat on a Hot Tin Roof controversial in the 1950’s and 1960’s but that had come to seem tame by the 1970’s. In this play, Williams neither condemns nor explicitly approves of either homosexuality or heterosexuality. For the most part, he merely shows that society offers no livable place for homosexuals; he suggests, moreover, that sex of any kind is as likely to push people apart as it is to draw them together.
The two endings complicate the final effect of the play. Williams explained that he wrote the second version of act 3 at the request of Elia Kazan, who directed the 1955 Broadway production. Kazan wanted Maggie to be more sympathetic and Brick to be more obviously changed by his confrontation with Big Daddy in act 2. He also believed that Big Daddy was too important and dynamic a character to disappear after one act. Although the new ending offers slightly more hope for a reconciliation between Brick and Maggie, it is less consistent with the development of the first two acts. Williams’s first version works better: Big Daddy, though certainly a powerful character, does not belong in act 3. His last words in act 2—“Christ—damn—all—lying sons of—lying bitches!! Lying! Dying! Lying!”—provide a more fitting thematic end to Big Daddy than his elephant story and his unconvincing acceptance of Maggie’s pregnancy. The change in Brick is even less effective. Williams’s reasons for initially resisting this change make sense: He did not “believe that any conversation, however revelatory, ever effects so immediate a change in the heart . . . of a person of Brick’s state of spiritual disrepair.”
Ultimately, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof presents, rather than corrects, several portraits of “spiritual disrepair.” Although Williams may offer little hope of eventual repair, he does offer a sympathetic understanding of the human condition.