Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
A southern family gathers to celebrate its patriarch Big Daddy’s birthday. His two sons are as different as can be. The elder, Gooper, is married to a nauseating woman and has five obnoxious kids with another on the way. The younger, Brick, is an alcoholic struggling with a horrible depression. His wife Maggie is beautiful, but is cracking under the strain of trying to hold her marriage together. Their complicated relationship seems irrevocably broken, though we don’t know why at first.
The play won the Pulitzer Prize for its deft portrayal of a family full of secrets. Contempt, greed, adultery, etc. the story is ripe with issues. Williams has a wonderful talented for capturing the fissure in relationships and people’s psyches. Brick is horrible to Maggie, talking to her with utter contempt. His treatment of his wife is a learned behavior. His father, Big Daddy, has treated his own wife with disdain for forty years. In his own words…
“All I ask of that woman is that she leave me alone, but she can’t admit to herself that she makes me sick.”
Maggie the cat’s loneliness is palpable. I’ve never encountered a character so isolated and trapped in her own life. Her husband Brick is so broken, whether it’s because of his feelings for his dead friend Skipper or his guilt over Skipper’s death or both. We know that Skipper loved Brick, but we don’t know whether Brick felt the same, only that he was so bothered by Skipper’s confession that he hung up on him.
BOTTOM LINE: The play is an enthralling portrait of loneliness. You can't look away.
**The edition I read had two versions of the third act. The first was the ending as Williams originally imagined it. The second was a rewrite that Elia Kazan encouraged Williams to do. Both are interesting, the major change is the absence or presence of Big Daddy.
“Living with someone you love can be lonelier – than living entirely alone! – if the one that y’ love doesn’t love you.”
The 1958 film version makes a few major changes, notably the absence of any reference to homosexuality. It completely leaves out the bits about the former owners of the plantation. It makes Brick and Skipper’s relationship into a dependant friendship, but never touches on the issue of homosexuality. It also leaves us with a much more hopeful ending than the play does. It stars Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor; she is particularly mesmerizing as Maggie.