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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams’ classic play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), is a seminal piece of American drama. The dysfunctional Pollitt family lives on in various Broadway revivals and screen adaptations, as well as through their collection of awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: A play by Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play in three acts written by American playwright Tennessee Williams and first performed in 1955. It is based on Williams’ 1952 short story, “Three Players of a Summer Game.”

The play is set on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta and takes place in real time, over the course of one family’s dinner.

It tells the story of the Pollitt family, who come together to celebrate the birthday of the patriarch, Big Daddy. Unbeknownst to Big Daddy and his wife, the man has terminal cancer, and his two sons vie for their share of the family inheritance.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of Williams’ best-known works. In 1955, it won both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was also nominated for several Tony Awards.

The play had enjoyed several Broadway revivals and was adapted into a film in 1958 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Summary

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is divided into three acts.

Act One

The play opens with Maggie and her husband, Brick Pollitt. The two are preparing for a family dinner with Brick’s parents, his brother, Gooper, and his brother’s sizable family. The Pollitts have assembled to celebrate the birthday of Big Daddy Pollitt, patriarch of the family and owner of the cotton plantation.

Maggie chatters away while Brick showers. She explains that Big Daddy’s doctor’s report has recently come back, showing that he is dying of cancer. The family, however, decides not to share this information with Big Daddy or his wife, Big Mama, so as not to spoil the birthday party. Brick leaves the shower on crutches. He had broken his ankle the night before drunkenly jumping hurdles on the high school track.

Maggie continues talking; she warns Brick that his brother and wife, Mae, will try to cheat Brick out of his inheritance. However, Brick is Big Daddy’s clear favorite, Maggie insists, and the inheritance is rightfully his.

Through the couple’s conversation, it becomes clear that things aren’t so going well in their relationship. Maggie mentions someone named Skipper, causing the alcoholic Brick to pour himself a drink, and it seems that the two haven’t had sex in some time. Maggie refers to herself several times as a cat on a hot tin roof to explain the discomfort of her situation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cat, StudySmarterMaggie is referred to as a cat several times over the course of the play. Pixabay.

Mae and Big Mama make a brief visit to Maggie and Brick’s room, and then Maggie launches back in. She insinuates that Brick and Skipper were more than just friends. She tells her husband that she insisted Skipper confess his feelings to Brick, but instead, Skipper slept with her, an act she calls "pitiful" and "ineffectual" to prove her accusation wrong. However, Maggie remains convinced that Skipper was in love with Brick and believes that her revelation caused Skipper to become an alcoholic and drug addict. The two men played football together, but when Skipper died, the loss of his friend sent Brick down an alcoholic spiral.

Brick is incensed by Maggie’s provocations and strikes her with one of his crutches.

Act Two

Act Two sees the start of Big Daddy’s birthday party. The family chatters and bickers. The music gets turned on and off and on again, and everyone is laughing.

Big Daddy strikes up a conversation with Brick, who is drinking more and more, asking him about how he injured his ankle the previous night.

As the party continues around Brick and his father, Big Daddy snaps at his assembled family, commanding them to stop. Big Mama tries to placate him, and the two digress into a huge argument. The family trickles out as Big Daddy accuses his wife of plotting to take over the plantation when he dies while she sobs, protesting that he has never believed that she loved him.

After their fight, Big Daddy demands that Brick return and the two are left alone to finish their conversation. Big Daddy expresses concern about Brick’s drinking and his relationship with Maggie. He tries to impart some pearls of wisdom to his son, warning him against wasting his life away.

Skipper comes up again, and Big Daddy starts to ask about the nature of their relationship. Brick insists that there was nothing but friendship between them. However, he later admits that Skipper confessed his feeling for Brick, who claims to have vehemently rejected his friend’s advances.

Brick, who has continued to down a steady stream of cocktails, mentions something that makes Big Daddy believe that his family has been lying about his diagnosis. He exits, leaving Brick alone.

Act Three

The rest of the family replaces Brick. Several times, Gooper starts to tell his mother the truth about Big Daddy, but Mae stops him. Finally, Brick reappears, and Big Daddy’s illness is revealed.

Gooper and Mae argue with Maggie about who should take over the plantation while Brick sings to himself in the next room. The couple produces a will they have drawn up, insisting that since they have six children, they should be the ones to carry on the family legacy. Brick and Maggie are childless, and Brick refuses to sleep with his wife. Mae and Gooper argue that this makes them unworthy candidates.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Plantation, StudySmarterThe Pollitt brothers hope to inherit their father's cotton plantation. Pixabay.

Big Mama demands that this talk of inheritance stop. She embraces Brick, who had wandered back in looking for another drink, and reminisces about when he was a little boy. Big Daddy’s greatest dream, she says, is to see Brick have a son of his own.

Maggie senses an opportunity, and, to the surprise of everyone, she announces that she is pregnant with Brick’s child. Big Mamma is beside herself and runs out of the room to tell Big Daddy the good news, but Gooper and Mae are immediately suspicious. They begin to question Maggie, asking who her gynecologist is, but a cry of pain interrupts them. Mae and Gooper leave to attend to Big Daddy.

Maggie and Brick are left alone. Determined to “make the lie true,” she confiscates Brick’s liquor bottles and insists that he give her a baby before she returns them. Maggie insists that she loves her husband, to which he responds, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”

This ending comes from Williams’ original text. For the Broadway premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams grudgingly made some edits to the third act at the bequest of his director, who felt that the end of the play was too ambiguous and the characters too unlikable. In the edited version, Big Daddy returns in time to hear Maggie’s announcement, and, in the end, Brick admires his wife’s determination instead of doubting her love.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Key Characters

  • Maggie “the Cat” is the wife of Brick Pollitt. She is frustrated and dissatisfied with her husband, who refuses to sleep with her, leaving her childless and lonely. Her constant chatter, posing, and concern for her appearance highlight the futile desperation with which she tries to capture her husband’s attention. Maggie is also the more ambitious of the two; she is far more determined than Brick that he should be the one to inherit his father’s plantation.
  • Brick Pollitt is Maggie’s husband and the favorite Pollitt son. He is a former football player, a strong, handsome man that is a textbook example of conventional masculinity. However, Brick refuses to have sex with his wife, and he becomes an alcoholic after his best friend and the presumed object of his affection, Skipper, dies. Like an actual brick, Brick Pollitt is largely unflappable. He remains indifferent to most of the family drama surrounding him, especially the more he drinks.
  • Big Daddy Pollitt is the patriarch of the Pollitt family. As a young man, Big Daddy begins working as a field hand and eventually works his way up to be the millionaire owner of the plantation. He is often crude and misogynistic and appears to detest most of his family, including his wife and grandchildren.
  • Big Mama Pollitt is Big Daddy’s wife. She is dedicated to her husband despite the fact that he often treats her with disgust and disdain. For the majority of the play, she is delightedly celebrating Big Daddy’s supposedly clean bill of health.
  • Gooper Pollitt is Brick’s brother. He is a successful lawyer and has little interest in any of his family members outside of securing the inheritance he sees as rightfully his.
  • Mae Pollitt is Gooper’s exceedingly fertile wife. She is the mother of five children and is pregnant with the couple’s sixth. Like Maggie, she is conniving and hugely invested in making sure her husband is the one to inherit the family plantation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: General Analysis

The action of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof focuses on the drama unfolding within the Pollitt family over the course of one evening. Much of the tension comes from the secrets that the family members keep from one another, lying and deceiving for personal gain and to obscure the parts of themselves that are deemed socially unacceptable.

There are three key deceptions in the play. First, the family lies to Big Daddy and Big Mamma about the state of Big Daddy's health; second, there is the question of the true nature of Brick's relationship with Skipper; and finally, Maggie's false announcement of pregnancy at the end of the play.

With each of these lies, Williams illustrates the ways in which the Pollitts do not conform to the model of the traditional American family and are trying desperately to conceal their transgressions. These inadequacies are often related to conventional ideas of gender and sexuality and their role in forming traditional family structures. Big Daddy, the hyper-masculine patriarch of the family is terminally ill, indicating the loss of his strength and vitality; Brick is incapacitated by his inability to show his feelings for his dead friend, Skipper; and Maggie struggles to define her femininity without the element of motherhood.

Furthermore, the traditional family structure (Gooper and his numerous children) is pitted against the untraditional (childless Brick and Maggie), in the battle for Big Daddy's inheritance. In this way, the Pollitt family is also a symbol of the American South itself and the battle between holding onto an old way of life and moving towards modernity.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Style and Setting

Style and setting are important components in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Setting

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in the Mississippi Delta, on a summer evening, on a cotton plantation, in the 1950s.

By the 1950s, cotton production had largely ceased in the Southern United States as this part of the country became more industrialized. What farms remained generally grew other crops, and the sprawling plantations of the antebellum South slid into decay. While slavery had been abolished, the Civil Rights Movement had yet to begin, and segregationist Jim Crow laws were still in effect.

The play takes place in the Pollitts’ home, and the center of the set is Brick and Maggie’s bedroom. This is significant as the couple’s intimacy, or lack thereof, is central to the plot of the drama. Williams specifies that the bedroom used to belong to the previous owners of the plantation, a pair of bachelors, that shared the same room.

The playwright also details that the set should not be wholly realistic. Instead:

the walls below the ceiling should dissolve mysteriously into air; the set should be roofed by the sky; stars and moon suggested by traces of milky pallor, as if they were observed through a telescope lens out of focus. -Notes for the Designer

It should also be noted that the action of the story spans the same amount of time as the play’s performance, approximately two hours in the Pollitt family’s evening.

Style

The dialogue in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is full of Southern slang and colloquial language that serves to place the characters firmly in a specific time and place.

QUIET!—I ast you, Brick, if you was cuttin’ you’self a piece o’ poon-tang last night on that cinder track? I thought maybe you were chasin’ poon-tang on that track an’ tripped over something in the heat of the chase—’ sthat it?" -Big Daddy (Act Two)

This example of Big Daddy’s dialogue illustrates Williams’ use of non-standard spelling and colloquial terms, a strategy employed throughout the play.

Williams’ stage directions also have literary merit of their own. Instead of merely giving utilitarian instructions, the stage directions are often poetic and lyrical, alluding to the characters’ inner lives and histories that would not be apparent from the dialogue alone.

Here, for example, Williams describes the character of Brick:

He is still slim and firm as a boy. His liquor hasn’t started tearing him down outside. He has the additional charm of that cool air of detachment that people have who have given up the struggle. But now and then, when disturbed, something flashes behind it, like lightning in a fair sky, which shows that at some deeper level he is far from peaceful." -Act One

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Themes

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deals with many important themes, including family legacy and inheritance, gender and sexuality, and lies and deceit.

Family legacy and inheritance

A family crisis brings out the best and the worst in every member of it. —Gooper (Act Three)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a family drama that explores the dysfunctional dynamics of the Pollitts. The family comes together to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday, yet the Pollitt brothers have the hidden agenda of being named heir to their dying father’s fortune.

The disparity between the family unit that each brother heads, Gooper with his expecting wife and brood of five children, versus Brick, who refuses to share a bed with his childless wife, forms the basis of the conflict between the two. Gooper believes that his more traditional family structure should grant him Big Daddy’s plantation, even though Brick is his father’s favorite child.

Gender and sexuality

But Gooper’s wife’s a good breeder, you got to admit she’s fertile. -Big Daddy (Act Two)

The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are largely defined by their adherence or non-adherence to traditional gender roles. Maggie resents her sister-in-law, Mae, for her abundance of children, while Maggie herself is childless. Brick is the stereotypical handsome, masculine football player, but he fails to satisfy his wife and perhaps has repressed feelings for his dead friend, Skipper.

 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Football, StudySmarterCharacters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof subscribe to traditional gender roles. Pixabay.

In Maggie and Brick’s relationship, Maggie is forced to take control, the more masculine position, in the face of Brick’s apathy and alcoholism. Without the option of motherhood to validate her femininity, Maggie relies more on her sexuality, trying to seduce her husband and making comments about the way men view her body.

Lies and deceit

And so tonight we’re going to make the lie true, and when that’s done, I’ll bring the liquor back here and we’ll get drunk together, here, tonight, in this place that death has come into. . . . -Maggie (Act Three)

Lies are rampant in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Maggie, Brick, Mae, and Gooper lie about Big Daddy’s health; Brick seems to lie about his feelings for his friend, Skipper; Maggie lies about being pregnant at the end of the play. Even when characters seem to tell the truth, they often aren’t believed by others because distrust runs so deeply in the Pollitt family.

The Pollitts use lying and deceit to hide the things they are ashamed of and to make themselves appear more socially acceptable. However, their lies are also self-serving. Often times they lie to one another for their own personal gain.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Key Takeaways

  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was written by Tennessee Williams and first performed in 1955.
  • The play won the 1955 New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tells the story of the dysfunctional Pollitt family as they celebrate the birthday of their dying patriarch.
  • The play is set on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s.
  • Some important themes include family legacy and inheritance, gender and sexuality, and lies and deceit.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was written by the American playwright Tennessee Williams.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was written between 1953 and 1955. It was first performed in 1955.

At the end of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie announces that she is pregnant in an attempt to ensure that her husband inherits his father’s plantation. Afterward, she locks away her alcoholic husband’s liquor, insisting he gives her a baby before he can have another drink.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was based on a short story written by Tennessee Williams in 1952 called “Three Players of a Summer Game.”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place in the 1950s.


Final Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Quiz

Question

What do the Pollitt brothers hope to inherit?

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Answer

Their father’s plantation and his fortune

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Question

How many children do Gooper and Mae have?

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Answer

Five, and they are expecting one more.

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Question

Who was Skipper?

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Answer

Skipper was Brick’s best friend and the object of his repressed affection.

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Question

How did Brick break his ankle?

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Answer

He was drunkenly jumping hurdles on the high school track.

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Question

True or false? Everyone knows that Big Daddy is dying of cancer at the start of the play.

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Answer

False

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Question

Where does Cat on a Hot Tin Roof take place?


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Answer

On a plantation in the Mississippi Delta

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Question

Which is NOT an important theme in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

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Answer

Compassion and understanding

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Question

Who is referred to as “the Cat” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?


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Answer

Maggie, Brick’s wife, is “the Cat”

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Question

What awards did the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof win?

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Answer

New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

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Question

What year did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premier?

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Answer

1955

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Question

What short story was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof based on?


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Answer

“Three Players of a Summer Game”

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