Today’s post is about Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!
…At least, that’s what I’d have written yesterday. I read the play but didn’t have a chance to pop this up, so today we’re going two for two. Alright then, let’s get into it. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has themes of alcoholism, homosexuality, and cancer, so if any of those are triggering, you’ll have a hard time with this play. You’ll enjoy it if you like Aristotle’s unities, psychological interiority, or family dramas.
Plot: A Southern family of a father dying of cancer, his sentimental wife, an internalized homophobic son, a sexless wife, and a suck up brother and his family attempt to deny their ugly, inner truths in a bid for the family plantation.
Initial thoughts: Initially I planned to read the Glass Menagerie first, but I couldn’t get a hold of a hard copy and I started reading the American Conservatory Theater’s Words on Plays for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which made me eager and impatient to read it. It didn’t let me down! Act two was especially riveting, and overall I was satisfied from start to finish.
The play, much like Williams’ other work, focuses on Southern life. Having lived in Florida myself, it brought a smile to read the dialect, especially when it was deliberately written out phonetically, such as “infawmed” and “direckly” (23, 24). It was pleasant to see the language reflecting the culture of the South, which permeates everything in the play. Even today, how a story like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays out in the South is different from how it would play out anywhere else in the USA. After all, those who are unfamiliar with chewing tobacco and the dark residue it creates with saliva might wonder if “tobacco juice” is actually a juice (25). Other instances are more subtle, like idioms used in the play. Maggie recalls that her family was “poor as Job’s turkey,” which is a distinctly Southern phrase (54). Referring to the story of Job, who lost all his material wealth in a bet between Satan and God to prove where Job’s true faith resided, from the Old Testament, the phrase references Job’s animals, who would be even poorer than the destitute Job because they relied on a penniless man. The phrase “poor as Job’s cat” was also used (and any Biblical scholar would point out the lack of turkeys in the Bible), but the phrase Maggie uses creates a linguistic landscape that mirrors the Southern play.
The other thing I absolutely adored was how voices from downstairs would capture the subtext of what isn’t spoken between characters. This is most evident with Maggie and Brick arguing in their bedroom, where the intruding voices of Reverend Tooker and Docter Baugh supplement the thoughts on the couple’s lovemaking. This thoroughly American Modernist technique is wonderfully executed, giving us insight into the psyche of these characters that would otherwise be unvoiced. A wonderful, wonderful moment in the play whenever it happens. Almost as good as Big Daddy and Brick arguing over each other toward the end of act two.
Itty Bitty Research: The pressing question on everybody’s mind is usually “what is a cat on a hot tin roof?” or “who is the cat on the hot tin roof?” and I have a few thoughts on this. First, I looked into the phrase, cat on a hot tin roof. It was a phrase used to describe somebody in a nervous or anxious state. The imagery is certainly the best explanation for the idiom. Wikitionary (which is by no means authoritative but a starting point) tells us that the saying used to be like a cat on hot bricks, which, if this is truly the case, carries an interesting reference to Brick. Maggie describes herself as both a cat and a cat on a hot tin roof, and we can further infer Brick as the hot tin roof – or more aptly in the archaic phrase, the hot bricks. At least to me, however, this is too obvious a meaning.
The play tells us explicitly when Maggie feels like a cat (both on and off a hot tin roof) on pages 31, 38, 40, 49, 51, and 55. Certainly this excess obviousness of the connection between Maggie and the title is cause for reading the metaphor of the cat on the hot tin tin differently. After all, Maggie is not the protagonist. It is Brick we follow, buoyed in a sea of turbulent emotions and intense feelings the other characters feel for him. Let’s not forget that it is his development at the end of the play which is most significant as well; we know Maggie is after a child and will procure it at all means necessary, we know Big Daddy is dying of cancer before he knows it, we know Big Mama is maintaining appearances, and we know Gooper and Mae are only after the money. While Brick seems to be the same indifferent man he was at the beginning, his learning the truth between Maggie and Skipper plays as a revelation and he is forced to confront his feelings for Skipper that he has so avidly avoided. Is he not also akin to a cat on a hot tin roof – one that has jumped off the roof, unlike the other characters, who metaphorically remain like cats on hot tin roofs?
That said, I wondered why Maggie has such an iconic cultural legacy despite this play being about Brick. It is the Maggies and not the Bricks that I knew of before I read this play. Naturally, there is the connection of her feeling like a cat on a hot tin roof. There is also the fact that Elizabeth Taylor steals the screenplay adaptation of the play. Due to the Production Code of 1930, colloquially known as the Hays Code, which limited what kind of content could be included in movies produced at the time, major themes of the play such as homosexuality and the institution of marriage, are massively watered down – if not totally absent – from the film. Consequentially, the cinematic narrative focuses more on Maggie than on Brick. I believe that this has had a major effect on the legacy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – woefully so.
Works Cited: Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New Directions, 1975. Print.