“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams

Among my reading projects for this year, I had meant to acquaint myself with the plays of Tennessee Williams, a dramatist to whose works I have never felt particularly close. I can see, looking back over the year, that I have failed miserably in this reading project. I read and quite enjoyed The Night of the Iguana earlier this year, but, for whatever reason, haven’t really felt the urge to go back and read more of his plays.  And I am not entirely sure why. After all, the dialogue is superb, depicting economically the characters’ inner lives, and their relations with each other, and yet sounding entirely spontaneous and natural; the pacing is masterly, with the dramatic climaxes placed perfectly; the characters are intriguing, and depicted with a vivid theatricality; and so on. What’s not to like? – as they say. So, I picked up Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of Williams’ most famous dramas, and I found the same fine qualities I had found in The Night of the Iguana. And yet… and yet, there seemed something missing, something I find difficult to pinpoint.

Before going on to examine why this may be so, let me first of all rule out of court the criticisms I used to make of Tennessee Williams: I used to dismiss his work as “overheated melodrama”. This really won’t do, for various reasons. First of all, beyond what point does a drama become “overheated”? Is there some point at which it is correctly heated? Is it underheated if we fail to reach this point? How does one heat a drama anyway, come to that? And in any case, what do we mean by “melodrama”, and why precisely is it a bad thing? “Overheated melodrama” is one of those meaningless pieces of criticism that get bandied around unthinkingly: so let’s not go there.

One may, perhaps, object the level of hysteria in Williams’ plays – all those people at the end of their tether, losing their touch with reality, and so on. Once again, I do not see why this should be a reason for criticism: there do exist people who are hysterical, or on the edge of hysteria; there do exist people who lose touch with reality. So why should a dramatist not depict such people? Extreme psychologies do exist, and there is no reason why the creative writer should consider them out of bounds. Or even, as Williams does, focus on these extreme psychologies: writers are entitled, after all, to choose and to focus on whatever most concerns them. That the reader may not necessarily share the writer’s concerns is hardly a shortcoming of the writer. If Tennessee Williams chooses to focus on extreme psychologies and extreme behaviour, then that is his privilege: our appraisal must concern not the choice of subject, but how he deals with it.

And I am not necessarily out of sympathy with his subject. After all, I rate Dostoyevsky among my favourite novelists (despite often immense reservations), and his novels are full of hysterics and emotional cripples. No – if there is something in Tennessee Williams’ plays that I can’t quite latch on to, it is not that he depicts extreme characters, and extreme behaviour. There is something other than that that I find difficult.

As with many plays by Williams, the characters and the dramatic situation – the plot, such as it is – is familiar to most who watch Hollywood films from the 50s and 60s: it was through these bowdlerised versions that I, and many others I guess, first came into contact with these works. I must admit I remember little of the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, and with Burl Ives famously reprising his stage role as Big Daddy. From what I gather, this version was quite heavily bowdlerised, and Tennessee Williams was himself unhappy with it. Admittedly, it’s hard to see how the play’s openness on sexual matters could have been depicted in a mainstream film of the late 50s, but equally, it’s hard to see what can be left of the drama once this sexual openness is taken out. For sex is at the very heart of everything here. Early in the play, Big Mama asks her daughter-in-law if she makes her husband happy in bed, and says, pointing to the bed: “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there – right there.” Of course, the sheer inappropriateness of this, especially coming as it does from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, is squirm-inducingly comic: but this sentiment seems to be at the centre of the play itself. It’s not just marriage: in the world of Tennessee Williams, when any human relationship goes “off the rocks”, the reasons are sexual. Characters are depicted almost entirely in sexual terms: any neurosis, any hysteria, is, at bottom, sexual in nature.

Margaret – Maggie – is the cat on the hot tin roof of the title. Her husband Brick has his leg in plaster, and appears on stage throughout the play with a perhaps too blatantly symbolic a crutch. And, yes, he and his wife have not been having sex at all, and this has become the talk of the entire family. As the play progresses, the reasons for this lack of sexual activity emerge: Maggie had been jealous of her husband’s friendship with Skipper, believing it to be essentially homosexual in nature; Skipper had tried to have an affair with Maggie, to prove her wrong, but on being unable to complete the act, had been forced to face the truth about himself; but when he had declared himself to Brick, Brick was merely shocked and disgusted, and had rejected him; subsequently, Skipper had committed suicide, and Brick, ever since, has been living a life of guilt and alcoholism, unable either to be sexually attracted to his wife, or to come to terms with his own homosexual leanings. All very torrid and tumultuous, but, inevitably, no longer as shocking as it must have seemed some sixty or so years ago at its first performance. And now that we are no longer shocked by this (indeed, if we are shocked at anything at all now, it would probably be Brick’s rejection of Skipper!) we must ask ourselves how well this holds up on purely psychological and dramatic terms.

Perhaps it does: I am no psychologist, and am in no position to judge. But it does bother me, I admit, that the inner lives of these characters, and of the relationships between them, are depicted purely in sexual terms: take out the sex, and there seems little if anything left. Now, I really don’t think I am prudish (although maybe I am – who knows?) but I really do find it hard to believe that our sexuality is the sole, or even the principal, driving force determining our psychologies and our behaviour. And perhaps this is why I find it so difficult to enter into the world of Tennessee Williams: here, all states of mind, all neuroses, all hysteria, are essentially sexual in nature.

Apart from Brick and Maggie, we have the famous character of Big Daddy, a still vigorous figure in his 60s, but, unknown to himself, dying of cancer. He is in many ways a quite monstrous figure: when we see him, he is under the impression that he is physically healthy, and, this being a Tennessee Williams play, the only way he can express his vigour and zest for life is to express his desire to have more sex. He is casually dismissive of his ageing wife, who remains, pathetically, devoted to him. And there is Brick’s brother and sister-in-law – mean, grasping schemers, straight out of Balzac, desperate to lay their hands on Big Daddy’s estate, and cut out Brick and Maggie. I hesitate to describe these characters as “mere caricatures”, since, as anyone who has read Gogol or Dickens will testify, caricatures can be tremendously subtle and sophisticated; but here, they aren’t: they are merely crude, and, as a consequence, tiresome. A dramatist more interested in aspects of characters other than sex could have made something more of Gooper’s jealousy of his brother Brick, who, despite his general irresponsibility and lack of hard work, has remained his father’s favourite; but Tennessee Williams appears to make very little of this, since, it seems, he is not interested in any aspect of human character that is not sexual in nature. And it is for this reason that, for all the many fine dramatic qualities of this play, I come away from it feeling I have witnessed a somewhat reduced view of humanity.

As ever, I do not mean to put anyone off. Those more in sympathy with Tennessee Williams’ view of humanity, or who are more prepared to be convinced than I was, will find much more to like in this play than I did. As for me, I’ll read a few more of his works in time, but at the moment, I can’t say I’m in a rush to race through them all. I think I may be prudish after all!


10 responses to this post.

  1. I’m one of THOSE people with more sympathy for the world of his characters, but that said, I also have a weakness for over-the-top 50s melodrama (talking Sirk films here). The soapier, the sleazier the better. I also can really get into something like Valley of the Dolls, for example.

    I’ve been lucky enough to see a number of the plays performed and they have always worked well. Small theatres, larger than life characters & their secrets. How are you with the film adaptations?


    • I’ve never seen any of these plays on stage, and i imagine they’d work well: they are certainly very theatrical, and the dramatic climaxes are explosive.

      Those screen adaptations used to be on television all the time when i was growing up, and I must admit I enjoyed them. They generally featured very charismatic stars (Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Streetcar Named Desire; Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr in The Night of the Iguana; etc.) But it has been some time since I last saw them, and I am not sure how I’d react to them now.I’ll wait till they get shown on TCM or something: I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out to but the DVDs.


  2. I was planning to read Tennessee Williams as part of my play-reading programme, but I’m now going to let myself be unduly influenced by your review and read someone else instead.


    • Oh, don’t let me put you off: Tennessee Williams is still very highly rated, I believe, and mine is very much a minority view. I’ll read a few more over next year, and see if i can find something more to him.


  3. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on December 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I don’t see anything like as many good productions of plays as I would have liked but for some reason I’ve seen a fair number of T.Williams ones over the years.

    What could make a vast difference from the reading is, as has been said,are these big, intimately depicted characters in smaller venues with smaller audiences. This and the sense of Deep South heat, which is invariably claustrophobic. There is always a sense of everything already being very…well…wrong: the weather, the politics, the mind-set that most of the characters deploy.

    It is, maybe, the base from which this playwright always works and from where he believes he explores the lowest of ebbs and flows of the human character and condition. Sex seems to become a device that creates more intensity and basic ids.

    Overall, I have quite enjoyed the plays I’ve seen, and the films too. But I think they are very much of their time and, yes, limited in their scope. A modern imitator would, and probably ought to be seen as a melodramatic.

    The characters in all the plays you have mentioned, plus others, all seem to rise out of a desperate, impoverished, stagnant south and just about survive intact rather than flourish. Even a ‘Big Daddy’ persona, although wealthy and powerful, is nothing more than a bloated fool really. There is nothing urbane, nothing has been opened or learnt. Everybody but everybody is stuck in a one-horse way of living and thinking.


    • Hello Shonti, I agree with you that these plays are effective in performance: Tennessee Williams understood well what works in a theatre. But shouldn’t one look deeper? With any work of art, or with any work that spires to art, shouldn’t one also ask oneself what vision of life the work imparts?

      The plays are certainly located strongly in the Deep South. I have only been to the Deep South on two separate occasions (Atlanta and Dallas), and both were work trips – i.e. I didn’t really get a feel of the place. What I know of the place stems from the literature, and, for whatever reason, I find myself strongly drawn to writers of that region – Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, all readily come to mind. But Tennessee Williams I find no more than “theatrical” – i.e. very effective, but not, as far as I can see, very deep. If everybody is “stuck in a one-horse way of living and thinking”, then, after a while, the lack of variety is bound to make for a certain monotony. “Limited in scope”, as you put it: and this particular scope, for all its theatricality, I don’t really find very interesting.

      I’m not sure that the sexual content of these works is present simply as a “device”. Rather, it seems to me at the very centre of these works: each character, each relationship, seems to be defined purely in terms of sex. Everything is, as you say, “wrong”, but as far as I can see (and I may be missing much), it’s all wrong purely for reasons that relate to sex. And I find myself thinking: “Is man no more than this?” The works of the Southern writers I mentioned above all give far richer accounts of humans. Earlier this year, I read the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty, and I thought them both magnificent. Tennessee Williams … well, perhaps he is just not for me. I’ll persevere.


  4. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on December 7, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I don’t know anything of O’Conner, Welty or McCullers but would like to. I know some of Twain and Faulkner and consider their work to be far better than Williams’. You are correct that the latter does not have the same depth, as far as I am able to perceive, and is more interested in making a dramatic impact which, in the context of the other two, is more like a little splash.

    I also agree that the sexual nuances, or depiction of characters essentially through this mode, can be trite and sometimes annoying. I suppose you have to give any artist their theme, whatever it is that they are personally interested in, and Williams was obviously hugely fascinated by people’s sexuality. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons that the plays have remained popular and performed.

    Ho hum…


    • Yes, that’s possibly fair: authors are obviously entitled to focus on what concerns them most, and Tennessee Williams’ concerns are rather narrowly focussed; but his concerns are not really mine.


  5. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on December 7, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Meaty roles for charismatic performers. Bums on seats!


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