In Search of Blessings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2012

Many early critics argued that the central conflict of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Brick's struggle with homosexuality—his reluctance to either admit his own homosexual tendencies or to understand those of his friend, Skipper. These critics saw Maggie's desire for a child as an attempt to counterbalance Brick's...

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Many early critics argued that the central conflict of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Brick's struggle with homosexuality—his reluctance to either admit his own homosexual tendencies or to understand those of his friend, Skipper. These critics saw Maggie's desire for a child as an attempt to counterbalance Brick's ambivalence and win him back to his "true" sexual nature. Yet the play is not explicit in explaining his desires or true motivations. Walter Kerr, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, referred to Brick's "private wounds and secret drives" as "a secret half-told" about which Williams is less than candid. Williams defended himself against this accusation by asserting that "The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that...interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis." In other words, Williams denied that homosexuality per se was the central issue of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Whether or not homosexuality is central, Brick, who appears in every scene of the play, is clearly a pivotal character.

Benjamin Nelson, in his book Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work, argued that the play was not at all about Brick's sexuality but about his idealism and "tragic disillusionment." Brick tells Big Daddy that he drinks out of "disgust" with "mendacity." New Republic critic Roger Ashton also suggested that the play is interested in "truth as a motivating force in human life." Williams's corroborated this reading by saying in a 1957 interview, "I meant for the audience to discover how people erect false values by not facing what is true to their natures, by having to live a lie."

Certainly the characters in the play demonstrate an unusual preoccupation with telling or withholding the truth, about Big Daddy's cancer, about the true nature of Bnck' s relationship with Skipper, and about Brick's role in Skipper's death. If the play revolves around the revelation of truth or around the characters' ability to withstand or tell the truth, then one expects that these issues will get resolved out at the end. In Big Daddy's case, they are. He receives the truth about his cancer from Brick, howls in rage at those who withheld this truth from him, then goes offstage, ostensibly to die. Unfortunately, this all takes place in Act II with an entire act left in the play. According to the "truth" reading, the third act would show how Brick resolves his relationship to truth and mendacity. This question is left unanswered, however, and a great deal of stage time is spent with Brick's inner thoughts hidden.

The final act, which Williams revised three times to total four versions, has received a great deal of criticism; the majority of negative criticism condemned the act as a poor ending to a powerful play. Many critics have argued that the heart of the play lies in the confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy and that once they say their piece to each other (in Act II), the story is essentially over. Yet the play meanders around and around in a contest between Gooper, Mae, and Maggie regarding the estate. Another reading of the play, one which takes into account the importance of the distribution of property in the play, helps to justify the actions of the final Act. The attention to the estate in Act III may not in fact be a flaw in balance but rather a continuation of an important conflict that actually frames and puts into context the central conflict between Brick and Big Daddy.

A clue to reconciling the secondary characters' conflict over the property with the friction between Brick and his father lies in the inscription Williams included on the title page of the play. It is from Dylan Thomas's poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night"

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan's poem is an exhortation to fight against death, to live fully until the very last moment of life. The last two lines are often quoted when a person is dying. The phrase, "rage, rage" recalls Shakespeare's King Lear in his moment of madness preceding his death. His madness stems from his daughters' rejection of him once he has given them all of his wealth and property; he realizes that they care more for his kingdom and wealth than for him as a person. Wandering cold and alone, he shouts impotently against a storm, "Rage! Blow!" Like King Lear, Big Daddy also recognizes the inherent greed in his offspring, and in the moments before his death, he too rages impotently ("Lying dying liars!") while his children continue to compete for his fortune.

The first two lines of the Thomas poem also bear relevance to Williams's play. These are the less frequently quoted lines and therefore deserve close attention. They read: "And you, my father, there on the sad height,/Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray." Here is a request for the dying father to bless or to curse the child before dying. The presence of these lines on the title page attests to the importance of a dying patriarch's blessing or curse in the play. Much critical interest has focused on the son's errant behavior, his relationship to homosexuality, his drinking, and his concern for truth or mendacity, but few critics address the significance of the father's blessing to this emotionally taut play.

In some of the biblical stories of Genesis (stories with which Williams would have been intimately familiar growing up with his mother's religious family), the dying patriarch would call his sons around him in order to give them his blessing and confer on them his inheritance. Usually the firstborn son would get all or most of the property, unless he had displeased his father or a younger son had distinguished himself in some important way. Thus it was that Joseph, the younger son of Judah, received his father's blessing because Joseph provided for the whole family during a famine. The dying Judah then blessed or cursed his other sons, one by one, according to their deeds.

The framing story of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof clearly involves the distribution of the dying patriarch's property. Maggie introduces the topic within the first three minutes of the play, and the final act is nearly consumed with Gooper and Mae's attempts to wrench the estate away from Brick and Maggie In addition, the problem of distributing the estate does receive a kind of resolution. Although the patriarch himself does not perform the ritual, the matriarch, Big Mama, assumes his role; she literally uses Big Daddy's language ("I'm talkin' in Big Daddy's language now!") She warns the greedy young people that nothing will be granted until Big Daddy dies, but at the same time, she indicates quite clearly that she intends for the plantation to go to Brick—on the condition that he "pull himself together and take hold of things."

The framing story openly involves the conferral of property, but the imparting of a blessing (or curse), as alluded to in the Dylan passage, is not made apparent. Big Daddy does not appear on his death bed, announcing his legacy and granting his blessings on Brick. Yet there is a moment when Big Daddy tries to confer his blessing: during the long duologue in Act II, when he persists, against Brick's wishes, to talk with his son. Big Daddy tries to "straighten out" his son ("now that I'm straightened out, I'm going to straighten out you!") during this talk. He does so in order to bless his son with his new-found philosophy of life.

Brick is a kind of prodigal son who started out as the apple of his father's eye. The star of his high school football team, he went astray when his friend Skipper died. Brick's descent into alcoholism makes him a weak candidate to manage the estate. He is the wayward son, still loved, but unable to assume his father's position because he is "throwing his life away" in drink. Mae and Gooper count on Brick's continued drinking, which will put Gooper in contention for the inheritance. They draw attention to Brick's alcoholism at every opportunity. Big Daddy refuses to give up on his son, however, just as Maggie and Big Mama continue to hope and to nag at Brick.

Unfortunately, Big Daddy is disrupted in his effort to transform Brick, an effort which might have led to a blessing and conferral of property. Big Daddy seems on the verge of blessing Brick's relationship toward Skipper, openly hinting that he would even accept a homosexual relationship ("I'm just saying I understand such....") But Brick cuts him off in mid-sentence, entering into a crescendo of emotion that ends with the abrupt announcement that Big Daddy does, after all, have terminal cancer. This revelation is too much for the father to handle; he departs from the room and from the rest of the play (as Williams wrote it in his first and preferred version).

Does this reading of the play not suffer from the same problem that other readings have? That, in finding the climax in the second act, the third act is superfluous? Although this interpretation does not resolve all of the structural "problems" of the play, it does come to terms with the main focus of the final act: the characters' preoccupation with the distribution of the estate. Furthermore, and rather significantly, the topic of blessings weaves its way through the final scene in a subtle, yet persistent manner.

Early in Act III, Maggie says of Big Daddy, "Bless his sweet old soul," and Big Mama responds, "Yais. bless his heart, where's Brick?" In Ihis simple exchange, the dying patriarch is blessed and the favored son is recalled, reminiscent of the French ritual saying when a king dies, "le roi est mort; vive le roi!" (the king is dead, long live the king!); the old ruler has died and now allegiance is placed with the heir to the throne.

Another blessing comes from the Reverend Tooker, who, as he departs, blesses the family ("God bless you all...on this place"). Although a poor representative of spiritual reverence, his blessing reminds the audience of another way of processing a family death—with greater spiritual feeling and compassion. Mae and Gooper represent the antithesis of benediction when they say that they "have faith in prayer, but...certain matters...have to be discussed." Maggie sarcastically says "Amen" to Gooper's comment that a crisis "brings out the best and the worst" in a family.

The references to blessings in the final act may be slim and tangential, but they contribute to a more coherent appreciation of the play's dramatic progression. For one thing, they cast a more favorable light on Maggie, the character referred to in the play's title. She may be consumed with the thought of material wealth, but she also appears to genuinely love Brick, as she repeatedly claims. Brick declares that he is tired and "wants to go to bed." Although the resolution of his lying in bed with Maggie is not revealed, it can be inferred. Twice Maggie has announced that it is her time to conceive, and Big Mama has pronounced that a child would force Brick to give up drinking and get his life in order. Her wish is the same as the one Big Daddy expresses in Act II before being interrupted by Brick. Big Daddy had wanted to bless his son, and his blessing, although unsaid, presumably may serve to grace his son's marriage bed and the creation of a child.

Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale. 1998. Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Willams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 808

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, among other related themes, clearly a play about the sexual ambivalence of males toward females. Even the minor characters for whom little or no conflict is presented, are to various degrees or in various ways epicene in nature; the preacher humorously so; the two former owners of the plantation (while they lived) openly and complacently so; and Brick's older brother and foil, shielded by his maternalistic wife's appalling (to Maggie at least) fertility, unconsciously so. (Witness how his and his wife's laments over Big Mamma's lack of affection for him are bluntly explained by the mother: "Gooper never liked Daddy.") Add to this revelation the at least rough similarity between Big Mamma's and Mae's deficient emotional and intellectual development, and Gooper, for what it matters, can be seen as a typically Oedipal son in an obliviously blissful marriage to a woman redolent of his mother if possibly more affectionate.

But there is far more substantial motivation in the play for Big Daddy's preference for Brick as favorite son and heir-apparent than Gooper's repressed hostility for the father, revealed by his transparent hypocrisy and insensitive greed. The reason for Big Daddy's persistent affection for Brick and his reluctance to disinherit him in spite of Brick's childless state and his increasingly irresponsible alcoholism lies in the subtle sexual affinities the father shares with his troubled son.

These affinities are quintessential to the meaning of the play, and Williams in his original version, before acquiescing to a revised third act for Broadway, takes great care to develop them not only through the action but even through form, by a canny (and I think heretofore unnoticed) use of parallel and finally, climactically, identical lines of dialogue.

As the action builds in the brutal second act, Big Daddy shocks his son by alluding to his knowledge of and tolerance for homosexual experiences. When Brick rejects his father's touching attempt to reassure him of his understanding, Big Daddy retaliates by accusing his son of a kind of self-righteous hypocrisy: '' You!—dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!—before you'd face truth with him!" Brick retorts. "His truth, not mine!" Big Daddy summarily concedes the fine point of distinction as irrelevant But to the reader, it is not irrelevant. Is Brick's assertion justifiable indignation of hysterical repression? Notwithstanding the validity of Williams' observation in his stage directions that "Some mystery should be left in the revelation of a character in a play," which version of the third act has the greater claim to artistic legitimacy depends on the answer to this question; and to answer the question the reader must not just follow the flow of the dialogue that constitutes the action of the play, but observe certain parallel constructions in that dialogue—parallelisms that clarify and extend the meaning of the play through such form. In short, Williams will not sacrifice either the verisimilitude of his action or the realism of his dialogue to give the reader a patently complete psychoanalysis of Brick, but he will reveal more depth of character and meaning to those who will notice the form as well as the function of his art.

To this purpose (and using the lesser example first), the reader should recall Maggie telling Brick how cool, detached, and indifferent he had always been in bed with her, while Big Daddy confesses how he slept with his wife till he was sixty and "never even liked her, never did!" Clearly both father and son had enjoyed a physical competency that surpassed their capacities for psychical union with females.

But far more dramatically, if the original version of the play is used, the reader can find father and son speaking an identical line of dialogue under identical situations: "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?'' That Brick, for the climactic last line of the play, should repeat verbatim to Maggie a line spoken by Big Daddy to Big Momma in the second act of the play is surely no coincidence. The point is not the precise degree of cynicism (unascertainable) contained each time in the line, but simply that the same line is spoken by both men in response to their respective wives' protestations of love.

The play ending with such a subtle parallelism casts a vast additional light (too obvious to be belabored here) on these two main characters, on their poignant relationship with each other and with their wives, and consequently on the play as a whole. The revised third act for Broadway, with its unrealistically sudden, Pollyanna ending, might make for better box office receipts, but Williams' original version attests far superiorly to his creative genius for rich and complex tragedy.

Source: Jere Huzzard, "Willams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in the Explicator, Volume 43, no. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 46-47.

Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1511

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was heralded by some as the play in which homosexuality was at last to be presented without evasion. But the miracle has still not happened.

The cat of the title is the heroine, the roof her husband; he would like her to jump off, that is, find a lover. Driven by passions he neither understands nor controls, he takes to drink and envies the moon; the hot cat and the cool moon being the two chief symbols and points of reference in the play. The boy says he has taken to drink because "mendacity is the system we live in." His father, however, explains that this is an evasion: the real reason is that he is running away from homosexuality. At this point, the author abruptly changes the subject to the father's mortal illness, and he never really gets back to it. One does not of course demand that he"cure'' the boy, only that he present him: he should tell the audience, even if he does not tell the boy himself, whether a "cure" is possible, and, if not, whether homosexuality is something this individual can accept as the truth about himself. At present, one can only agree with the father that the story is fatally incomplete.

If some things in Mr. Williams' story are too vaguely defined, others are defined in a manner far too summary and definite. The characters, for example, are pushed around by an obsessively and mechanically sexual interpretation of life. "How good is he (or she) in bed?" is what everyone asks of everyone. Now it seems to me that there are people, even in the world of Tennessee Williams who would not ask this question, especially not of those who are near and dear. And what does the query mean? A girl seems good in bed if you like her; otherwise, she seems bad in bed; and for most of us that is the heart of the matter. Mr. Williams, who apparently disagrees, sends his people to bed rather arbitrarily. The husband's friend, in the new play, goes there with the wife to prove he is not homosexual. She must have been seeing Tea and Sympathy, for she cooperates. In the circumstances we can hardly be surprised that he proves impotent; yet he reaches the startlingly excessive conclusion that he is homosexual; and kills himself. Surely the author can't be assuming that a man is either 100 percent heterosexual or 100 percent homosexual? One wouldn't know; the whole thing is disposed of so grandly in quick, if lengthy, narratives. It is perhaps characteristic that the plot depends for its plausibility upon our not questioning that if a man and woman come together once, a child will result.

Not all the characters are credible. If a girl has a hunch that her husband is homosexual, does she simply clamor for him to sleep with her? Not, certainly, if she is the kind of girl portrayed at the Morosco by Barbara Bel Geddes. Which brings me to the relation of play and production. It seems to be a relation of exact antithesis. When the curtain first goes up, Mr. Williams sends on stage a girl whose dress has been spilled on at dinner; but, so far as the audience can see, the dress is as spotless as it is golden and sparkling. It is the same with her personality and character. From the author: a rather ordinary girl, bornee, perhaps stupid, shabby genteel. From the production: Barbara Bel Geddes, the very type of non-shabby, upper-class gentility, wholesome as a soap ad. It is the same with other characters. Burl Ives may not be right for Williams' shocking vulgarian of a father, but his pleasantness certainly keeps (to use his own vocabulary) the audience from puking. Ben Gazzara may not seem Southern, or a football player, or a TV announcer (the problem husband is all three) but he is handsome and he can act neurotic intensity. It is the same with the whole evening; the script is what is called dirty, but the production—starting with the Mielziner set and its chiefly golden lighting—is aggressively clean.

So what is the function of Mr. Kazan's directing—to mislead? Reviewing my book of NR pieces in The New Leader, Mrs. Kazan says I attribute Machiavellian motives to unmotivated, intuitive acts. That is why I speak here of the function of the directing and not its intention, the result and not the motive. Obviously, the motive is to "make the most of the play"; but the most has been made of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the cost, it seems to me, of some conflict with the script. Some directors are content to subordinate themselves to an author and simply try to make his meaning clear. Others bring in extra meanings at the cost of understanding or even obscuring some of the author's meanings. So mystifications and obfuscations take place without Machiavellian intention. And no one, I believe, would deny that Mr. Kazan belongs to the second school. Giving such a "clean'' production to such a "dirty" script, he has persuaded some that the dirt is unimportant The show looks wholesome; therefore, it is.

Not that one would prefer to see all this moral squalor spelled out in full natural detail, but that one must not expect uncoordinated double vision to provide a clear picture. In the last act, while the script is resolutely noncommittal, the production strains for commitment to some sort of edifying conclusion. While nothing is actually concluded, images of edification are offered to our eyes. Barbara Bel Geddes is given an Annunciation scene (made of more golden light and a kneeling posture). At the very end, as I said last week, comes the outward form of that Tea and Sympathy scene without its content. And, in many places throughout, a kind of mutually frustrating activity has the effect of muffling the emotions that are supposed to sound out loud and clear. On the other hand, there are places where director and author stand together. These include all the comic bits. It should not escape notice that Williams is a very gifted humorist. Author and director join forces to help Mildred Dunnock, Pat Hingle, and Madeleine Sherwood create three of those superb tragicomic portraits in secondary roles which are one of the chief attractions of current New York theatre. (I am thinking back to Eileen Heckart in Picnic and Bad Seed, Elaine Stritch and Phillis Love in Bus Stop, etc., etc.) Author and director are together, too, in the best scene of the play—a masterly piece of construction both as writing and as performance—a scene between father (Burl Ives) and son (Ben Gazzara) in which a new and better theme for the play is almost arrived at: that the simple old family relationships still mean something, that, in the midst of all the filth and incoherence and impossibility, people, clumsily, inconsistently, gropingly, try to be nice to each other. In that old goat of a father, there is even some residue of a real Southern gentleman. Anyhow, he is Mr. Williams' best male character to date.

Though I believe the new script is often too naturalistically sordid for theatre, and therefore has to suffer changes Kazanian or otherwise, it is also true that in many passages the writing has its own flamboyant theatricality. The humor, though compulsively "dirty," is, by that token, pungent and, in its effect, rather original. The more serious dialogue, though rhetorical, is unashamedly and often successfully so; the chief rhetorical device, that of a repetition of phrase somewhat a la Gertrude Stein is almost always effective. There is no one in the English-speaking theatre today who can outdo Mr. Williams' dialogue at its best: it is supple, sinuous, hard-hitting and—in cases like the young wife and the father—highly characterized in a finely fruity Southern vein. Mr. Williams' besetting sin is fake poeticizing, fake philosophizing, a straining after big statements. He has said that he only feels and does not think; but the reader's or spectator's impression is too often that he only thinks he feels, that he is an acute case of what D. H. Lawrence called "sex in the head.'' And not only sex. Sincerity and Truth, of which he often speaks and thinks, tend to remain in the head too—abstractions with initial capitals. His problem is not lack of talent. It is, perhaps, an ambiguity of aim: he seems to want to kick the world in the pants and yet be the world's sweetheart, to combine the glories of martyrdom with the comforts of success. If I say that his problem is to take the initial capitals off Sincerity and Truth, I do not infer that this is easy, only that it is essential, if ever Mr. Williams' great talent is to find a full and pure expression.

Source: Eric Bentley, review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the New Republic, Volume 132, no. 15, April 11, 1955, pp 28-29.

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