The Good Ole American Family Drama (or perhaps not?): Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Much of Williams’ work is set in the South, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (as opposed to its slightly more famous sibling, A Streetcar Named Desire) is really about being Southern. The family depicted is the largest landowners in the Mississippi Delta and, though Big Daddy earned control and ownership of the estate through diligence and hard work, his sons are looking to inherit. It’s The American Family in Conflict over the American Dream Drama writ Southern White Society.

Williams’ plays, though, are never that simple. I’ve, in fact, always struggled with Streetcar because I find Blanche and Stanley really difficult to lift from the page and depict in my mind as I read. Maggie, Brick, and Big Daddy in this play are equally elusive to me. They don’t jump off the page because they’re more than archetypes and because Williams, like Chekhov before him, is a master of saying just enough and letting subtext speak louder than words.

And there are so many thematic threads you can pull out of this play. There are complicated, dramatic relationships between spouses, siblings, friends. Medicine and religion are both institutions that appear to intrude on the sanctity of family. Is success gained by hard work or by biology or perhaps a bit of both?

Williams prefaces a play with a note about the setting. He enumerates all of the physical features which the combo bedroom-sitting room must have, but then begs that the “set should be far less realistic than I have so far implied in this description of it.” You can do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as straight up realism – it seems from a quick glance at the internet that most people do. That is a fatal mistake. Elements of the play are by-the-book realism, especially that the action of the play is continuous and takes place in real time. However, an abstracted setting allows the play to transcend its characters big emotions. Physical abstraction emphasizes those big societal quandaries – the relative value of sexuality, fertility, and love, and how those effect the stereotypical American measures of social and economic success — that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof grapples with, largely without mentioning them directly. The big white bed. The bamboo and wicker furniture. The sun setting (on what?) and the soft evening light. Those are the keys.

Maggie gives the play its title by comparing her position to that of “a cat on a hot tin roof.” That metaphor – panting from the heat, feet in pain wherever they touch the tin, and balancing on a precarious slope – applies to producing this play well. It’s complicated and political if produced with skillful actors and an astute design. Call me a cynic, but my guess is that most productions lapse pretty quickly into The American Family Melodrama, and in that, I have absolutely no interest.

Up Next: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Why? If this novel is anything like the other multi-generational American immigrant family novel I’ve read in the last year (The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri), it’ll be fabulous and eye-opening.


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