Alex Quigley, English subject leader, Huntington School, York
I chose to teach Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams, to very different groups in terms of ability for their English literature GCSE because, like most teens in Britain today, my students were completely immersed in American culture: the dreams, the glamour and the falsehoods. Other English literature staples, like Of Mice and Men and Death of a Salesman, have been universally popular; so Williams' dark study of family breakdown, lies and illicit sexuality were sure to touch a nerve. Like a Jeremy Kyle show in the classroom, Cat always provokes debate, skilled emotional insights and it provides a window into a very recognisable world which never fails to hook students.
Both times I taught Cat I was working towards written coursework, both based on the central theme of mendacity. Obviously, the play also provided me with fertile opportunities for dramatic speaking and listening performances. In our contemporary era, when students in every class are impacted by family breakdowns and divorce, the key themes of lies, familial deceit and the taboo topics of illicit sex and power, really hit home with emotional force.
The taboo topic of the potential homosexuality of the character Brick was the one topic that I approached with some initial trepidation. With a very mixed group of boys and girls, more interested in rugby and their make-up respectively, I taught Cat for the first time. I approached the homosexuality topic with candid directness (unlike Williams) - cue palpable unease among my boys. The alpha male of the group, rugby-loving and school-hating Jack, was particularly reticent. Within weeks Jack was leading the debate, hotly defending Brick and encouraging him to follow his feelings for Skipper. By the end of the play he was gagging for Brick to leave his harpy wife Maggie and find a good man, like a manic Alan Carr.
The play offers rich opportunities for debate and nuanced drama performances. From the aforementioned, and unremittingly funny, Jeremy Kyle-style group discussion to debates about the play as a metaphor for the cancer of American capitalism, the play provides rich material for teens to get their teeth into. From being sickened by Big Daddy's tale of child prostitution to being annoyed by Big Momma's annoying interruptions, before being saddened by Brick's irreversible breakdown, students were always emotionally involved in the play, and for great learning that emotional investment is pure gold.
Students love the realism of the play. I have had some more boisterous moments where students were desperate to unveil the cancer being suffered by Big Daddy. Any play that inspires a student to call out: "Why don't they tell him he has bloody cancer - just tell him!" with such vehemence that anyone would think the play was happening in her front room, has to be a hit. The ambiguous ending leaves them all on tenterhooks, with pleas for a sequel with the 'answers'. Any teacher will tell you the students are calling to read a sequel then the play has done the job.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof offers teachers and students a richly complex and deeply moral piece of theatre that speaks directly to the teens of today with understated eloquence and an unmistakably powerful emotional punch.
Jess Capstick and Sophie Grant, English teacher and head of English, The Crest Academies, Brent
We teach Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to our year 13 students for their A-level English literature coursework, not as a text in isolation but for a 3,000 word comparative study in which they must compare an element of Williams' presentation with that of Ian McEwan's Atonement and William Shakespeare's Othello. Not an easy task for any 17 or 18 year-old.
However, we ensure that we start with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as it is so accessible and the plot and themes seem universal; vibrant characters such as Maggie the Cat and Big Daddy and the overall themes of human vice and weakness seem to transcend time and unite even the most disparate of classes and reassure the most anxious of A2 students. One of our students this year pointed out that even Tennessee Williams reveals his weakness as a playwright at the end of the play when he provides two endings (one that he originally intended and one he rewrote at director Elia Kazan's request for the play's debut performance in 1955).
The symbolism in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is so rich that students are able to achieve sophisticated levels of analysis, regardless of their prior attainment: Brick's crutch, Maggie 'the cat' and Big Daddy's cancer are both vital to the audience's perception of the family in the play and symbolic of Williams' disillusionment with the American dream. When they can get their teeth into symbols and imagery, our students tend to approach the text and its layers of meaning eagerly. For example, a class debate recently on the importance of Williams' use of symbolism led to the class concluding that many of the symbols in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are intangible, which reinforces the themes of deceit and illusion and encourages conceptualisation at a word level basis.
One of the biggest challenges we faced in teaching the play was the students' feelings of depression and frustration during the reading and analysis of the play (not aided by asking them to read Atonement simultaneously). The three texts we study do not offer much hope. Williams in particular suggests that behind the intoxicating illusion of success, wealth and family unity, the stark reality is that life simply does not live up to this grandeur. One of our students, Zahra, suggested that everyone in life has their 'crutches', Brick's are just more obvious than the other characters and this encourages the audience to reflect on whether they have their own.
Ultimately, the students struggle with the endings of the three texts. Othello less so as it is a conventional Shakespearian tragedy. However Atonement has quite possibly one of the most frustrating last chapters of any novel we have read and similarly, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does not achieve closure or allow its central characters to make peace in a way the students have ever encountered before. This, however, is the joy of teaching these texts; they are not easy, enjoyable, carefree texts. They make demands of the reader, they confront the reader's expectations of a traditional play or novel and therefore they ensure that our A2 students grow as critical, independent readers who are able to come to their own conclusions about the texts they study.
Resources for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on the Guardian Teacher Network:
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof context presentation
Types of love in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Tragedy and the three unities in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
An example of A2 students' presentation work on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Analysis of Act Two of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - the themes, language and the prodigal son
Prodigal son handout for use with the analysis of Act Two resource
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Front cover of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
What do you know about this mendacity thing? Hell! I could write a book on it! Don’t you know that? I could write a book on it and still not cover the subject? Well, I could, I could write a goddam book on it and still not cover the subject anywhere near enough!!–Think of all the lies I got to put up with!–Pretenses! Ain’t that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don’t think or feel or have any idea of? (80)
Mendacity. Lies. Deceit. Untruthfulness. Regardless of how you name this concept, it is one that silently governs over all of our lives and our actions. Mendacity is the core theme of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play entitled Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play brilliantly illustrates the extent to which humans twist, shape, destroy, or downright ignore truth to comply with socio-cultural demands and expectations. The passage above highlights one of the character’s (Big Daddy) views on the concept of mendacity, going as far as to approach untruthfulness as an ordinary and part of human nature. Mendacity is not presented as a choice or even as a viable option by this character–it is presented as a phenomenon that we have “to put up with.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place in Big Daddy’s plantation in the Mississippi Delta. Big Daddy is the owner of a cotton business, and he also owns thousands of acres of fertile land in this area. Most of Big Daddy’s family is reunited at the estate to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, and right from the opening of the play, the reader is immersed into a web of lies that tangles and distorts truth, objectivity, and even compassion. In the first act, it is revealed that Big Daddy is dying from a case of terminal cancer–however, Big Daddy’s children decide to conceal his condition by informing him that his lab results came back clean.
This crisis overlaps with the play’s central tension, which focuses on the unhappy relationship between Big Daddy’s son, Brick, and his wife, Maggie. After the suicide of his best friend, Skipper, Brick becomes an alcoholic, he loses all sexual interest in his wife, and he shows no interest in work or in hobbies other than drinking. Brick is at odds with his brother, Gooper, because the latter is interested in inheriting the father’s estate and fortune–claiming that it would be irresponsible to bestow all that land to an alcoholic who has no children. The play concludes with Maggie announcing that she’s pregnant (yet another lie) to assure that she and her husband obtain part of Big Daddy’s estate after he dies.
I found it interesting that this play tethers the notions of truth and queerness quite effectively. In the section entitled “Notes for the Designer,” Williams strenuously tries to convey not only how the set should look, but also the atmosphere that the set should convey. Williams describes how the room that Brick and Maggie share used to belong to a gay couple, and how the energy of their relationship continues to “haunt” and affect the dynamics of the room in strange ways. As the opening of the play states, the room
hasn’t changed much since it was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon. (xiii)
Even though the relationship between Straw and Ochello wasn’t openly discussed, Williams approaches their partnership as a force that continues to constitute part of the play’s space and atmosphere. Similar to truth, even when queerness is suppressed or contained by the play’s characters, it still finds a way to show or express itself. The queerness that haunts the room manifests in Brick’s character, mostly because every other character assumes that Skipper’s suicide has affected Brick so immensely because they were romantically interested (or perhaps, involved) with each other. Not only does Big Daddy inquire whether Brick and Skipper were lovers, but Brick’s wife, Maggie, goes as far as to posit that the lack of tolerance for queer relationships in their society is the factor that ultimately drove Skipper to kill himself. Skipper tries to sleep with Maggie to prove his heterosexuality, but fails to do so. This failure pushes Maggie to force Skipper to confront the truth about his feelings towards Brick:
I destroyed [Skipper], by telling him the truth that he and his world which he was born and raised in, yours and his world, had told him could not be told? (45)
Brick desperately tries to deny that he and Skipper were romantically involved, and at first, he confesses to his father that he and Skipper had a falling-out due to the fact that Brick was unwilling to reciprocate Skipper’s romantic and sexual feelings towards him. Big Daddy has an honest chat with Brick, telling him how he is the person who carries the most guilt because of mendacity–especially since Big Daddy believes that Brick has been lying to himself about his true feelings towards Skipper:
we’ve 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. This disgust with mendacity is disgust with yourself.
You!–dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!–before you’d face truth with him! (92)
I find this conversation between father and son very interesting. Not only is the father trying to find out the reasons why Brick drinks, but he is also trying to help Brick identify the root of his pain and torment. By stating that Brick’s mendacity led to Skipper’s demise and death, the father places attention not on his son’s potential homosexuality, but rather, on his son’s dishonesty. Brick continues to deny the truths that his father openly discusses, claiming that the truth under question is Skipper’s truth, not his own. Big Daddy, however, argues that even if Skipper’s truth was the factor that led to his demise, it doesn’t change the fact that Brick refused to “face [Skipper’s truth] with him” (92). This accusation leads Brick to tell Big Daddy the truth about his cancer, and how his family has been lying to him to protect his feelings. After both Brick and his father are forced to face the realities of their lives, Brick proceeds to make one of the most intriguing confessions of the play:
Maybe it’s being alive that makes them lie, and being almost not alive makes me sort of accidentally truthful–I don’t know but–anyway–we’ve been friends . . .
–And being friends is telling each other the truth . . .
[There is a pause.]
You told me! I told you! (94-95)
Brick’s passionate confession points out two very important points. First, reiterating Big Daddy’s ideas of the nature of mendacity (pointed out in the first block quote of this blog post), Brick also seems to believe that lying is an part of living, and that the two phenomena cannot exist without each other–lying is living, living is lying. Secondly, this passage highlights the possibility that truth is only accessible to those who reside beyond the parameters of the living. Brick barely has a life because he is an alcoholic, and Big Daddy’s life has a definite expiration date due to his cancer. Thus, both of these characters are situated in liminal positions, where they inhabit the space between living and dying. I find it interesting that a queering of the divide between life and death is approached, in the play, as the only way of accessing truth–especially when taking into consideration that Brick and Big Daddy are the only characters who confront and embrace veracity.
I would consider this play very postmodern in terms of its exploration of the impossibility of truth and constructions of selfhood based on untruthfulness. These characters have the opportunity to embrace truth, but they deny doing so to comply with socio-cultural demands and expectations. What I find particularly interesting, though, is that this play presents an instance in which non-normative, liminal characters are presented as the only individuals capable of invoking truth and honesty in other people, even though they are incapable of dealing with their own truths and realities. Is queerness (non-normativity, anti-binaristic thinking) thus the solution to mendacity? This is definitely an idea that is worth exploring.
You can purchase a copy of Williams’ play by clicking here.
Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chicago: Signet Books, 1955. Print.