Front cover of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
What do you know about this mendacity thing? Hell! I could write a book on it! Don’t you know that? I could write a book on it and still not cover the subject? Well, I could, I could write a goddam book on it and still not cover the subject anywhere near enough!!–Think of all the lies I got to put up with!–Pretenses! Ain’t that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don’t think or feel or have any idea of? (80)
Mendacity. Lies. Deceit. Untruthfulness. Regardless of how you name this concept, it is one that silently governs over all of our lives and our actions. Mendacity is the core theme of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play entitled Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play brilliantly illustrates the extent to which humans twist, shape, destroy, or downright ignore truth to comply with socio-cultural demands and expectations. The passage above highlights one of the character’s (Big Daddy) views on the concept of mendacity, going as far as to approach untruthfulness as an ordinary and part of human nature. Mendacity is not presented as a choice or even as a viable option by this character–it is presented as a phenomenon that we have “to put up with.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place in Big Daddy’s plantation in the Mississippi Delta. Big Daddy is the owner of a cotton business, and he also owns thousands of acres of fertile land in this area. Most of Big Daddy’s family is reunited at the estate to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, and right from the opening of the play, the reader is immersed into a web of lies that tangles and distorts truth, objectivity, and even compassion. In the first act, it is revealed that Big Daddy is dying from a case of terminal cancer–however, Big Daddy’s children decide to conceal his condition by informing him that his lab results came back clean.
This crisis overlaps with the play’s central tension, which focuses on the unhappy relationship between Big Daddy’s son, Brick, and his wife, Maggie. After the suicide of his best friend, Skipper, Brick becomes an alcoholic, he loses all sexual interest in his wife, and he shows no interest in work or in hobbies other than drinking. Brick is at odds with his brother, Gooper, because the latter is interested in inheriting the father’s estate and fortune–claiming that it would be irresponsible to bestow all that land to an alcoholic who has no children. The play concludes with Maggie announcing that she’s pregnant (yet another lie) to assure that she and her husband obtain part of Big Daddy’s estate after he dies.
I found it interesting that this play tethers the notions of truth and queerness quite effectively. In the section entitled “Notes for the Designer,” Williams strenuously tries to convey not only how the set should look, but also the atmosphere that the set should convey. Williams describes how the room that Brick and Maggie share used to belong to a gay couple, and how the energy of their relationship continues to “haunt” and affect the dynamics of the room in strange ways. As the opening of the play states, the room
hasn’t changed much since it was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon. (xiii)
Even though the relationship between Straw and Ochello wasn’t openly discussed, Williams approaches their partnership as a force that continues to constitute part of the play’s space and atmosphere. Similar to truth, even when queerness is suppressed or contained by the play’s characters, it still finds a way to show or express itself. The queerness that haunts the room manifests in Brick’s character, mostly because every other character assumes that Skipper’s suicide has affected Brick so immensely because they were romantically interested (or perhaps, involved) with each other. Not only does Big Daddy inquire whether Brick and Skipper were lovers, but Brick’s wife, Maggie, goes as far as to posit that the lack of tolerance for queer relationships in their society is the factor that ultimately drove Skipper to kill himself. Skipper tries to sleep with Maggie to prove his heterosexuality, but fails to do so. This failure pushes Maggie to force Skipper to confront the truth about his feelings towards Brick:
I destroyed [Skipper], by telling him the truth that he and his world which he was born and raised in, yours and his world, had told him could not be told? (45)
Brick desperately tries to deny that he and Skipper were romantically involved, and at first, he confesses to his father that he and Skipper had a falling-out due to the fact that Brick was unwilling to reciprocate Skipper’s romantic and sexual feelings towards him. Big Daddy has an honest chat with Brick, telling him how he is the person who carries the most guilt because of mendacity–especially since Big Daddy believes that Brick has been lying to himself about his true feelings towards Skipper:
we’ve tracked down the lie with which you’re disgusted and which you are drinking to kill your disgust with, Brick. You been passing the buck. This disgust with mendacity is disgust with yourself.
You!–dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!–before you’d face truth with him! (92)
I find this conversation between father and son very interesting. Not only is the father trying to find out the reasons why Brick drinks, but he is also trying to help Brick identify the root of his pain and torment. By stating that Brick’s mendacity led to Skipper’s demise and death, the father places attention not on his son’s potential homosexuality, but rather, on his son’s dishonesty. Brick continues to deny the truths that his father openly discusses, claiming that the truth under question is Skipper’s truth, not his own. Big Daddy, however, argues that even if Skipper’s truth was the factor that led to his demise, it doesn’t change the fact that Brick refused to “face [Skipper’s truth] with him” (92). This accusation leads Brick to tell Big Daddy the truth about his cancer, and how his family has been lying to him to protect his feelings. After both Brick and his father are forced to face the realities of their lives, Brick proceeds to make one of the most intriguing confessions of the play:
Maybe it’s being alive that makes them lie, and being almost not alive makes me sort of accidentally truthful–I don’t know but–anyway–we’ve been friends . . .
–And being friends is telling each other the truth . . .
[There is a pause.]
You told me! I told you! (94-95)
Brick’s passionate confession points out two very important points. First, reiterating Big Daddy’s ideas of the nature of mendacity (pointed out in the first block quote of this blog post), Brick also seems to believe that lying is an part of living, and that the two phenomena cannot exist without each other–lying is living, living is lying. Secondly, this passage highlights the possibility that truth is only accessible to those who reside beyond the parameters of the living. Brick barely has a life because he is an alcoholic, and Big Daddy’s life has a definite expiration date due to his cancer. Thus, both of these characters are situated in liminal positions, where they inhabit the space between living and dying. I find it interesting that a queering of the divide between life and death is approached, in the play, as the only way of accessing truth–especially when taking into consideration that Brick and Big Daddy are the only characters who confront and embrace veracity.
I would consider this play very postmodern in terms of its exploration of the impossibility of truth and constructions of selfhood based on untruthfulness. These characters have the opportunity to embrace truth, but they deny doing so to comply with socio-cultural demands and expectations. What I find particularly interesting, though, is that this play presents an instance in which non-normative, liminal characters are presented as the only individuals capable of invoking truth and honesty in other people, even though they are incapable of dealing with their own truths and realities. Is queerness (non-normativity, anti-binaristic thinking) thus the solution to mendacity? This is definitely an idea that is worth exploring.
You can purchase a copy of Williams’ play by clicking here.
Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chicago: Signet Books, 1955. Print.
Characterize the relationship between the Pollitt brothers.
Brick is eight years the junior of Gooper, and has always been coddled and adored as the baby of the family. There is a sibling rivalry, but it is entirely one-sided. Gooper is threatened by the universal adoration for Brick and resents his little brother's ability to succeed and be loved without doing anything to deserve it. Brick, on the other hand, barely notices Gooper's existence. As in all Brick's relationships, it is the other party who has the strong emotions.
A recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof broke from tradition by having an entirely African American cast. How would the play be different if Williams had intended the characters to be African-American?
Most significantly, it is difficult to imagine a black planter achieving Big Daddy's sort of financial success in the mid-century South. Accompanying that, the tensions and conflicts of the play are entirely internal to the family – there are no outside threats. In this time and place, a wealthy black family with questionable lines of inheritance would face an entirely different set of social and legal pressures regarding the land and wealth. To deal with these issues, the production in question moved the time frame of the play to an unspecified later period, in which their race would not affect their wealth.
Maggie thinks that announcing her pregnancy will solve all her problems. Is she right?
Quite possibly. The one thing holding Brick and Maggie back from full possession of the Pollitt estate after Big Daddy's death is their lack of an heir – if Big Daddy thinks that a baby is on the way when he's writing his will, that concern will be eliminated. But Maggie also knows that a sham pregnancy can't last long without being found out or proven true, so she is banking on Brick's obligation to make the lie a truth, in order to satisfy her own desire. The question now is whether Brick will be willing to or physically capable of pushing through his haze of liquor and disgust for successful procreation.
Tennessee Williams chose to compress the staged action of this play into a single night, but the story itself has a much longer range. When does this story begin and end?
The story begins with the death of Skipper – or perhaps even the night Maggie and Skipper sleep together. It encompasses Brick's ensuing ennui and Maggie's growing desperation; the years of Big Daddy's illness; and the night shown in the play itself. The ending, we can surmise, comes if and when Maggie does have a baby, or when Big Daddy signs his will. But by compressing the action to a single night, Williams succeeds in heightening emotions and forcing the confrontations and angry truths that result in good drama.
Compare and contrast Big Daddy and Brick.
The men are portrayed as similar in their relationships to their wives. Both Big Daddy and Brick are married to women who adore and worship them, but who they can't stand. It is their very insouciance, in fact, that makes the women love them. Likewise, both appear to be capable of expressing true affection for only one person – Big Daddy for Brick, and Brick for Skipper. It is the tragedy of the play that none of the affections are mutual. Big Daddy is just as thwarted in his love for his son as Maggie is.
"It is so damn hard for people to talk to each other," Big Daddy says repeatedly, yet many plain and hurtful words are said in this play. How does Williams manipulate his characters into really talking to one another, when they otherwise would not?
Brick's silence is a tool by the playwright to allow Maggie and Big Daddy to express some deeply personal and hurtful truths – because he is so unresponsive, they each are able to monologue in his presence, almost like an aria in an opera, as though he weren't really there. Brick, on the other hand, is made truthful by liquor, and Gooper and Mae by overwhelming greed. Big Daddy and Big Mama are also forced to speak plainly by the prospect of death, forcing into the open thoughts and feelings that would otherwise go unsaid.
Why does Williams give his hero an injury?
Crippling Brick serves a thematic role as well as being a plot and staging device. On the most basic level, Brick hobbling around the stage on his crutch keeps the long conversations visually interesting, and gives the actor something to work with. As a plot device, Brick's escapades at the school track force everyone's awareness of his alcohol problem. But it also externalizes how Brick his emotionally crippled since the death of Skipper – the damage done to his psyche is just as profound, real, and debilitating as a broken leg.
Where does Mae fit into the family? Why does she feel threatened?
Mae married into the Pollitt clan, going from a family with social standing but no money to a family with plenty of cash and a lack of class. But she's a striver, and wants to ensure that the money heads eventually in the direction of her brood. On the one hand, she feels like she has more of a claim to being a part of the family than Maggie has, because she has a passel of children who are bonafide Pollitts. Yet she still feels threatened by Maggie's obviously likability and the general preference the parents have for Brick and Maggie over Gooper and Mae.
Could Cat on a Hot Tin Roof be rewritten to take place today, or have social structures changed too much?
In 1955, when the play was first produced, the majority of women did not work outside the home. Maggie and Mae would have been fully dependent on their husband's wealth, with their only contribution to the advancement of their family being in the form of child-bearing. More to the point is the issue of Brick and Skipper's possible homosexuality – could a man still closet himself to death? Sadly, the answer is yes. Although in many areas the story of Brick and Skipper would be absurd self-delusion, there are still plenty of people who, like Brick, were so thoroughly indoctrinated into a belief in the unnaturalness of homosexuality that they just cannot accept the possibility. Perhaps if we give it another generation, their sad story will no longer be possible.
The entire play takes place in one unbroken stretch of time, in one room, with an infrequently rotating cast of characters. As the theater is fundamentally a visual medium, how does Williams vary the action and keep things visually interesting?
In short – he doesn't. Cat is a very difficult play to stage effectively, because of the extreme compression of time and place. The first act is an unbroken conversation between two people, and the second act is mostly an unbroken conversation between two people. But in each pair, one person is Brick, the crippled drunk. The action of Brick hobbling back and forth to the bar, and the various attempts by Maggie and Big Daddy to steal Brick's crutch and physically manipulate him, give a director something to work with in terms of the staging. The frequent interruptions by other characters are also of assistance. But in the end, the burden of creating a visually interesting piece of drama and of fully utilizing the space is left entirely to the cast and director.