February 3, 2017

COMMENTARY: Real People – Finding Someone to Root for in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

While there is no single, central hero in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there are at least three complex characters who deserve our empathy.

Maggie is not perfect. She schemes and screams, but, in the end, we see she is at least honest about selfishness, truly affectionate toward Big Daddy and wholly devoted to loving Brick. In one speech, Maggie addresses her selfishness by speaking frankly about looks and money: “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 and without it. – That’s the truth, Brick …” She’s certainly not hiding the fact that she wants the inheritance. Maggie also is openly and genuinely drawn toward Big Daddy. Her affection is shown briefly, but tellingly, when Maggie urges Brick to sign a birthday card for Big Daddy.

Brick: I didn’t get him a present.
Margaret: I got one for you.
Brick: All right. You write the card, then.
Margaret: And have him know you didn’t remember his birthday?
Brick: I didn’t remember his birthday.
Margaret: You don’t have to prove you didn’t!

She truly cares about Big Daddy – and about Brick, too. Early in the play, Maggie teases about leaving Brick, but the tease is only strategy. She’s devoted to her husband, as she makes clear when she closes the play: “Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of – and I can! I’m determined to do it – and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof – is there? Is there, Baby?”

Brick is no longer the true-blue hero he was in his high school football days. Yet, we empathize with him: first, for obvious, physical reasons; then, for more subtle, emotional reasons. When we meet Brick, he is hobbling on a plastered leg and introduced in flattering lighting: “He stands there in the bathroom doorway drying his hair with a towel and hanging into the towel rack because one ankle is broken, plastered and bound … the fading, still warm, light from the gallery treats him gently.” Our first impression is quite favorable, and sets Brick up as an underdog character; only later do we learn his demons. He drinks. He sulks. He’s clearly troubled.

Brick: This click that I get in my head that makes me peaceful. I got to drink till I get it. It’s just a mechanical thing, something like a – like a – like a –
Big Daddy: Like a –
Brick: Switch clicking off in my head, turning the hot light off and the cool night on … all of a sudden there’s – peace!

Brick is struggling to fund true peace and his struggle elicits our support.

At times, Brick’s struggle also elicits Big Daddy’s anger. Despite his temper, though, Big Daddy evokes our empathy as well. First, there are obvious reasons: Big Daddy is dying and, what’s more, we know it before Big Daddy knows.

Margaret: … It’s malignant and it’s terminal.
Brick: Does Big Daddy know it?
Margret: Hell, do they ever know it? Nobody says, “You’re dying.” You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves.

We come to care more for Big Daddy as his concern for Brick becomes more clear. His manner remains harsh, and arguably too severe, but Williams makes us feel the sincerity of his effort.

Big Daddy: You hung up?
Brick: Hung up. Jesus! Well –
Big Daddy: Anyhow now! – we have tracked down the lie with which you’re disgusted and which you are drinking to kill your disgust with, Brick. You been passing the buck …

To dismiss “Cat” for lacking likable characters is to overlook the genius – and one underlying theme – of the play. Williams has said he wrote about “life.” In life, of course, people are complex and often contradictory, with good people occasionally doing bad things, and vice versa. The genius of “Cat” is that Williams’ characters simply (or, perhaps, not-so-simply) are real people with real lives. In “Cat,” we root for characters not because they’re so likable but because they’re so real.

Play cited: Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


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