Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Cat on a hot tin roof – Tennessee Williams

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 23, 2011

Passions in the hearts of men and women, is vital for the sustenance of the worldLord Brahma to Manmatha

 A chance reading of a brilliant essay dealing with the life and times of the director Elia Kazan in New Yorker started me on the path of exploring the work of American playwright Tennessee Williams. I began with his Pulitzer prize winning play viz. “Cat on a hot tin roof”. I am no stranger to this play for I had seen a movie version of it starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. That I was impressed with what I saw there is an understatement. Even to this day that movie remains one of the finest I have seen. It is this remnant of a lingering impression coupled with the contents of essay that got me going

 Set in a white southern family owning the largest and most fertile plantation in Mississippi Delta, “Cat on a hot tin roof” is a multi-threaded, multi-themed play covering the un-easy relationship of a powerful, aggressive, self-made, extremely wealthy and dying father – Big Daddy – and his two temperamentally disparate sons –  handsome Brick – alcoholic, ex-athlete and sports announcer and Gooper – the older, well educated lawyer keen on getting his share of the rich estate; marital discord between Brick and his beautiful wife Maggie, property squabbles between the brothers and the turmoil of a disintegrating family with all its insecurities and vulnerabilities. Gooper is aided by his wife Mae who is full of hatred towards Maggie. Caught among these squabbling dramatis personae is the helpless matriarch – Big Mama — who has an undying loyalty to her husband – Big Daddy and a blinding love to her younger son Brick. The insecurities of Gooper and Mae are fuelled on account of an unexplained hostility of Big Daddy, Big Mamma and Maggie towards them.

All the key characters in this play are yearning, seeking, desiring objects of their choice with an intensity that makes for fascinating spectacle and it is in capturing this spectacle in its entire naked splendour that Williams really excels. As I read through, I felt that unlike a novelist, short story writer or a poet, a playwright has a very limited space for maneuverability and whatever impact he intends to produce, he has to do with dialogues and conversations as his devices. It is in penning these dialogues that Williams does a marvelous job. Every aspect of the discord in the family is very well captured through sharp, focused and riveting conversations. Through inferences from conversations, Williams brings out the multi faceted personalities of his characters.

Of all the characters in the play, I was enormously impressed with the character of Big Daddy. He is a self made man and accumulates his wealth through decades of hard work and putting up with things that he dislikes. He carries with him a polished arrogance that people round him would find acceptable and unavoidable

Big Daddy’s sense of self worth rests primarily in his knowledge that he is rich and this is very well portrayed when he says ” That Europe is nothin’ on earth but a great big auction, that’s all it is, that bunch of old worn out places, it’s just a big fire sale, the whole rutten thing, an’ Big Mama wint wild in it, why, you could’nt hold that woman with a mule’s harness! Bought, bought, bought! – lucky I’m rich man, yes siree, Bob, an’ half that stuff is mildewin in the basement. It’s lucky I’m a rich man, it sure is lucky, well, I’m a rich man, Brick, yep, I’m a mighty rich man”. Yet when he comes face to face with death in the hints of irreversible spread of cancer this sense of self worth dissolves into an unavoidable reconciliation when he says  “………. but a man can’t buy his life with it, he can’t buy back his life with it when his life has been spent, that’s one thing not offered in Europe fire-sale or in the American markets or any markets on earth, a man can’t buy his life with it, he can’t buy back his life when life is finished“. Added to this acceptance of the limitation of his wealth, Big Daddy also has a wonderfully practical view on human mortality when he says to Brick  “Ignorance  — of mortality —- is a comfort. A man don’t have that comfort, he’s the only thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing which is the way anything living should go, go without knowing, without any knowledge of it, and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it.”

(I especially liked the phrase that characterizes Big Mama’s belligerence in shopping “Big Mama wint wild in it, why, you could’nt hold that woman with a mule’s harness! Bought, bought, bought!”)

Despite his knowledge of dying and the generally aggressive mien, Big Daddy has a very affectionate side to his personality revealed when he tells Brick ” Life is important. There’s nothing else hold onto. A man that drinks is throwing his life away. Don’t do it, hold onto your life. There’s nothing else to hold onto.…”

Williams never makes it clear to the readers why Big Daddy and Big Mama dislike Gooper, Mae and his family. I felt this dislike was very undeserving and that there was nothing devious in Gooper’s view that he has a rightful share in the estate. This view drives them to fawn on Big Daddy which prompts Maggie to say “Why, they were like a couple of card sharps fleecing a sucker“. For all her observations about the indecorous behaviour of Gooper and Mae, Maggie herself is equally competitive in protecting her and Brick’s financial interests and this becomes evident when she says ” Always had to suck up to people I couldn’t stand because they had money and I was poor as Job’s turkey. You don’t know what that’s like……………..You can be young without money but you can’t be old without it. You’ve got to be old with money because to be old without it is just too awful, you’ve got to be one or the other, either young or with money, you can’t be old without it — That’s the truth Brick………. Born poor, raised poor, expect to die poor unless I manage to get us something out of what Big Daddy leaves when he dies of cancer!“…. While on one hand the need for financial security is acute, Maggie on the other hand is grappling with an intense marital discord. This is poignantly portrayed when Maggie says to Brick “Living with someone you love can be lonelier – than living entirely alone! — if the one that y’ love doesn’t love you“. Williams portrays this drift of Maggie and Brick in a memorable way in a small snippet of conversation between them:

Maggie: “I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof!”

Brick: “Then jump off the roof, jump off it, cats can jump off roofs and land on their four feet uninjured!”

Brick’s transformation into an alcoholic and the festering marital discord has more to do with a floundering sports career, loss of his good friend Skipper with whom he is accused of having a homosexual relationship and a sense hypocrisy that surrounds his life. This prompts him to expose all the attempts of his family members to suppress the news of Big Daddy’s cancer related affliction when he says       “Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out an’ death’s the other…..In some ways I’m no better than the others, in some ways worse because I’m less alive. 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….”  Big Daddy’s response to this is manly and in line with the character that he is portrayed to be when Williams make him say these unforgettable lines “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 have 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? Having for instance to act like I care for Big Mama! I haven’t been able to stand the sight, sound or smell of that woman for forty years now! — even when I laid her!  regular as a piston…..pretend to love that son of a bitch Gooper and his wife Mae and those five same screechers out there like parrots in a jungle? Jesus! can’t stand to look at ’em! Church! — it bores the Bejesus out of me  but I go! — I go an’ sit there and listen to the fool preacher! Clubs! — Elks! Masons! Rotary! — crap! …. You I do like for some reason, did always have some kind of real feeling for — affection — respect —- yes, always

 Williams’s characters tend to live on two different planes simultaneously. At one instance they are discussing passionately the need for money and material things and in the next instance they talk of more profound subjects like mortality, death, love, symptoms of marital discord. Consider the following snippets of conversations:

Big Mama: “Don’t laugh about it ! – Some single men stop drinkin’ when they get married and others start! Brick never touched liquor before he —– !

Maggie: “That’s not fair!”

Big Mama: “When a marriage goes on rocks, the rocks are there, right there


 Maggie: ………. “Nobody says, “You’re dying.” You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves

Brick: “Why?”

Maggie: “Why? Because human beings dream of life everlasting, that’s the reason! But most of them want it on earth and not in heaven

 The petulant and protesting Maggie is also capable of deeper and definitely profound observations of her own. Williams manages the transition of all his characters from one plane into another deftly and avoids them making artificial or tacky

As the play concludes one gets a relief similar to the relief after a minor calamity blowing over. As a reader, I knew that the cat has not only jumped off the roof but landed safely on all the fours. The real question is: is Maggie the only cat on the hot tin roof? As I read through the play, I felt that all the characters (barring Dr.Baugh) are in their own ways scalding cats on a hot tin roof called Life and are desperately trying to jump off it to more comfortable locations. It is these attempts and Williams genius for dialogue that make the play a wonderful reading experience. On the surface while a lot of it may appear as a rich family’s squabbles, Williams also raises the profound questions related to life, death, permanence and the hypocrisies that surround human relationships. It is this juxtaposition that elevates “Cat on a hot tin roof” into one of the finest contemporary plays and in Williams own words a snare for truth of human experience


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