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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Context


Collaboration Between Writer and Director

While Williams had great successes with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, his play Camino Real was a flop. As a result, Williams wanted a Broadway hit. Director Elia Kazan recalled, "He wanted it passionately." This passion for success drove Williams to seek the advice of the famed director early in the writing process for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Focusing on Act 3, Kazan worried that the play's ending was too bleak to appeal to a Broadway audience. Kazan encouraged Williams to show a character reformation in Brick and to make Maggie more sympathetic. Williams complied. "I wanted Kazan to direct the play, and ... I was fearful I would lose his interest if I didn't re-examine the script from his point of view." However, Williams believed that these changes compromised his purpose: "The moral paralysis of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy, and to show a dramatic progression would obscure the meaning of the tragedy."

The 1955 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway included Kazan's changes. However, the 1958 production in London kept close to Williams's original version. When Cat on a Hot Tin Roof appeared in print, Williams included both versions. In 1974, though, Williams came out with a third rendering of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that incorporated some of Kazan's original changes, but Brick does not undergo a sudden change in this version. Williams liked the 1974 revision the best, viewing it as the definitive Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In fact, most revivals of the play use this rendition, as does this study guide. Many critics also view the 1974 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as being the superior version.

Cold War Influences on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

After World War II, two superpowers dominated the world: the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the nations had been allies during the war, they had severe ideological differences. The United States was a democracy; the Soviet Union had a communist government. As a result, a fierce rivalry developed between them, during which each side stockpiled a nuclear arsenal.

Despite the tension created by the Cold War, many people in the United States enjoyed a period of prosperity. In general, business flourished and, confident of economic security, many people got married and started families. As a result, the population of the United States soared by about 28 million between 1950 and 1960. During this period, the cultural ideal became centered on the heterosexual, married couple with several children living a comfortable, clean-cut life in the suburbs. Living this type of life was considered normal, and many people strove to attain it.

However, during the Cold War a dark side of American culture developed. Afraid of a Soviet takeover, some politicians feared that communists were infiltrating the United States. Politicians such as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy began to search for covert communists in government positions and in the movie industry. These investigations or "witch hunts" brought suspects before loyalty boards, where they were interrogated about their political beliefs. Some of these politicians believed that these secret communists were homosexuals who were trying to spread the practice of homosexuality throughout the United States, thereby weakening the American moral fiber. Homophobia is the irrational fear and hatred of homosexuals and homosexuality. Soon, the government in the early 1950s conducted anti-homosexual purges of federal workers, a search dubbed the "lavender scare" as a parallel to the communist purge's nickname the "Red Scare." Any man who did not pursue the ideal of getting married to a woman and having children was also suspected of being a homosexual. Therefore, a young, single man who had other male friends was often looked on with suspicion.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams speaks directly to this homophobia. Brick expresses frustration about how his close friendship with Skipper was looked on with suspicion. In fact, when Maggie was dating Brick, she suspected that Brick's relationship with Skipper was not "normal"—in other words, she thought they had a gay relationship. Brick asks, "Why can't exceptional friendship ... between two men be respected?" Also, Brick himself views homosexuality as being "dirty." Because of this, he has difficulty talking about his feelings for Skipper. Big Daddy, too, feels the pressure to conform to what American society viewed as normal, including having a monogamous marriage. Because of this, he married Big Mama and stays married and faithful to her even though he hates her. Williams explores how homophobia and other social mores rampant during the Cold War in the 1950s had a devastating effect on people.

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