Social problems in literature are often raised in plays, which is due to an opportunity to clearly and widely convey the author’s ideas through characters’ images and replicas. The role context opens up alternative ways of reflecting acute issues and phenomena that are more difficult to reflect in traditional stories or novels. One of these works, which belongs to the authorship of Tennessee Williams, the outstanding American playwright, and poet, is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The plot lines of this play contain a large number of social problems, including drunkenness, a terminal illness, lying within the family, and other vices. The expressiveness of the characters in the drama and the vividness of the descriptions allow the author to emphasize the relevant social issues sharply and, at the same time, leave the reader room for reflection.
The Drunkenness Problem
The internal conflicts of the play between individual characters are largely based on the theme of drunkenness as an acute social problem. For instance, Brick, whose behavior directly reflects this issue, mentions his night adventures and talks about the obstacles through which he made his way: “Sober I wouldn’t have tried to jump the low ones” (Williams 921). Such an example is not isolated and shows that the problems of the family in question are based on primitive and, at the same time, deep causes. To drown out the pain from the trauma and betrayal of his wife, Brick tries to forget himself in alcohol, which, however, does not suit either his wife or his parents. One of the reasons is his father’s large fortune that Brick may miss due to his indecent behavior. Therefore, his drunkenness emphasizes his hopelessness and inability to manage his life.
The additional tension of the play is because everyone, including Brick, is aware of the problem of drunkenness without actually doing anything about it. In his dialogue with his father, the son says the following: “That’s the truth, Big Daddy, I’m alcoholic,” in response to the father’s rebuke (Williams 936). Such a position cannot lead to anything good because ignoring the problem exacerbates it, although this outcome does not benefit either Brick or his wife (Alzoubi 27). Thus, the unresolved problem of drunkenness reflects an acute social issue, intensified by the ambiguous attitude toward it in the family of the characters in the play.
The ignorance of the father of the family about his terminal illness increases the tension between the characters because they all know about Big Daddy’s cancer, except for himself and his wife. Deciding to tell his father about this, Brick demonstrates his courage and, at the same time, tactlessness, enhanced by alcoholism. Nevertheless, when evaluating the given problem within a deeper context, one may notice the ambiguous position of the characters.
The racial background is evident in the almost complete absence of mention of black slaves’ labor on the family’s plantation. As Ferrante argues, the large fortune of the Pollitt family is the result of attracting the slave workforce, and only learning about his cancer makes Big Daddy remember the methods of accumulating profits (4). The racial context is traced in the play in an invisible thread, and although the author does not emphasize class contradictions openly, holding on to his possessions at all costs is typical of the father’s behavior. In his conversation with Brick, Big Daddy is vehemently opposed to giving up his inheritance: “I’ll bury you and have to pay for your coffin!” (Williams 952). Such unwillingness to part with accumulated funds indicates greed and stubbornness but more of a reckless passion for one’s fortune. The fact that much of the family’s property was obtained through slave labor is of no concern to Big Daddy, and given the historical context of the play, this behavior is a typical, albeit deprecated, problem.
Greed and Lust for Fortune
Planters’ Southern way of thinking, shown by Williams in the play, is in many ways similar to that which is commonly considered individualistic and egocentric. The unwillingness to put up with the loss of a fortune can be regarded as a desire that exceeds the desire to live (Adhikary 2). In a feud with his Brick, Big Daddy does not want to accept the fact that he will soon be gone. He is even more angered by the idea that he will have to give his plantation to his drunken and uninitiated son (Williams 952). The situation is aggravated by the fact that Gooper, the elder son, also does not mind becoming a direct heir, directly alluding to his mother: “Now, a twenty-eight thousand acre plantation’s a mighty big thing run (Williams 966). This struggle for wealth is a traditional problem for many families faced with the prospect of dividing family assets. At the same time, in Pollitt’s family, the concomitant circumstances, namely, the transient illness of the father, the drunkenness of the younger son, and other factors make internecine conflicts even more brutal.
Lies and Stress in the Family
Quarrels in the family are aggravated by the fact that all its members hide the truth from each other. Gontarski draws attention to Williams’ ability to convey conflict by balancing between truth and falsehood, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof proves this (85). Children do not tell their parents about their father’s illness; wives hide infidelity from their husbands; husbands lie to their wives about their jobs. All these deceptions accumulate into one big lie, preventing normal interaction between family members and entailing concomitant disagreements. Such a social problem may not be as acute as drunkenness or physical abuse. However, considering the plot of the play, one may notice how disunited close people can be if there is no mutual understanding between them and lies are taken for granted. At the end of the play, Margaret concludes by emphasizing the importance of truth: “And so tonight we’re going to make the lie true” (Williams 975). Establishing normal relationships is impossible in the conditions of universal lies, and the author focuses on this.
The social issues raised by Tennessee Williams in the play in question convey a special atmosphere in the family and reflect the characteristic type of thinking of southern planters. Drunkenness, lying, greed, and other vices do not allow family members to interact peacefully and solve problems together. This, in turn, is expressed in constant disagreements, the parents’ distrust of their children, the children’s anger at their parents, and other issues. As a result, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an intensely social play that conveys relevant problems through vivid characterization and a compelling storyline.
Adhikary, Ramesh Prasad. “Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Reading from the Perspective of Existential Nihilism: Retracted Article.” International Journal of Research in Social Science and Humanities (IJRSS), vol. 1, no. 2, 2020, pp. 1-11.
Alzoubi, Najah A. F. “Multigenerational Transmission Process in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” International Journal of Culture and History, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 17-29.
Ferrante, Catherine. “A Morality of Mendacity: The Southern Aristocratic Code of Honor in Tennessee Williams’s A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Meliora, vol. 1, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1-17.
Gontarski, S. E. “Tennessee Williams’s Creative Frisson, Censorship, and the Queering of Theatre.” New Theatre Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 1, 2021, pp. 82-99.
Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Literary Classics of the United States, 2000.