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The Play and Film

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was first shown in1955 as a Broadway production. Written by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a compelling play which employed William’s tried-and-tested real-life and romantic structure palpable to his audience. He used a linear plot line, recognizable characters, and colorful themes drawn from his American South heritage. Although this time Williams, aside from creatively playing on to the prevailing myth of the plantation South, there is quite a twist in this play.

Cat on the Hot Tin Roof has bravely explored a shift, foreshadowing the emphasis in Williams’ subsequent works, was the increasingly open presentation of homosexuality. In his public persona and in his major works, up until this point, he had been extremely cautious to cloak his own sexual orientation, but the world was becoming a bit more accepting by 1955 (Tischler, 2000, p. 79). The success of the Williams’ play in Broadway prompted it to be adapted to the film in 1958 starring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie), Paul Newman as Brick, Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Jack Carson as Gooper.

The film director Richard Brooks struggled to be faithful to Williams’ play, but the homosexuality in the play posed censorship problems. So Brooks decided to be discreet in suggesting this particular theme. Skipper, Brick’s close friend, is in love with him; but when Brick rejects that love, Skipper, who has unsuccessfully tried to prove his manhood with Maggie, commits suicide. Unable to shoulder any responsibility for Skipper’s death, Brick blames Maggie and withdraws from her.

Without sex, Maggie and Brick will not have children, and Big Daddy’s estate will go to Gooper, Brick’s brother, who has sired “no-neck monsters. ” Some critics who discussed the subject of homosexuality in this play necessarily scrutinize Brick’s relationship with Skipper, but Williams’s ambiguous treatment of the subject ultimately leads critics to relate homosexuality to other themes. Nelson insists that Brick’s fault is not homosexuality, but “idealizing his relationship with Skipper”.

Twenty-five years after the first production of the play, Williams could argue that “Brick’s sexual confusion is no longer the sensation it was . . . so that the real theme of the play–the general mendacity of our society–is more clearly seen”. Shackelford, on the other hand, argues that Williams achieves a more subversive aim, expressing through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “a plea for tolerance of the gay lifestyle” (Crandell, 1998, p. 112). For the author himself, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Maggie’s play, “the story of a strong determined creature (Life!

Maggie! )” who manipulates “a broken, irresolute man”. The play virtually zooms in on emphasizing Maggie’s centrality. Not only is she named as the “cat” of the title, but her “cattiness” results in a “psychological victory” and “resolves the thematic tension of the play”. It is also generally believed that the “substance” of the play is positioned on “the triumph of Maggie’s heterosexual vitality over the pathological, homosexual commitment of Brick to Skipper (Crandell 1998, p.

113). Throughout the play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is riddled with prominent symbols that function to illuminate characters or the relationships among them. For instance, Blackwelder links the “cat” and heat of the title to Maggie and “the fiery passion of sex”. Subliminally, the cat symbolizes not only the “sensual”, but also “the mystery, jealousy, savagery, vindictiveness and guilefulness associated with the Feminine”, all of which apply in some measure to Maggie.

The frequent mention of heat in the play, could be attributed its sexual significance (1970, 13-21). Also, Brick’s broken ankle and crutch function symbolically to illuminate character. Apparently, the fracture is a symbol of Brick’s spiritual woundedness, that the injury is a sign that Brick’s symbolic “castration . . . will not be permanent” (Ganz 1962, p. 279). In the film version, Newman and Taylor played convincingly as the young married couple whose relationship is deeply troubled after the death of the husband’s closest friend.

The character played by Newman becomes weak and insipid rather than a man dealing with his sexual identity. Brooks’ film suggests that Brick’s emotional immaturity rather than his fear of his own latent homosexuality keeps him away from Maggie. In the film, Brick’s suppressed sexual desire is implied by burying his face in Maggie’s slip and by “suggestively” brandishing his crutches. At the end of the film, after Maggie claims she is pregnant, Brick supports her lie and shows that he is ready to sleep with her.

This upbeat ending is at odds with that of the play, which portrays only a tentative reconciliation between the two. Besides altering the ending, Brooks toned down the bawdy language, softens the religious satire, cuts quite a bit of dialogue, and takes the action outside Big Daddy’s house. Brooks showcased a drunken Brick attempting the hurdles in an empty stadium. Brick hears the roar of the crowd, but after he breaks his leg, he hears nothing. This scene explains Brick’s physical problem and also illustrates the difficulty of determining the truth.

On the contrary, Williams’ play focused more on the lies that people tell each other and themselves: the family’s lies about Big Daddy’s cancer and Brick’s lies about the causes of his sexual problem and his alcoholism. In another scene, which begins in the basement, Brick and Big Daddy make each other confront the truth. That honest confrontation, which is juxtaposed to the upstairs lies of Gooper’s family, proceeds symbolically outside into the open. Brooks’ changes proved popular at the box office, even though the critical response was less enthusiastic.

Williams commented that his play was “jazzed up, hoked up a bit” in the film. Although Williams obviously disliked the film because it lacked the “purity of the play” and because Elizabeth Taylor “was never [his] idea of Maggie the Cat”, it was a great commercial success, grossing more than $10 million in the United States. It was even nominated for six Academy Awards (Phillips 1980, p. 152). Nevertheless, Cat on the Hot Tin Roof has shared, as many other stories, the principle that “man is not the master of his soul”, by virtually showcasing that all the great decisions are made by forces beyond any person’s control.

In this play, the superior forces against which the characters battle are biological, economic, psychological, and social. Big Daddy’s destiny is determined by his dilemma with cancer, where he struggled for his life. Maggie struggled against Gooper and Mae for an inheritance that promises economic security in a materialistic society. Brick struggled to define himself as either he is straight or homosexual. At the same time, Brick, the idealistic individual, struggled to be understood with a realistic American society, in a time that still could not relate to his individuality.

Works Cited

Blackwelder James Ray. “The Human Extremities of Emotion in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. ” Research Studies 38 (1970): 13-21. Crandell, G. W. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, Kolin, P. C. (Ed. ) (pp. 109-121). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. Ganz Arthur. “The Desperate Morality of the Plays of Tennessee Williams. ” American Scholar 31 (1962): 278-94. Phillips Gene D. The Films of Tennessee Williams. Philadelphia: Art Alliance, 1980. Tischler, N. M. Student Companion to Tennessee Williams. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

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