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Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof presents a nuclear family who struggle to marry their inner truths with the demands of their conformist Cold War culture. Being set in a sepia-tented realisation of the American dream on a Southern cotton plantation, yet as there’s a “storm comin’” and as the “warm light” starts “fading” this idyllic scenery begins to fragment revealing the “inadmissible” truths it facades. The paranoid obsession with American superiority that was fostered by the Cold War, meant that very rigid requirements around what constituted being American and “straighten…out” any people who lay outside these boundaries.
This marginalisation of “other” is metatheatrically portrayed by the peripheral existence of Jack Straw and Peter Ochello who shared a “tenderness which was uncommon” and the African American cast who have been excluded from the paradigm of a nuclear American family. Thus, Cat can fruitfully be interpreted as an exploration into the effects of this patriotic panic on masculinity, femininity and the changing American dream.
Williams destabilises the polarised gender expectations of American Cold War society as he questions whether heteronormative conformity is a necessary requirement for masculinity. Despite physically representing the paragon of American masculinity as the “big, beautiful athlete” with soldier-like stoicism, Brick’s character is consumed by the tantalising ambiguity of his sexuality. The “inadmissible” whisper of homosexuality is intertwined with the set as the central bed, around which the action of the play centres, “must evoke some ghosts” as it was once shared by the rumoured lovers Jack Straw and Peter Ochello.
Their spectral presence alludes to an alternate, non-conforming version of history that perhaps has gone largely forgotten. Brick’s volatile anxiety about allegations of homosexuality are revealed Williams describes the “lightening” that “flashes” behind his “cool air of detachment”. This is foreboding of Brick’s violent outbursts that erupt when his fragile construction of a purely platonic relationship with Skipper is subjected to scrutiny. When Maggie confronts Brick with the observation that College double dates were “more like a date between [Brick] and Skipper”, Brick aggressively lashes out as he “strikes at [Maggie] with his crutch.” Similarly, when Big Daddy proposes that there was something “not exactly normal” in his friendship with Skipper, Brick’s paranoid condition explodes with an onslaught of derogatory language which is rivalled by no other character in the play as he refers to homosexuals as “dirty”, “sissies”, “queers” and “fairies”. It seems that this aggressive outburst could be a manifestation of Brick’s internal denial of homosexuality and inconsolability at being perceived as such – a state described by Sedgwick as ‘homosexual panic’. It is in this pivotal moment that the audience is finally exhibited Brick’s enigma – he is suspended between his potential homosexuality and his culturally encoded homophobia demonstrating the “wide and profound reach of the conventional mores” that “crowned him with early laurel”. Thus, Williams subversively asserts that homosexuality and masculinity could coexist in a person which would have posed a challenge to the American 1950s audience living amongst societal paranoia of “other”.
‘Maggie the Cat’ is arguably the most central and complex character of the play therefore offering a depth to feminine capacity which would have challenged the 1950s ‘Mrs America’ stereotype of the doting housewife. By the end of Act 1, it is clear that Maggie possesses an uncharacteristic feistiness and determination as she forebodingly contends that her childlessness is a “a problem [she] will have to work out”. In order to achieve her goal, Maggie must surrender her traditional feminine subserviency and adopt traits of Cold War masculinity – sexual and economic dominance – and in this regard, she arguably rivals Big Daddy. Williams utilises the meta-theatricality of occupying centre stage as a signifier of power, as this position which is usually dominated by men, “Gooper…takes a centre position”, is seized by Maggie in the final moments of play as she “crosses to the centre of the room” to deliver her “little announcement”. Similarly, the centrepiece of set, the “double bed” is used as an indicator of sexual control. In Act 1, Brick “reclined with contrapuntal leisure on…the bed” to demonstrate the control his sexual abstinence gave him over Maggie as she was confined to “tak[ing] refuge behind” it. Yet, in Act 3 this symbol is subverted as Maggie “seizes the pillow from [Brick’s] grasp” and “[throws the] pillow onto the bed” exemplifying that “[she] is stronger than [Brick]” as sex is a currency over which she has monopoly. Thus, by the end of the play the audience can observe a complete power reversal as Maggie ‘becomes the man’ by exiling Brick to the role of the passive breeder and instating herself as the active employer of power and control. This controversially reveals a fluidity to the nature of gender which suggests that gendered roles are mere social constructs therefore posing a challenge to the validity of stereotype conformity that emerged during the Cold War.
In the face of his “malignant” and “terminal” cancer, Big Daddy seems to realise that the capitalist imperatives which steered his life have ultimately been futile. Big Daddy’s progression from a man who “bummed this country” and “slept in hobo jungles” to a plantation owner with a “worth” of “ten million in chips and blue stocks” makes him epitomical of the American dream. Yet his pursuit of wealth is ultimately deemed cancerous as he reveals, through an ominous “eerie greenish glow” doubtlessly emblematic of American money, that “the human animal is a beast that buys” in the vain quest for “life everlasting”. This “sobering thought” seems to have progressively dawned on him since his trip to Europe which he discloses in his Act 2 speech as a place that is “nothing…but a great big auction” where children are “bare skins beggin’ like starvin’ dogs”. This contempt for the punitive poverty he saw seems to catalyse his disillusionment with materialism and perpetuate his hopelessness in the American dream. Yet, much like his son, Big Daddy is trapped between two opposing notions – his engrained desire for wealth as a symbol of success and his emerging comprehension of capitalism’s falsities. Since it is his realisation of the American dream that has augmented his stature to almost divine levels, he presents hot-blooded anxiety about losing this wealth. This angst seems to manifest itself as “cruel” outbursts “at Big Mama’s expense” as he berates her for thinking she “could take control” of his wealth reminding her she is “not just about to take over a God damn thing”. An antidote to this anguish however is Maggie’s announcement of a grandson as it is symbolic to Big Daddy as a medium of achieving “life everlasting” through the continuation of his patriarchal dynasty which is his “dream come true”. Thus, Big Daddy’s realisation of the Macbethian fruitless crown that his materialistic pursuits have born leaves him “wiser and sadder” as perhaps what he was actually chasing was a sense of happiness and success; both of which the American dream blinded him from obtaining.
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