Seeking Understanding Through the Arts:
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,”
A Psychoanalytic Study of Masculinity
by Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D. and Linda A. Nicolosi
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was a Broadway play, later made into a compelling movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
The play is heavily biographical for its author, Tennessee Williams. Shy, sensitive and frail as a child due to a debilitating bout with diptheria, Williams believed that he was a disappointment to his father, a man known for alcoholism and a violent temper. Williams’ mother was a Southern Belle who was known as a strong-willed social climber; she focused her high expectations on her son when her marriage went sour. Thus the playwright’s parents seem to have created the environment of what we know as the Classic Triadic Family System, a common background in the life of homosexual men.
When in college, Williams briefly flirted with heterosexuality, as he had a crush on a female classmate. Eventually, though, he was drawn into homosexual relationships. Williams never could seem to be acceptable to his fraternity brothers, who considered him shy and awkward. He became an alcoholic and drug addict, and eventually he died of an overdose, but not before a remarkable artistic career during which he produced some of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, many of which were known to be autobiographical.
The plot of “Cat” centers on “Big Daddy”’s birthday party. An aging, wealthy Southern Estate owner, “Big Daddy” is a gruff, commanding patriarch who uses material rewards as substitute for love. “What makes Big Daddy so big? ...His big heart, his big belly …” his family chants, “...his big money!”
This is a play about how Big Daddy and his two sons are each deficient in the three life-forces that create masculinity: the Reality Principle, procreation, and the ability to love another person. In fact, the challenge to confront reality--resisting the temptation to substitute a narcissistic universe of make-believe-- is a repeated theme in the plays of Tennessee Williams. In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (said to be his favorite creative work), he seems to have been trying to work out his own struggle with reality, and with his sexuality as well.
When the story begins, Brick, the youngest son (played in the film by Paul Newman) lacks all the necessary elements of masculinity. He is neither realistic, procreative, nor loving. He is the boy stuck in a youthful narcissistic world, a rebel against the universal law, substituting fantasy and thus preserving his narcissistic illusions. His wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) calls him “Boy” or “boy of mine.” He is not yet a man. He dreams of his lost past as a youthful athlete, and of a man (“Skipper”) he had a romantic fascination with. Now, he can no longer be intimate with his wife. He is constantly drunk.
Yet his name is suggestive of a solid building material for the family empire, should he ever break free of his anger and illusions.
Trying to re-live his glorious football past, Brick injures his ankle the night before Big Daddy’s birthday party while at the high-school track field (drunk) trying to jump the hurdles. Throughout the play, he is on crutches. Asked “What were you jumping high hurdles for? Brick answers, “Because I used to, and people like to do what they used to do after they've stopped being able to do it.”
Brick’s father, Big Daddy, represents two of the three masculine principles: the reality principle and procreation. He lives out a harsh reality (ruthless money-making) and is committed to family and to promoting his lineage. When he was young and single, he found out that Big Mama was carrying his child. He said to her, without love or tenderness: “That's my kid, ain't it? I want that kid. I need him. He ain't going to have nobody else's name but mine. Let's get the preacher. That's what marriage is for. Family."
But Big Daddy’s flaw is that he does not like people. In his ruthless money-making, he has forgotten how to love. Because he is disconnected from this primary masculine principle, his wife, Big Mama, is also love-deprived and ungrounded in reality. “Truth!” Big Mama says. “Everybody keeps hollering about the truth. The truth is as dirty as lies!”
Big Mama’s relationship to Brick is possessive and intrusive, excluding her other son, Gooper. Soon after the story begins, she hears the bad news that Big Daddy has terminal cancer, and she cries out: “I want Brick. Where's my Brick? Where's my only son?”
Gooper represents the opposite of rebellious Brick. Gooper is the “good” sort of son who follows orders and does all the right things expected of him, keeping his wife continually pregnant with a brood of smiley-faced but malevolent children, even while Gooper and his wife secretly plot to take over the family inheritance. But he is a hollow male; materialistic and legalistic. Like Big Daddy, Gooper lives a sham reality, and like Big Daddy, he cannot love. He can procreate, but he cannot give life. His procreative power is soulless, creating not children, but unloved wild sub-creatures who have been given dogs’ names. Like animals, his children represent “a flesh-and-blood dynasty...waiting to take over”; Brick’s wife Maggie calls them "no-neck monsters" because “their fat little heads sit on their fat bodies without a bit of connection.”
Gooper’s wife, like her husband, is also soulless and money-focused. Along with Gooper, she portrays a picture-perfect family image. She uses her children to help her win the inheritance with an annoying parade of theatricalities designed to “entertain” Big Daddy and make him feel good about himself.
Married to a man who is incomplete, Gooper’s wife is unable to fulfill her feminine nature. She can procreate but cannot give birth to genuine human life. She is the Negative Feminine. Maggie, Brick’s wife, calls her “that fertility monster.”
Maggie is the only sympathetic and noble person in this dysfunctional family. Brick’s withholding of love and unrelenting cruelty toward her --while he remains obsessed with a man from the past, Skipper-- has forced her to undergo, in her own words, “this horrible transformation” into becoming “hard and frantic and cruel.”
The plot repeatedly returns to the Brick’s relationship with the mysterious and unseen Skipper. This is the man who is the unspoken source of his and Maggie’s marital conflict. The relationship with Skipper was intense and mutually dependent with the suggestion of being homoerotic. Despite the devastating effect of this situation on Maggie, Brick refuses to talk about it.
Seeking the male connection he did not get from his father, Brick made Skipper the special person in his life, overshadowing and competing withhis wife. Without a man’s masculine blessing he cannot become a procreative man, cannot live in truth, and cannot love a woman. Brick wants to take masculine love from Skipper, but Skipper needs it as well, and Skipper’s suicidal end is the final result. And so Brick broods, and numbs his misery in alcohol.
A turning point in the play occurs whenBig Daddy wants to have a “private conversation” with Brick.
In his crude style he asks what is troubling his son. Revealing some glimmers of true love, Big Daddy says, “Boy, sometimes you worry me. Why do you drink?” Brick refuses to answer. All he can say is, “It’s too painful and it’s no use. We talk in circles. We have nothing to say to each other!”
Big Daddywants to know the truth about his son’s special relationship with Skipper, which he sarcastically refers to as “this great and true friendship.” Whatever happened that night when Skipper killed himself, Skipper had been devastated and screamed for help, but Brick could not save him. Brick explains this with a rhetorical question: “How does one drowning man help another drowning man?”
Big Daddy persists; asking again, “Why do you drink?”
In reply, Brick cries out; “Mendacity! It's lies and liars! Not one lie or one person. The whole thing.” In deeper honesty, Brick adds, “That disgust with mendacity is really disgust with myself. That's why I'm a drunk. When I'm drunk I can stand myself.”
Big Daddy agrees about the pretense that characterizes the family; but here, he reveals his fundamental difference on the principle of reality. Unlike Brick who lived with the family’s mendacity and turned it into self-hate, Big Daddy takes on gritty reality and just sees lies and falsity as an unchangeable fact of life. He answers Brick: “Look at the lies I've got to put up with. Pretenses, hypocrisy! Pretending like I care for Big Mama. I haven't tolerated her in years. Church! It bores me, but I go. All those swindling lodges, social clubs, and money-grabbing auxiliaries that's got me on their number-one sucker list. Boy, I've lived with mendacity. Why can't you live with it?”
Illustrating their differing attitude on life, Brick (who dulls his own pain with alcohol) offers Big Daddy some morphine to kill the pain of his own cancer, but Big Daddy refuses: “It will kill the pain, but kill the senses, too. When you’ve got pain, at least you know you’re alive. I'm not going to stupefy myself with that stuff. I want to think clear. I want to see everything and feel everything.”
The breakthrough occurs when father and son are standing in the basement of the house (revisiting the “unconscious,” or place of buried memories) and surrounded by his mother’s outrageous collection of “stuff” -- statues, pieces of grotesque faux art, and garish furniture covered in cobwebs, which have been put into storage after her previous wild decorating sprees. Big Daddy, softened by the knowledge of the approach of his death, and ready to face some of the truths of life, sits amidst that piled-up junk in a moment of uncharacteristic vulnerability and tenderness.
Brick is still looking for love, with either man or woman. But Big Daddy had given up the search: “The truth is pain and sweat, paying bills and making love to a woman that you don't love anymore.”
They begin an honest talk about Big Daddy’s cancer. Now, the inevitability of his demise shatters the family’s false-happy illusions and establishes the basis for an uncharacteristic tenderness between father and son. Their lifelong arguments at first resume, until Brick cries: “All I wanted was a father, not a boss! I wanted you to love me. We've known each other all my life and we're strangers!”
Then Big Daddy recalls his own father: “I was ashamed of that miserable, old tramp....” Then he adds, unexpectedly, “I reckon I never loved anything as much as that lousy old tramp.”
Suddenly, tenderly recalling his father’s love, Big Daddy is open to loving his own son, which immediately links the three generations of men and breaks through the deadening barrier of pretense. Big Daddy’s love, expressed for the first time, frees Brick to transform himself from a self-preoccupied alcoholic to a man alive to himself and able to love; and through this transformation, he can now respond to Maggie’s womanhood.
Big Daddy and Brick, perhaps for the first time in a lifetime,cry together.
Then in a moment of wild and joyful emotional release, Brick smashes his mother’s ridiculous collection of discarded “stuff.” Throwing aside his crutches, he hobbles up the stairs, exultant with joy. Maggie sees his joy, and she tells the family that she has new life in her body, and that the family will now continue through a child that is Brick’s.
Gooper and wife laugh sarcastically; they say they have heard the begging and pleading through the bedroom walls at night, when Brick refuses to be intimate with Maggie, so they know this story of her pregnancy cannot be true. Big Daddy’s family and his inheritance, they insist, will continue only through them and their side of the family.
But Brick grabs his wife, full of joy, takes her to the bedroom, kicks the door shut, embraces her with spontaneity and love for the first time since the play began. He exults that it is true-- that there will soon be new life in Maggie’s body as well.
And so the play ends.