"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – All Families Are Dysfunctional

Tennessee Williams stated in an interview that this play, rather than a drama of individuals, is about the familiar and forever repeated theatre of the family. Rather than focus on Maggie the Cat, he says, who is hungry for a love for her husband; or Brick, mired in self-loathing, guilt, and dissolution; or Big Daddy, a man with Falstaffian appetites but dying of cancer and unable to satisfy them; we should focus on the family as a whole with all its dysfunction, pain, love, and hope:

“I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely-charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of common crisis”
Maggie, however, is a voluptuous, sexy, and full-throated woman who in her demand for place and propriety within the Pollitt family, and her obsessive pursuit of her emotionally derelict husband attracts and demands our attention. Although the play is about the orchestration of many players and the progression of events which involve all of them, it is Maggie to whom our attention is drawn just as it is to Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Both women are strong, theatrical, and passionate and both demand more of their husbands than they can give.

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We are drawn as well to Brick and to George because without them the women would be nothing. Both men are complex characters whose own motivation, character, and conflict are unclear or ambiguous; and this diffidence or ambiguity drives the women even more. In both plays, relationships are renewed; individual demons have been exorcised, and the couples can look ahead with the same hopeful note.

Both couples are desperately in need of each other, and their ‘love’, far more than any notion of romantic attachment, is a matter of necessity, of survival. These are couples which are not satisfied with a common or received wisdom of love – they attack each other, break down each other’s defenses, and ultimately reach the point, emotionally naked, when they can begin to build a less troubled and dysfunctional love.

Maggie and Martha are attractive because of their excesses, their brutal honesty, and their take-no-prisoners approach to getting what they want. Shakespeare’s women, especially those mothers in the Histories who can be as protective as a she-bear of their children and as devious and manipulative as any man to secure access to the throne and to the power and wealth it symbolizes.

Most of us by comparison lead lives within predictable margins. Our loves satisfy adolescent sexual urges; our need for family and future; and ultimately our need for comfort, solace, and help. Our fantasies, desires, frustrations, and disappointments are kept within the protective framework of marriage, dreamt about perhaps, but lived alone. Our ambitions stop at convenient and practical levels, allowing us to balance work and life.

We can only look at Martha and Maggie with awe. They are ‘beyond good an evil’ and inhabit an amoral universe which is governed by only one law – attainment. They cut and wound, slash to the bone and down to the marrow. They play elaborate games, devised to test and push the boundaries between them and their husbands. They do not shy away ultimately from seeing each other as flayed and bloodied.

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Maggie is like Martha in her relentless desire to provoke her husband to action. It is never entirely clear what was the goal of this provocation – Williams has specifically indicated in his stage notes in Act II:

“Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself….”
Maggie may want Brick’s love because that will ensure her access the vast fortune of Big Daddy when he dies; and there are a number of passages in which she describes her poor upbringing and how she does not want to grow old poor. She may want the satisfaction of finally exerting dominance over Brick, being stronger than he – an expression of female power in an age when women still had to rely on indirect means to get their way.

Or perhaps she simply loved Brick for what he was, a beautiful, graceful, young god who made her happy and might again. In any case, she wants to him to break out of the apathy of guilt, self-pity, and dissolution in which he wallows – to be her husband again, and to give her a child, not at all unlike Martha whose goading of George has some of the same motivation.

It is exciting to read about characters like Maggie and Martha who refuse to settle, and who will resort to anything to achieve the elusive object of their ambition. Maggie destroys Skipper, Brick’s close friend, to remove him from competition. Martha resorts to intimidation, humiliation, and psychological warfare to raise George from his own apathy and routine.

As Williams has said, Maggie and Brick are but members of the Pollitt family which in its greed, deception, ‘mendacity’ and illusion is no different from any other. What seems to be dysfunction is nothing of the kind. These families are simply playing out familiar rituals, some perverse and some ineffective, but all necessary to test the boundaries of the most basic of social structures.

Dramatically, the Pollitts are no different from the families of Shakespeare who plot, connive, and maneuver to get what they want. Families have to play out familiar dramas, repeat themselves, mythically pushing emotional rocks up mountains only to end up at the bottom each time.

Although Maggie is the star attraction, and her relationship with Brick the fulcrum of the play, Big Daddy is the central figure. Whether he is on stage or off, he fills the play with his bulk, vital energy, and resolve. He has made tens of millions of dollars, presides over a large family and wants to live forever. As he gets older he wants to jettison his predictable and safe life and make love to women other than his wife, have adventure and excitement to make him feel the same sense of living that he had when he was younger. 

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He is brutally honest with Brick, challenging him to explain his dissolution and apathy. When he does – exposing Brick’s moral failure by rejecting his close friend and condemning him to death – he invites Brick’s equal measure of honesty. Brick tells him he is dying of cancer, puncturing the family lie that he only had spastic colon. His rage at his dying is even less than at the lies which have pervaded and rotted his family.

Brick’s brother, Gooper, and his wife Mae (and their five ‘no-neck’, bratty children) play out a The Little Foxes drama - a Lillian Hellman play centered around a wealthy Southern family’s fight for the family business. Where Hellman is melodramatic (everything that could happen, does happen)Williams never is. He understands that families always fight for money; that family members always maneuver for position with Mommy or Daddy or against siblings; and he understands that out of such family drama and pain comes resolution and perhaps even hope. 

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In the last lines of Cat, Maggie tells Brick that she loves him; and he replies “Wouldn’t it be funny if it were true”.

Williams gives no indication that it will be true, and like Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it just might be. We are all born into families, and with luck we may emerge out of that crucible better off than when we were in it.

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