The introduction sets an eerie precedent for this play: “we’re all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins”. Claustrophobic and woefully sombre, it epitomises Williams’ message: we’re all unable to express our true natures.
Set in the “plantation home” of the Mississippi Delta’s biggest cotton planter (think big white pillars and generations of Southern American conservatism), it follows one family over an “evening in summer” and their reactions to the events that unfold.
It is Big Daddy’s birthday – the head of the house – the celebration made ever more significant by the apparent recent clearance of his cancer diagnosis. Yet it is his son, Brick, and his wife Maggie that are the focus of this drama. Brick is a reclusive, quiet man with a constant “cool air of detachment” that makes him seem distant to his demanding wife, who is the real “cat” on the hot tin roof. In their childless marriage, Maggie feels “totally useless!”, unable to win the love she so desperately craves from Brick after he discovers her shocking betrayal.
Brick, however, has become a deeply troubled man. His broken ankle and inability to physically move reflect his shattered soul and incapability to move on from past tragedies, Williams setting a dreary and tense atmosphere that pervades each agonising scene. The violent confrontations, spiteful accusations and distressing revelations serve only to further complicate the chaotic web of deceit that entangles the family, and culminate in a depressing revelation: we can never quite be ourselves around other people.
Through his ingenious characterisation and masterful plot, Williams succeeds in crafting a play that not only exposes the fragmented nature of family relations, but the failure to communicate within these relationships that so often leads to their deterioration. Through the characters of Gooper and Mae, Brick’s brother and sister-in-law respectively, Williams uncovers the intricate jealousies and grievances that poison previously good intentions and the ruthless greed with which selfish interests are pursued. Big Mama, the wife of Big Daddy, personifies the pertinent human emotions of simply wanting to be noticed, loved and appreciated; and for the right reasons. She represents an insecurity that we all inevitably feel, and the cruelty she is dealt as a result of showing this weakness appears to convey Williams’ ever-pessimistic view of the world: it is too harsh for those who reveal their vulnerability.
Despite its unusual plot and honestly unlikeable characters, I would recommend this play. It is well known Williams had a strange fascination with writing about the South of America, and its tragic and inevitable decay, and this certainly shines through this text, which I would describe in modern terms as a form of black comedy. Perhaps he intended it to show the inevitable downfall of Southern life, due to its inability to accept all facets of human nature – especially its frailties – and its rigid ideals of what the lives of men and women should entail. However, I believe it more likely demonstrates his frustration and deep sadness at his own inability to express his true feelings as a homosexual in an intolerant America (Williams is writing from the 1950s), as sexuality is frequently discussed – much to the embarrassment of contemporary audiences.
Ultimately, it leaves a profound impression of sorrow on the reader, and likely too on the audience. Expressing your true nature – and succeeding in getting others to understand it – is something that, with deeper thought, we all continually struggle to do. Throughout the play it is Maggie, Brick’s wife, that is the trapped, frustrated and intensely unhappy ‘cat on a hot tin roof’, a metaphor for her failure to achieve her true desires; she cannot make herself understood, and refuses to abandon her position in society for the sake of her own happiness. However, all the characters could embody this ‘cat’.
Arguably, so could you.