‘Cat on A Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ are plays in which Tennessee
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William’s explores the notion of men and women who are dispirited by their inadequacies and consequently, have a need to camouflage their personal unpleasant realities. Discuss how applicable this assumption is. Williams has expressed that creative work is so closely related to, if not a reflection of, the personality of the person who does it, and describes this as a ‘lonely condition’. It is clearly unequivocal that therefore, his work is a representation of himself, which he has created from his personal lyricism. Disseminating from this predicament is the pessimistic proposal, which laces the creator in an isolated position. There is a convincing argument that this negative quality is a reflective summary, of his lack of understanding of other external detrimental factors that occur beyond his own life. Thus, illustrates what may be interpreted to be his personal inadequacy.
Hence, it becomes apparent that his work is consequential of his life experiences, integrating each encumbrance and his own idiosyncrasy. Following the production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams remarked, “I draw all my character’s from myself… I can’t draw a character unless I know it within myself… which further authenticates the argument put forward. Present in both plays is a manifestation of similarities that equate to his personal experience. A prime example is the southern setting of his plays. He located Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, in Mississippi where he was born, and A Streetcar Named Desire is situated in New Orleans, where Williams later lived. In respect of history, this area experienced grave changes in its political traditions, as the black race became more integrated into Southern American Society. This was followed by the abolition of the slave trade, which diluted the gap between social classes.
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Although the blacks were given the vote, there was still great separation between them and the white race. This segregation between the black and white race was not as compelling in other parts of the country as it was in the South, where the abolition of slavery was strongly resisted. This is because its wealth and way of life was accustomed to and dependent upon it. This resistance to the changes in society is reflected in Blanche, who no longer has the security of Belle Reve to depend upon. The subtraction of her estate, is part of the process of her weakening character, towards ultimate degeneration.
Furthermore, her integration into a society with a lower educated mentality to that of her own, from which she is also rejected, is emphatic of her solitude and helplessness. This is illustrated in a conversation between Blanche and Mitch, “Understand French? ” to which he replies, “Naw, naw, I – “. Thus, illustrates that Blanche is more educated than Mitch is. The language that is spoken in the South employs patoir dialect, and is apart from the rest of the country. The language that Williams uses within the plays in discussion, is that belonging to the ‘old south’, which gives colour to the language.
It is also effective in giving his plays a sense of heartiness reality to the insults that occur. For instance, when Maggie refers to Big Daddy, licking “his old chops”, when he sees her, which promotes animal imagery that coincides with Big Daddy’s general magnitude. And when Stanley says, “Oh! So you want some roughhouse! All right, let’s have some rough-house”, Blanche’s rape can be depicted in a violent, ruthless way, merely through the successful technique of language that Williams employs. Moreover, the accent provides irony and plangent lyricism. This segregation of the etting relates to Williams’ personal sentiment of being in a ‘lonely condition’. So much so, that he chooses a physical place not only for his ability to identify with its features, so as to make his work as effective as possible, but also because it has its own language, and specific history. This profound isolation initially commands empathy; however, it must be noted that this condition is not entirely negative. The reader must acknowledge that without reference to the sentimental bond between him and the physical place, there would not be such a great appreciation of the value of the reality of his experience.
This is incorporated into the plays, and embedded into the personalities of the characters, which generates dimensions of actuality. Thus, makes apparent that his personal inadequacy is not entirely negative, because it guides the reader’s consciousness in the direction of the philosophy he endeavours to communicate. Metaphorically speaking, Williams could possibly be the Streetcar, and the philosophy that he wishes to communicate is his Desire, through which he has created his characters. Likewise, it is conceivable that the Cat is a symbolic representation of an ncumbrance upon the creator that is the Hot Tin Roof, who in his fiery intensity tries desperately to dislodge negative feelings. Williams tailor-makes Brick’s mental characteristics to qualify the criteria of carrying a destructive burden, which is his guilt. This emotion emanates from the playwright’s own experiences of his homosexual encounters, which is manifest in Brick’s personality, who is in a state of denial as to the true nature of his relationship with Skipper. However, in the play it is Maggie who is the Cat and on the contrary, her tenacious, enduring character generates a positive outcome.
As a result, she is rewarded with unity between herself and Brick. In the final Act, Brick and Maggie communicate in a matrimonial fashion. This is demonstrated when Brick supports Maggie’s lie. The importance of this act is evident in the fact that it is Brick’s first lie throughout the play, but it results in gratification. This synthesis is consequential of love and truth, which can be extended and interpreted as Williams’ philosophy. Williams chose the south for its portrayal of two predominant cultures in conflict. This was the ‘old south’ that valued the class system, manners and gentility, against the more ontemporary world of greed, mendacity, anger, sexual desire and class hatred. This conflicting relationship is reflected in the neurotic refined Blanche, who represents the culture of the past, against the uncultured Stanley, who is the personification and symbolic representation of cynicism, brutality and modern practicality.
Williams pays attention to detail in Blanche’s description, which allures the reader to her physicality and her mode of thought. As Williams neglects equal amplification of the other characters, he accentuates the dimensions of her identity. Her external appearance of dainty white garments connotes elicacy and fragility, which give the impression that she is vulnerable. The colour white, is also the emblem of purity and virtue, and is generally associated with goodness. Furthermore, she is sporting earrings of pearl, which symbolise wisdom. Though it is ambiguous, from the hat she wears, it is possible to insinuate an honourable or noble character. Her white gloves represent her cleanliness and this inference corresponds to the initial impression of innocence. Ironically, translated into English from the French language, Blanche means white. It is ironic because she fails to identify with its associations.
From the immediate portrait that Williams paints, the audience perceives her to be all those qualities associated with the snobbery and nobility of the Southern countryside. She is fastidiously adorned, and her arrogant dismissal of Eunice strongly suggests class snobbery. At this moment, one may envision her to possess authoritative or superior premise that would be the cause of her omissive exhibition. However, this conduct simply exemplifies her self- deceit and is paradoxical to the truth. In actuality, Blanche has physically escaped from the truth of her ill-reputed, lecherous past, and attempts to escape the guilt that haunts her sychological condition by indulging in alcohol, which provides temporary amnesia and brightness. Her passion for taking long baths is also a symbol of her desire to wash away her guilt and self-disgust. Additionally, her appetite for darkness is suggestive of her secrecy and isolation. This is symbolised by the paper lantern, with which she disguises the naked light bulb and by this act, she disguises her environment of the setting, which is a reflection of her inner condition. She refers to the masked bulb as “magic”, which mirrors her general inclination to beautify her own personal repulsive reality.
The lantern is also a metaphorical camouflage for the ugly world that surrounds her. This conclusion is resultant of Mitch’s act of tearing off the lantern to reveal the naked light bulb. From this point onwards, Blanche’s unbearable past is consistently awakened. Light is generally associated with reality and clarity, and by concealing the bulb, it may be inferred that Blanche cannot cope with facing her personal sordid truths. In addition to this, the lantern also symbolises recognition that she can no longer maintain an artificial masquerade. This is exemplified where her superficiality xhibits itself in her dialogue and in her behaviour, for example, ”
Shep Blanche’s incongruity and her uncertain manner is highlighted in the stage directions, and it is pointed out that her overall presentation ‘suggests a moth’. The inappropriateness of her clothing and behaviour is emphatic of her solitude and makes her incongruent to the scene, whilst the prophetic moth suggests a metaphor for Blanche’s delicacy and ill-fated future. More importantly, the moth is a nocturnal creature and is therefore associated with darkness which connotes evil, particularly immorality and corruptness. These elements become pparent in Blanche, on acknowledgement that as a teacher she seduced young boys, making evident her foul nature. The moth also relates to the image of transience and incessant fluttering, which correlates to Blanche’s nomadic lifestyle and her resistance to settle, apparent in her venturesome activity, before the arrival of Mitch, evident in her licentious behaviour towards the post boy (scene five). Overall, her childlike helplessness that she displays on the eve of the poker night, her pretensions to gentility and her romantic yearning are all at odds with her age and the squalor of her surroundings in Elysian Fields.
As the play progresses, Blanche’s disguise deteriorates and her status declines, simultaneously to the revelation of her past. It should be noted here, that prior to her arrival in New Orleans, her moral and physical status was already part ruined, but she still held her sanity, which she loses to the escape of madness on confrontation of her regrettably unpleasant character. This illustrates that the enormity of her emotion becomes too great for her to entertain, quintessential of her demonic quality. Blanche’s tenuous grasp of reality totally disintegrates, when Stanley barbarously discloses her past, which generates her vile rostration and desperate finale. It is consequently justified to determine then, that Blanche sees herself as what she would like to be and not as what she really is, apparent in her conversation with Mitch, (‘I don’t want realism’). More significantly, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is an ambivalent woman, who is greatly dispirited by her self-induced malignant inadequacies, to such perimeters that she is obliged to embrace insanity. The blame does not entirely stem from her past behaviour, but more so from the past itself, and it’s characters, namely Allan.
He serves to remind her, and the audience, of a world of causality, hich provides a macroscopic totality of the text. Through Blanche, Williams communicates that any human being can be reduced by uncontrollable events that are unforeseeable, and as a result, it is possible that they too may embrace a lamentable and dystopian future. Allan is also a dramatic device to symbolise the non-existence of the true love he is associated with, which further lends support to a distopian future. On her arrival, Blanche’s psychological state of mind is mirrored by pathetic fallacy, where the atmosphere evokes a sense of ruin; “The sky… gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay”.
This is an example of where Williams depicts her environment on a scope that is as wide as possible, which is a method of communicating her internal condition to the spectator. Furthermore, an amalgamation between the tainted, forlorn Blanche and the dying culture of the old American South may also be represented here. In retrospect, her sheer descent seems to be synonymous with the overall disintegration, of society, taking into consideration the historical context of when the play was devised, with regard to the abolition of the slave trade and mass industrialisation. Blanche’s antagonism is also universal.
The artificial Belle Reve and the realistic Elysian Fields fall short of providing any satisfaction. Hence, the only real escape is death, and for Blanche, insanity is a mere interim between her unendurable life and the ultimate destination of every human being. Contradictory to her external appearance, Blanche is not pure, wise or veracious. Instead, she is an adulterated creature who tries desperately to camouflage numerous aspects of her nomadic promiscuous past. Her shameful sexual greed is manifested in many intimacies with strangers, “Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers… he intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty head with”, through which she hoped to fulfil her emptiness. Her pretensions to youth and innocence, “Yes, Stella is my precious little sister. I call her little in spite of the fact that she’s somewhat older than I. ” And, the truth of her true nature, ” I’m an old maid schoolteacher! ” Hence, Williams uses Blanche as a device to communicate the antithesis between appearance and reality. The method that Blanche chooses to hide her personal disgust is lying, which corresponds to the theme of mendacity, in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof.
It is feasible, that a root to her animosity lies in the very early stages of her adult life. This stems back to when she discovered her young husband, Allan, to whom she was briefly married, in bed with another man. Blanche went on to publicly humiliate him after which, he responded by committing suicide, leaving her with a yearning guilty hollowness. This harsh reality that proves cataclysmic, directs Allan to his death, and Blanche to her insanity, is also demonstrated in A Cat on Hot Tin Roof, where Williams invents a realistic possibility, that concludes exclusively after, those who are ispirited by their personal inadequacies have confronted their individual truths. This is specifically in reference to Brick and Big Daddy, and also in Blanche. The notion of homosexuality is implicit, though not liberally elaborated upon. This is because Williams was not interested in the political aspect of the topic, but he was more concerned with the social dimensions and behaviour in a small group of people as close as possible to reality. Brick shares characteristics that run parallel to Blanche, yet in some ways he is an utter contrast.
In he characters of Brick and Blanche, Williams uses the stylistic conventions of the ‘guilty secret’, to disclose moral truth. The disclosure of the moral truth by unmasking a ‘guilty secret’ is a major motif shared by both plays. As the play opens, Brick is taking a shower off-stage. The analogy between Brick and Blanche is apparent in the way that the washing of their bodies is a metaphorical symbol for a desire to purify themselves of guilt and regret. Formerly a sportsman, an American football professional, Brick has recently retired to an alcoholic way of life, which parallels the decline f Blanche, from schoolteacher to deranged alcoholic. The deterioration of both characters emanates from essentially sentimental, idyllic relationships. Blanche’s guilt and alcoholism emanates from her marriage to Allan. Similarly, Brick’s guilt, alcoholism and unwillingness to sustain a sexual relationship with his wife Maggie, is consequential of his relationship with his best friend and team player, Skipper. Throughout the duration of the play, the audience is continuously reminded that Brick is not only psychologically wounded, but that he is also physically hurt, which is emphatic of his overall suffering condition.
Although he revels indulgently in alcohol, he has not lost his charming looks, which insinuates from an early stage in the play, that he is a strong and tolerant character. This is manifest in his calm and composed way of communication. Brick is generally a tranquil character apparent in his dialogue and in his passive actions. This passivity is illustrated in drinking ‘off-stage’. His health and general physical status, must also be a reflection of his breeding. The significance of which, is to communicate that money and material commodities are not the answer to all ll’s. Contradictory to what Mae and Gooper desire, which is their inheritance from Big Daddy, Brick’s desire is love of his father from which, he has been deprived. This lack of love implicates his inadequacy, for which his hunger exhibits itself violently in the confrontation with his father. This also leads to his own confrontation of his severely troubled past. During this episode, Big Daddy points out that Brick’s disgust is not a “disgust with mendacity”, but is a disgust with himself. Brick reacts violently and in revenge, tells Big Daddy that he will die of cancer.
This retaliation is evidence that Brick is not as damaged as he appears to be earlier on in the play, which is an indication that his character is capable of enduring. Unlike Blanche, the eventual outcome of his predicament is polarised in comparison. In relation to the narrative structure of the plot, the sequence of events that develop Brick’s ongoing situation, make evident his change of condition towards contentment. However, during this shift, he is so apart and disjoined from the rest of humanity that he dwells in a divided emotional existence from his wife. Brick is also living in remote solitude, literally by he ‘laws of silence’, and quite metaphorically, as mirrored in the setting of the play, which is dominated by a singular bedsitting room. From this, it can be inferred that Brick may be psychologically claustrophobic, and that he has a need for breaking out. His emotional outburst exhibits this need, where Brick breaks down and eventually faces the unpleasant reality of his relationship with Skipper. Repeated in this play, is an impression of Williams’ personal inadequacy, of being in an isolated vacuity. The ‘laws of silence’, are Brick’s conditions that he has proposed to Maggie, of sexlessness and detachment.
Only under these conditions has Brick agreed to live with his wife. Similar to Blanche, Brick is living in guilt and also indulges in alcohol, as a form of escape from the mendacity of society. Brick is a contrast to Blanche, in the way that he is direct and honest. The exception here is upon confrontation with Big Daddy, where Brick refuses to give the exact reasons for his alcoholism. Therefore, he avoids the direct truth of his predicament whilst not lying to Big Daddy or himself, which illustrates his overall honesty. Brick is an isolated character, and as alcohol provides a “shot” for Blanche, Brick waits for a “click”.
Both of these reactions occur where inner peace is sustained. Besides Brick and Blanche, Big Mama also encounters a reality about the real nature of her relationship with her husband. Big Mama deludes herself into the belief that her husband has loved her, which he is indifferent to. This is illustrated in Act two, at the birthday party, where Big Daddy accuses her of anticipating his death so that she can occupy the estate and all assets, “sashaying your fat old body around the place that I made”. His animosity and physical aversion of her materialise at the incongruous setting of the birthday party.
It is incongruous because the element of celebration is unhappy, caused by Mae and Gooper’s selfish operation, teamed with the falseness of the festivity, as Big Daddy celebrates his false release from the threat of death. Here, Big Mama realises that the man she loved, despite his harsh individuality did not believe that she felt anything for him. Therefore, it is apparent that she has been nurturing the illusion that she was truly appreciated and important to her husband. This apprehension is somewhat tragic for Big Mama, as now she has to face a future where her husband is not only rutal in his manner towards her, but he does not feel any sensitivity or love for her either. Furthermore, Big Mama is not aware of her real predicament until she is enlightened.
It can therefore be concluded that she does not entirely camoflage her reality because she is not aware of it. Instead she seems to be preoccupied with Mae and Gooper and their children, until Act three, where she discovers her husband’s feelings. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof explores the way in which people lie to themselves, such as Brick Big Mama, and Big Daddy, to protect themselves from unpleasant realities, which if admitted eak up the comfortable self-image needed to survive in discrete social conventions. For example, Brick cannot face the homosexuality in his relationship with Skipper and when his father confronts him about this, he is still in partial denial.
Taking the historical context into consideration, homosexuality was deemed to be highly unacceptable in the social convention of the day, as America is a strong Christian country. If Brick was to openly declare his gay relationship, himself and his family may have been subject to great disrepute and treatment. Resulting in treatment to the equivalent to that of an outcast in society, bearing in mind the amily status. Similarly, a suggestion for the reason of Blanche’s insanity may blame society for constructing a dimension, wherein a woman must meet expectations. These expectations are evident in the masquerade that Blanche disguises herself behind, such as her clothes and her pretensions to gentility.
This is partly due to her own inability of living with her guilt, and partly due to the fact that the society of the day, would not have accepted her as anything other than a fallen woman. There are evidently characters that are dispirited with their nadequacies, and as a result live their lives in delusion, by means of camoflaging their unpleasant personal realities. However, in the case of Big Mama and Big Daddy, the inadequacies are apparently resolved, where Big Mama takes Big Daddy’s arm with a smile at the end of the play, (Broadway Version). As mentioned above, unity is a consequence of facing the truth, and is applicable to their situation, which exhibits resolution in their relationship. The structure of Brick and Maggie’s relationship also concludes with a joyous unity, illustrated where brick and Maggie retrieve upstairs to make Maggie’s lie a truth.
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I haven’t seen Sarah Esdaile’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. But now it’s a fascinating experience to watch the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams’s play , adapted and directed by Richard Brooks, and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman – and effectively to read this movie against the theatre review from Michael Billington and the readers’ comments now building up on the site .
This was a film that was well enough regarded at the time: it earned six Oscar nominations and three Bafta nominations. But yes, Michael Billington is surely right : you can’t watch it now without being aware of the way in which the issue of homosexuality has been censored for the screen. Brick, the drunk and washed-up ex-football star played by Newman, has very clearly failed to come to terms with his sexuality and his real feelings for Skipper, the old football buddy who died after an ambiguous accident. His wife, Maggie (Taylor), is crucified by her desperation to make Brick desire her: she is played with mesmerically feline intensity radiating from that perfect oval face, the pristine white dress over her opaque slip cinched to accentuate a conspicuously slim waist and the absolute impossibility of being pregnant. And a very real black-comic pleasure of the movie is how hateful we are as children. WC Fields himself would nod grimly at how these appalling little beasts behave, plunging their unwashed hands into tubs of ice-cream or firing nerve-shreddingly loud toy six-shooters at the grownups.
Everyone in Brick’s family is lying, to themselves and others. Brick’s father, an overbearing southern patriarch (played by Burl Ives) gruesomely called Big Daddy by his nearest and supposedly dearest, and “Cap’n” by the servants, has inoperable cancer. But his doctor and family lie to him about the seriousness of his condition, claiming it’s just a “spastic colon”, and poor pathetic Daddy now struts and sneers for the last time, glorying in his phoney release from imminent death. But without a clear sense that Brick is in denial about being gay, the parallel with Big Daddy’s cancer-denial has been upended and the whole issue has surely been fudged. Is the movie guilty of precisely the evasion the play is attacking?
Well, maybe. But actually that denial, that erasure, now has an interestingly modernist flavour. Over and over again, the characters will rant and rave about “mendacity”, about not coming out with the truth, not facing up to the facts. Big Daddy will ask Brick: “What are you disgusted about?” He will ask him about Skipper and Brick will holler back: “You’re making it sound shameful and filthy!” It? What? Make what sound shameful?
These endless and mysterious repetitions give the movie a weirdly Pinteresque feel. It reminds me of Joseph Losey’s The Servant . Homosexuality is everywhere and nowhere in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And perhaps that unspokenness is realer than the play. Perhaps the unsaid would remain unsaid in just this way, creating a dysfunctional miasma with which the movie, almost by accident, creates something with a more direct line to a kind of honesty – or perhaps an honest transcription of dishonesty. In real life, in the 1950s, off the stage and off the screen, people were governed by their own self-censorship code.
It isn’t a great performance from Paul Newman. After his one drunken flourish in the movie’s “offstage” preliminary sequence, breaking his ankle after a boozy attempt to vault some hurdles, he is mostly moodily quiet and resentful . He seems almost catatonic with self-hate. But perhaps 1950s audiences were more savvy about what was preying on his character’s mind than we think. Certainly the movie industry itself would have picked up on the unspoken ambiguities. Looking at Paul Newman’s impossibly beautiful face, paralysed, almost mask-like with uncertainty and pain, you might think now of Rock Hudson or Monty Clift – men who lived out a Brick-like career in the closet.
But the movie’s tacit approach has another advantage – and again, I would say this is an advantage that by accident or design brings the movie closer to real life. Does Brick himself realise what his feelings were? They are a secret from others, sure (although I get the strong feeling that Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie is entirely undeceived) – but perhaps they are also a secret from Brick himself.
Now of course I should travel to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to read the play against the film …
• This article was commissioned responding to the reader thread underneath Michael Billington’s article on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , particularly comments by butchluva and Stauffenberg1943
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at West Yorkshire Playhouse
West Yorkshire Playhouse
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