40 pages 1 hour read

Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

First performed in 1955, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of American playwright Tennessee Williams’s best-known works. This classic play won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play, and was adapted into a 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. Adapted from Williams’s short story “Three Players of a Summer Game,” the three-act Cat on a Hot Tin Roof occurs in real-time as the Pollitt family gathers to celebrate the birthday of their patriarch, Big Daddy. Big Daddy, a wealthy cotton tycoon, is dying of cancer, but his two sons and their wives have lied to him and his wife about his condition—hoping to share the bad news after the party. This lie is just the first in a complex web of deceptions that unfurls as the characters vie to become the sole inheritor of Big Daddy’s estate. The play includes themes of family dysfunction and strict adherence to gender roles. 

This guide refers to the 2004 New Directions Publishing Kindle edition of the text and uses location numbers rather than page numbers.

Content Warning: This guide describes and discusses the play’s treatment of alcohol addiction and anti-gay bias. The guide also references brief mentions of suicidal thinking and child sexual exploitation.

Plot Summary

Act I opens in the bedroom of a large Mississippi cotton plantation house. Maggie is in her slip, dressing for Big Daddy Pollitt’s birthday party. As she dresses, she talks to her husband, Brick Pollitt, who is in the shower. The Pollitt family has received Big Daddy’s medical report of cancer, but have kept his mortality a secret from him and his wife, Big Mama. Brick emerges from the shower with a crutch and plastered ankle, having broken it while drunkenly jumping hurdles on a high school track. 

Maggie tells Brick that his brother, Gooper, along with his wife and family of “monsters,” are trying to use Brick’s alcoholism as an excuse to steal his inheritance. However, she assures him that he is Big Daddy’s favorite son. She is determined to secure his place as Big Daddy’s heir despite their own lack of an heir. As Maggie continues to talk, it becomes clear that their marriage is unhappy. Brick refuses to sleep with his wife, and she describes herself as a cat on a hot tin roof, hanging on to their relationship as long as she can. When she mentions Skipper, Brick’s best friend from college, he shouts at her to shut up. Maggie suggests there was romantic interest between Brick and Skipper, and reveals Skipper slept with her to “prove” his heterosexuality. When this failed, he drank himself to death. Likewise, Brick turns to alcohol to cope with the loss. 

Act II opens with Big Daddy’s birthday party. Family and friends chatter away, but Big Daddy is only interested in talking to Brick, who is drinking in search of a “click” that will grant him peace. When Big Mama encourages Big Daddy to blow out the candles on his cake, he shouts at her to stop telling him what to do. He accuses her of trying to control him under the guise of care, insisting he doesn’t have cancer and will no longer tolerate the “hypocrisy” of their marriage. Big Mama exits in tears, leaving Big Daddy muttering, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true…” (1429).

Big Daddy tells Brick about his previous fear of death and current conviction to live more truthfully, starting with finding a new woman he can “choke […] with diamonds” (1811). However, he is concerned about Brick, and asks about his own marriage. Brick claims he drinks out of disgust for the “mendacity” (deception) that surrounds him. Big Daddy isn’t satisfied with this answer and eventually asks about Skipper. Brick is furious at the implication that he and Skipper were romantically involved. He finally admits Skipper confessed his love in a drunken phone call, but he hung up and never spoke to Skipper again. He then tells his father the truth about his cancer diagnosis. Big Daddy exits, muttering about lies and liars.

Act III opens with the Pollitt family assembling in the absence of Big Daddy. While Brick drinks and sings quietly to himself, Gooper presents a draft of trusteeship that would put him in charge of the family estate. He argues that he and his wife Mae have six children and therefore, the right to carry on the family legacy. The other family members finally tell Big Mama the truth about Big Daddy’s cancer. She becomes hysterical and seeks comfort from Brick. She remarks that Brick still looks like he did as a child and tells the assembled family that Big Daddy’s dream is for Brick to have a son of his own. To everyone’s surprise, Maggie announces she is pregnant. Big Mama is delighted, claiming the news is too good to be true. Mae and Gooper agree, and as Big Mama rushes off to tell Big Daddy, they call out Maggie’s lie. However, they are interrupted by a cry of pain from offstage and rush off to check on Big Daddy. 

Maggie and Brick are finally left alone. She thanks him for not giving her away, but he has finally achieved the peaceful “click” of alcohol and walks away. She hesitates, then gathers his liquor bottles and runs out with them. When Brick returns, Maggie steals his crutch and announces he must have sex with her to “make the lie true” (3324) before she will return the alcohol. She professes her love for Brick, who responds “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?” (3340) as Big Daddy did.

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