Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

by Tennessee Williams

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Places Discussed

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*Mississippi Delta

*Mississippi Delta. Fertile farming region of the western part of the state of Mississippi that is bordered by the Mississippi River. Brick and Maggie’s plantation is located in this region, which is dominated by large cotton plantations and strong family traditions. One of these traditions is to pass family plantations from fathers to eldest sons, but only to sons who have children to continue the tradition. In Tennessee Williams’s play, Brick’s father, Big Daddy Pollitt, is dying. He wishes to leave the plantation to Brick but hesitates because Brick has become a drunkard, and his wife, Maggie, has yet to produce the necessary grandson to carry on the Delta tradition.

Plantation house

Plantation house. Home of Brick and Maggie, whose large and beautiful bedroom opens on a veranda that encircles the second floor of the house. The room is clearly fit for important people to occupy and hold court; by the end of the play, the entire seventeen member cast has been received there. Also the place in which marriages are celebrated, the room is ironically a soft and beautiful prison in which Maggie’s desire for Brick goes unrequited. No matter how she appeals to Brick to make love, he rejects her, thereby turning their bedroom into a place where Maggie feels tormented, trapped like a cat on a hot tin roof.

Historical Context

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Domestic Life in the 1950s
The year of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's debut, 1955, was an interesting time for male and female relationships, a pre-feminist/pre-gay rights era when ideas about alternative life styles were incubating, though not openly emerging. According to the era's social norms, there simply was no viable alternative for the traditional, mom, dad, and two children family pattern that was portrayed in television shows such as Father Knows Best; in reality, few American families came close to this idealized version of life.

The 1950s also saw young people begin to question the dictates of society; many began experimenting with drugs, dress, dance, and language that challenged convention—though in a rather tame way compared to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Actor James Dean, a role model of disaffected arrogance and diffidence, starred in his two hit films in 1955, East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause, then died unexpectedly at the age of 24 in a car wreck that September. He was instantly catapulted from film star to mythic icon. Like Dean's popular film characters, it became hip to smoke with a squint, wear a black leather jacket, and stand apart from society in aloof judgement.

The Beats
Nineteen-fifty-five was also the time of literary introspection, black turtlenecks, and booze—all hallmarks of what became known as the Beat Generation. The Beats, however, did not include everyone, just a segment of mostly intellectual nonconformists. In 1955 poet Allen Ginsberg (aged 29) read "Howl'' to an small but appreciative audience in Berkeley, California. The poem would become a landmark in Beat literature (along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road), contributing to the general "hipness'' of the literary arts with its jazzy pastiche of the beat life executed in one long, breathless sentence. The phrase the "Beat Generation" had been introduced to the world in a 1952 New York Times Magazine article written by John Clellon Holmes, a writer on the periphery of the Beat movement. Holmes explained that for the Beat Generation "the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable." This was the generation that grew up with the ever-present knowledge that "the bomb" would inevitably be dropped. Drinking and drugs were a common method...

(This entire section contains 590 words.)

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of escape for a time. Cynicism and idealism fused into a posture of studied indifference—with an element of wistful hope.

Women in 1950s Culture
The majority of women in the 1950s wore gut-pinching girdles and accepted their role as home-makers. For a woman of this era to want a career was unique but to want a career and a family was unprecedented. Women were expected to choose one or the other, and most women chose (as they were expected to) the suburban home, two children, and a working husband (who counted on his wife to clean house, make dinner, and take care of the kids). Abortions could be obtained but not easily (in many U.S. states, the procedure was illegal); moreover, not wanting a child was considered a social crime. If a woman finished college, she was expected to have found a husband there, not a job. Most women had children very early in their marriages and lives, and they stayed home to raise them. If they felt disgruntled about their status, they had few avenues for expressing their complaints; women who were restless were seen as "neurotic'' and in need of psychological treatment. A child was often seen as a solution to marital stress. It would give both parents something to focus on and make them face reality and their problems.

Literary Style

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Symbolism is the use of objects to evoke concepts or ideas. Williams has often been accused of excessive symbolism in many of his plays. Obvious symbols in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are the cat, the moon, and Brick's crutch; equally prevalent are the diseases of alcoholism and cancer.

Alcoholism and cancer are linked in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as two diseases representing problems in the spiritual well-being of their victims. Brick embraces alcohol as a way to keep his guilty feelings from surfacing. At the same time, the alcohol has slowly begun to make a slave of Brick, just as cancer is slowly taking over his father. Alcoholism is a self-imposed form of death-in-life when its victims drink in order to achieve a state of oblivion, as Brick does. It is a disease that will ultimately lead to death as cancer does.

Big Daddy did not choose to have cancer, but his state of illness represents his life—apparently healthy on the outside yet rotting from within. He has all of the trappings of a successful man, but his marriage and family are not equal to his financial success, and his desire to celebrate life by draping a girl in mink and "humping her from hell to breakfast" has a ring of hollowness to it. He has become a shell containing little but disease, as has his son, who has constructed his own shell out of alcohol.

Brick has a broken ankle, itself a symbolic castration, and he hobbles to and fro on the stage using a crutch. The noise and commotion of the crutch draw attention to his constant trips for more liquor. Brick either drops the crutch or has it taken from him no fewer than five times in the first two acts. At different times, Maggie and Big Daddy each withhold the crutch from him in order to elicit a promise or a response, and once Brick refuses to sit with his mother, because he prefers to stay on his crutch. The crutch stands for an emotional scaffolding holding his spiritual and emotional self together, but it is all too clear that it is an inadequate support and can easily be toppled.

Brick avoids his family through drink, preferring the company of the cool, silent moon. In much of literature, the moon represents madness, but in this play it suggests the silent detachment that Brick desires. Yet in a way, his longing for the moon—serene but also inert and cold as death—is a form of madness, because it is a departure from living. Counterpoised against his longing for detachment (death) is Maggie the Cat's longing for life. Cats are scrappy, self-sufficient, calculating. The cat is also a creature, Brick reminds Maggie, who can jump or be thrown from a considerable height and still land on its feet. Maggie is like an alley cat—a survivor—and she offers to share her skills with Brick.

There are several aspects regarding the setting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that bear scrutiny. The entire play takes place in an upstairs bed-sitting room of the Polliti plantation. In other words, it is a room for sleeping as well as for living. This in itself is significant, since accepting one's sexuality, living with it, is one important theme of the play. In addition, the decor of the room and presumably of the rest of the home is also significant. In the "Notes for the [Set] Designer," Williams explains that the home is decorated in "Victorian with a touch of the Far East." These are two polar opposites in terms of the mood they represent. The Victorian era was known for its prim morals, at least on the surface. Women wore long dresses that covered them from neckline to ankle, although the dresses also accentuated and, in some cases even enhanced, the bust and posterior. The play takes place after the Victorian era, so this choice in style deliberately recalls the rigid morals and conflicting attitudes of an earlier time.

The "touch of the Far East" is another deliberate gesture. As Edward Said explained in his 1978 work, Orientalism, the Far East has long been associated with wantonness and sensuality. Williams emphasizes the significance of the manor's decor through allusions to the pair of bachelors, presumably a homosexual couple, who previously owned (and decorated) the mansion. Thus, as Williams explains in the set notes, the room evokes their ghosts, "gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon." Williams wanted his scenery to evoke sensuality and also lend a mood of dignity and grace to his subject. Furthermore, the set has a dreamy, surrealistic atmosphere accomplished with soft lighting and a night sky instead of a ceiling, adding the dimension of timelessness.

Compare and Contrast

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1955: In the United States, only 34% of women between the ages of 20 and 54 work outside of the home. Most married women are dependent upon their husbands' or fathers' financial support and women are expected to be full-time homemakers.

Today: Nearly 80% of women between the ages of 20 and 54 work outside of the home. Women and men share almost equal wage earnings. In many families, both husband and wife work and share in the domestic duties.

1955: Married women are expected to want, and to have, children. A woman who can not produce a child is seen as incomplete by society.

Today: Families consist of many combinations of parents who work and care for children, and having children is no longer a must for women, although many women still feel biological and social pressure to bear a child.

1955: Society has very strict prejudices regarding open homosexuality. Gay men are forced to hide or repress their sexual activity, leading to the phrase "in the closet."

Today: Though there is still considerable prejudice, society is much more accepting and understanding of homosexual relationships. This open culture has led to many gays coming "out of the closet'' and publicly proclaiming their sexuality. Many have been encouraged by famous role models such as singer Melissa Etheridge, actor Ellen DeGeneres, and politician Barney Frank.

Media Adaptations

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was adapted for film in 1958 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). It was written (with Jame Poe) and directed by Richard Brooks and stars Paul Newman as Brick, Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, and Burl Ives, who reprises his stage role, as Big Daddy. Both Newman and Taylor received Academy Award nominations for their performances. Taylor's is considered by many critics to be the definitive portrayal of Maggie the Cat. It is available on videotape from MGM/GBS Home Video.

In 1976 Lawrence Olivier tried his hand at Big Daddy with Maureen Stapleton as Big Mama and the real-life husband and wife team of Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood as Brick and Maggie. Directed by Robert Moore.

Jessica Lange was Maggie in a 1984 television production that also included David Dukes as Gooper, Tommy Lee Jones as Brick, and Rip Torn as Big Daddy. The production is available from MGM and Vestron home video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Ashton, Roger. "Correspondence Back on a Hot Tin Roof" in the New Republic, April 25, 1955, p. 23.

Atkinson, Brooks. "Williams's Tin Roof in the New York Times, April 3, 1955.

Bentley, Eric. "Tennessee Williams and New York Kazan'' in the New Republic, reprinted in Bentley's What Is Theatre? McLelland and Stewart, 1968, pp. 224-31.

Hatch, Robert. Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the Nation, Apnl 9, 1955, pp. 314-15.

Hayes, Richard. Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Commonweal, June 3, 1955, pp. 250-51.

Kerr, Walter. "A Secret Half-Told in Fountains of Words" in the New York Herald Tribune, April 3, 1955, sec. 4, p. 1.

Mannes, Marya. "The Morbid Magic of Tennessee Williams" in the Reporter, May 15, 1955, pp. 41-42.

Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work, Obolensky, 1961.

Ross, Don. ''Williams in Art and Morals: An Anxious Foe of Untruth" in the New York Herald Tribune, March 3, 1957, sec. 4, pp. 1-2.

Said, Edward. Orientalism, Pantheon, 1978.

Simon, John. "A Cat of Many Colors" in New York, August 12, 1974, pp. 48-49.

Waters, Arthur B. "Tennessee Williams: Ten Years Later" in Theatre Arts, July, 1955, pp. 72-73, 96.

Watts, Richard. "The Impact of Tennessee Williams" in the New York Post, March 25, 1955, p. 57

Further Reading
Crandall, George W. The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams, Greenwood Press, 1996.
This volume contains full-text reprints of newspaper and magazine reviews of Williams's works.

Devlin, Albert J. Conversations with Tennessee Williams, University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
A selection of interviews spanning forty years covering topics from Williams's advice to young writers to frank discussions of his problems with drugs and alcohol.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams, Little, Brown, 1985.
A thorough and scholarly biography of Williams that analyzes the correspondence between his tormented life and his equally anguished drama.

Williams, Tennessee. Memoirs, Doubleday, 1975.
An autobiographical account of Williams's personal life that includes much detail about his sexual exploits. The book is useful in the context it provides for much of the playwright's work.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of critical essays that includes thorough discussions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Ruby Cohn, who examines themes and characters; Robert Heilman, who explores different “levels” of the play; and Esther Jackson, who focuses on the play’s symbolism.

Falk, Signi Lenea. Tennessee Williams. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A useful introduction to Williams and his works. Summarizes critical assessments of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Hirsch, Foster. A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979. An overview of Williams’ work and career. Concludes that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is “dishonest” but well crafted.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. A thorough biography that includes critical commentary. Argues that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a deliberately ambiguous yet “compassionate” play.

Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New Directions, 1955. A useful edition that contains both versions of Act III and commentary by Williams in which he explains why he wrote the second ending.




Critical Essays