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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (analysis of the film and play)
I’m enjoying the soft, slow drip of Tennessee Williams into my bloodstream. It’s finer than any wine and, no doubt, better than that cocaine bear movie. The movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is beautifully done, with the outrageously beautiful Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor cast in the starring roles, and the commanding presence of Burt Ives forming a mesmerizing trio. As for the rest of the characters, they are lost in a sea of captivating dialogue between the principals that locks them in the realm of satire. Maggie, Brick, and Big Daddy are the main characters who attempt to go beyond the mendacity of conventional life. Maggie is highly sensitive and awake to the mendacity all around her, but, unlike Brick, she refuses to let it get her down. She treats it with contempt, makes it into a joke, and lets it puff her up in a sense of superior understanding. That may be why Big Daddy likes her so well; he knows that she is more intelligent, that she perceives how ridiculous their society is. She’s perched above them all, the “cat on a hot tin roof,” watchful, hopeful. One thing she longs for is a baby or at least for Brick to love her again, if only so she can stare down the smirks of her sister-in-law, Mae the baby machine. She is scornful of Mae and longs to outdo her, and to prove to the world her superiority. This, Brick cannot endure. He listens to his wife with a thin layer of patience, which he is only able to muster as he keeps filling his glass with liquor. All he wants is that mechanical moment when his brain clicks (like the clock he likes to listen to) and he can feel some peace. Peace! Pure and true! “That’s not normal,” Brick cries out. A pure and true thing between two people, that’s not normal. Mendacity is normal.
For most of the play, everyone is obsessed with the question of why Brick drinks. Is it the faded glory of the injured football star, or is it frustrated homosexuality? Why Brick drinks and why Maggie isn’t having babies are questions that occupy Big Daddy as he faces the horror of mortality, that occupy Brick’s brother as he strives to outshine Brick in the father’s eyes, and that occupy the sisters-in-law as they measure themselves against each other. The tales persist, the rumors grow, and the stench of mendacity spoils the air; and Brick drinks until he hears the click that quiets his mind.
Big Daddy is dying, but in the first act and for most of the second act, everyone (including Big Daddy and excluding Brick, and maybe the doctor) is lying or just believes the lie that instead of cancer it was just a “spastic colon” ailing him. Let him have one last birthday, thinking he will be all right—one last, great birthday for Big Daddy, with fireworks and everything. To Brick, though, it was just another lie upon heaps of lies. I think what really bothered Brick about it was hearing his father boast about living even more ostentatiously and selfishly than he did before. When Big Daddy thought he was dying from cancer, he did some soul-searching; there seemed to be the dawn of awakening. But as Brick sat there and listened to Big Daddy boasting about how much money he had, how much money he spent in Europe, he realized that his father was just eating up the mendacity again. Big Daddy, like Maggie, recognized the lie for what it was, but instead of searching for truth, he spoke of tolerating the lie and playing along with it while laughing at others who believed it. Worse than mendacity: recognizing it and lying with it and calling that tolerance!
I love the scene in the movie when Paul Newman breaks everything in the cellar. He breaks all of his parents’ castaway toys. Trinkets from Europe. Stuff! Things they had collected in the hope of achieving “life everlasting.” The phrase is used twice, first by Maggie: “…human beings dream of life everlasting… But most of them want it on earth and not in heaven.”Then Big Daddy: “…in the back of his mind, he has a crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!” It is astonishing to think how many times humans need to learn this truth. We know money can’t buy love and yet we continue to try to use it as a substitute for our diminished and false sense of self—our egos. Brick tasted something that was real (the real self, “pure and true” love) through his friendship with Skipper, and we also get the sense that he and Maggie had something “pure and true” as well, at one time, but years of grief and jealousy—and, well, mendacity—have divided them to the point where he cannot even stand her. Just before the curtain on Act One, he asks her, “But how in hell on earth do you imagine—that you’re going to have a child by a man that can’t stand you?” She replies, “That’s a problem that I will have to work out.”
Brick’s disgust is with mendacity—that’s what has to breakdown before he can be at peace. Otherwise, he’s going to keep drinking until he hears the click. His father has to face the truth about the cancer. Big Mama has to face the truth in Act Three, but without spoiling the ending, I can say that it leaves more to question than resolution. Tennessee Williams does not wrap everything up in a box with a neat little bow. Hollywood does what it does best, however. Maggie’s big lie, in the Hollywood version, leads to the hope of happily ever after which the playwright offered only in a half-measure. Both endings work. As Williams noted in one of his stage directions, his aim was not to solve Brick’s problems, but to “catch the true quality of experience in a group of people,” in other words, “that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.”He wanted to leave it open, just as it always is in life.
Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Act One, New Directions/Kindle edition, p.891.
ibid., Act Two, p.1648
ibid., Act One, p.1083
ibid., Act Two, p.2196