Cat On A Hot Tin Roof: Essay Q&A
1. Discuss the different versions of Act 3.
In Williams's original script, Big Daddy did not appear in the final act. But Elia Kazan, a director with whom Williams particularly wanted to work, argued that Big Daddy was too important a character simply to disappear after Act 2. Kazan also thought that Brick should undergo some change following his cathartic interview with his father in Act 2, and that Maggie should be presented in a more sympathetic manner to the audience. The revisions Williams made at Kazan's request also include Brick's softening attitude to Maggie. In the original version, Brick's response to Maggie's declaration of love is "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true," an enigmatic remark that is in keeping with his character. But in what became known as the Broadway version, Brick says, "I admire you, Maggie," which gives the play a more positive resolution, designed to appeal to popular taste. It was this version that was performed when the play opened on Broadway in 1955.
Williams continued to tinker with the last Act for many years. He said at one time that he preferred his original version, although he thought the revised version was better written. In 1975, a third published version of the play appeared, which contained elements from the original as well as the revised version. Williams declared this to be the definitive version. It was staged by the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1974, directed by Michael Kahn.
Critics have sometimes felt that Williams's first instincts were correct. Alice Griffin, for example, argues that the original third act "is truer to the characters and to the artistic integrity of the play" (Understanding Tennessee Williams, p. 165). The original version was successfully performed in a Broadway revival of 1990, directed by Howard Davies. However, the most recent revival of the play, seen on Broadway during the 2003-04 season, used the 1974-75 version.
2. What role do time and death play in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
The inexorable march of time and the inevitability of death cast their shadows over the play. Brick, although he is only twenty-seven, already feels that his best days are behind him. He can no longer play football and nor does he want to continue doing sports announcing. He sees his life as a contest with time, which he has lost. He says to his father, "[T]ime just outran me . . . got there first . . ." (p. 115). If life is defined as a race against time, no one can ever win. Big Mama expresses herself in similar fashion when she finally has to face the truth of Big Daddy's terminal illness. "Time goes by so fast," she says. "Nothin' can outrun it. Death commences too early-almost before you're half acquainted with life-you meet the other" (p. 161). Big Daddy, when he feared that he had cancer, was also forced to think about mortality. His vision is a bleak one. "[T]he human animal is a beast that dies" (p. 91), he says. There is no Christian consolation of an afterlife, only the brutal exposure of the foolishness of materialism. As Big Daddy puts it, a rich man keeps spending his money on material goods because somehow, "in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!-Which it can never be." Against the onward rush of time and the stark facts of mortality, the only fully life-affirming character in the play is Maggie. She has no illusions about what life is, but she is determined to get what she can from it while it lasts. As she says to Brick, "life has got to be allowed to continue even after the dream of life is-all-over" (p. 58).
3. Does Big Daddy's probing of Brick in Act 2 produce a satisfactory explanation of Brick's hatred of mendacity and his feelings of disgust?
Some critics and audiences have felt that although Act 2 is a very powerful piece of drama, it does not provide a clear explanation of Brick's state of mind and the reasons for it. Big Daddy seems to establish that Brick's disgust with mendacity is actually disgust with himself. He concludes that the crucial moment came when Brick hung up the phone on Skipper, after Skipper's confession of his homosexual feelings. He says to Brick, "you dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!-before you'd face the truth with him!" (p. 127). Big Daddy believes he has solved the mystery, and Brick seems to acknowledge that his father has hit on a truth, but it still leaves many questions answered. What really happened in Brick's mind and what he really thinks is never made explicit. Does he feel guilty that his response to Skipper may have hastened Skipper's death? Is he disgusted with the fact that society would misinterpret a pure friendship between men and call it something else? Is he disgusted by homosexuality itself or simply by his failure to accept it in his friend? Why does he punish Maggie by withdrawing from her? Is he secretly unable to face his own sexual feelings? Is his hatred of "mendacity" connected with his apparent failure in life, having gone from being a football hero and TV announcer to an aimless drunk? Does he feel a sense of betrayal by society because of his fall from grace?
The fact that Brick's character cannot be elucidated without ambiguity is part of Williams's intention. In his note placed toward the end of Act 2, Williams writes
Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience. (p. 117).
It appears that Williams was aware that the moment of truth between Big Daddy and Brick did not provide any explicit answers, because he wrote in the same note that most of the power in the scene lies "in what is left unspoken." Williams's ability to suggest the complexity and even the unknowability of the human psyche is part of his greatness as a dramatist.
4. In what ways do Big Daddy and Brick resemble each other?
On the face of it, Big Daddy and Brick seem very different. Big Daddy is a self-made man who worked his way up from humble beginnings to become the wealthy owner of the biggest plantation in the Mississippi Delta. He is a proud, blunt-spoken man. Brick, on the other hand, has had a more charmed existence. He has not had to struggle like his father. Blessed with good looks and athletic talent, he has been the object of admiration by others. But when difficulties came, Brick, unlike his father, was unable to cope. As he appears in the play, he seems stuck in adolescence, unable to make the transition to maturity. And yet despite these differences, there is a marked similarity between the two men in their relationships with women. Neither is comfortable being loved. They do not value the women in their lives. Big Daddy is openly contemptuous of his wife, and when she makes it clear that she has loved him throughout their forty-year marriage, he says, "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true" (p. 80). At the end of the play, Brick uses exactly the same phrase, "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true," after Maggie declares her love for him. The situations are exactly parallel, and Williams deliberately calls attention to this fact. Both men seem cynical about the love offered by a woman, and they doubt its sincerity. This creates another parallel between characters, this time in the lives of the women: Big Mama's pain at her husband's boorish behavior is echoed by Maggie's frustration with the cruel indifference of her husband. Both women are prepared to give everything, but neither man has the emotional capacity to respond.
5. What role do the minor characters Dr. Baugh and the Reverend Tooker play? Why does the playwright include them?
Dr. Baugh, the family doctor, appears for two main reasons, apparently contradictory. First, in a play in which people do not want to face the truth, he is the voice of objective reality that has to be accepted. If he were not present to confirm that Big Daddy has cancer, there would be no way of ascertaining what the truth is. For the play to work, it must be clear to the audience that Big Daddy is indeed dying, and his illness is not just a figment of someone's imagination. However, Dr. Baugh also serves to reinforce the theme of mendacity, since he represents the conventional view (far more common in the 1950s than it is now), that the terminally ill, especially those with cancer, should not be informed about their condition. This view is accepted by everyone in the family, including Maggie, who says to Brick, of the terminally ill, "You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves" (p. 52).
Reverend Tooker represents the smiling face of social hypocrisy. His interest in the Pollitt family is mainly because he want to ensure that his church receives a generous gift from the estate when Big Daddy dies. The Reverend keeps up social appearances, but he is insincere. Williams describes him as "the living embodiment of the pious, conventional lie" (p. 118). His presence in the play extends the idea of mendacity to include the social and religious establishment in the South.