A Passive and a Non-desiring Hero
The Topic of Homosexuality in the Play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
In the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Tennessee Williams plunges the audience in the middle of a broken family arguing about Big Daddy’s cancer on the one hand and about Brick’s homosexuality on the other. However, the critics often argue about the topic of homosexuality in Tennessee Williams Play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While for Nicholas de Jongh this drama is a play about homosexuality, John Clum on the other side affirms that there is nothing gay in this play. Both studies argue about homosexuality because Tennessee Williams evokes the topic of male homosexuality indirectly. Through the use of circumlocution, the problem of communication and Brick’s passiveness, Tennessee Williams demonstrates that the topic of male same-sex desire is a problematic issue thus drawing attention to the societal disgust for homosexuality.
Even if the words ‘homosexuality’ or ‘gay’ never appear in the play, the excessive use of circumlocution serves as indicator of Brick’s homosexuality. First of all, the author informs the reader that Brick and his wife’s bedroom was once occupied by Jack Straw and Peter Ochello who had a “tenderness which was uncommon” (Williams XV). Through this remark Williams does not evoke openly that Straw and Ochello were lovers, he describes their relationship as not being worth to be called a real love relationship. The use of the word ‘uncommon’ shows as well that same-sex relation does not have a fixed definition. Throughout the play almost every character suggests a homoerotic relation between Brick and his friend Skipper but they never say it overtly. Big Mamma knows that since Skipper’s death Brick refuses to sleep with his wife (Williams, II, 43) but prefers to accuse Maggie as being unable to satisfy Brick in bed (Williams, I, 20) hiding the potential homosexuality of his son, Brick. The characters describe Brick’s relation with Skipper as ‘queer’. By using this word they point out that Brick’s relation is not conform to a normative sexual orientation. Moreover, the use of the word ‘queer’ reinforces the societal disgust for homosexuality. The homosexual relation appears to be as a disease that is so rare and disgusting that people did not want to evoke its name. Maggie, Brick’s wife, is the one who talks to Brick directly and as Gross agrees she “becomes the force which puts male relationships in question” (21). However she does not say to Brick that he is gay, she is suggesting it through the in circles talks. Throughout the first act, Maggie becomes hysterical, she can see and admire her husband but she cannot touch him. According to Gross “The current terms of Brick’s and Maggie’s marriage – that she is allowed see but not touch her beautiful husband – resonate with the audience situation” (15). In other words, Maggie’s role is poly functional. In the play she represents the suffering wife struggling to be loved. Outside the play she represents the gay spectators that are allowed to see and desire males but they cannot touch them because of the societal rejection and disgust of homosexuality. The excessive use of circumlocution dramatizes the atmosphere by reinforcing the idea of homosexuality as being negative and inadmissible by society. These excesses not only produce the ironic effect, they also allow emotions to burst the bounds of characters and overwhelm the stage, reinforcing the hysteric effect of the play.
While some characters use circumlocution in order to talk about Brick’s homosexuality, Big Daddy on the other hand has difficulties of communication and he cannot talk about it. He even lacks the right words when it comes to talk about primordial topics as Albert J. Delvin suggests in his book chapter “Writing in a Place of stone: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (107). In the play Bid Daddy desires to talk with Brick (II, 41) but when he has the possibility to do so, he keeps saying “Oh God, I can’t talk to you / It’s hard to talk in this place” (II, 58, 62). Moreover, Big Daddy’s speech is momentarily interrupted by “pauses” (44). This shows that verbal language is not sufficient to convey poignant meanings. In this way, the pauses are the equivalent of the melodramatic music, as it encompasses rhythmical patterns, which purpose is to convey dramatic effects. Brick remarks to his father that when they both talk nothing materializes (Williams, II, 48). Moreover, he claims that their discussions are painful. This shows that they both know that they have important issues to discuss but they are turning around and they never evoke the primordial topics, thus allowing the silence to overwhelm their conversations. We can remark a digression in the talks between Big Daddy and Brick. At first, Big Daddy has difficulties to talk, when he tries to talk, his discourse is interrupted with pauses and finally, their discussions turns into silence. Silence, in this case, shows that language and words are insufficient to express the truth. In this way silence establishes the dramatic effect of the play. The bitter silence, which roams in the drama, actually concretizes Big Daddy’s difficulties of communication about his son’s homosexuality.
The attention given to Brick is linked with the role of heroism, though this hero fails to be present and active. Brick is defined as a passive hero by Gross (15) and by Delvin, Albert J “ The dramatic conflict generated by such a retiring hero was that of a man as merely the intersection point of great forces, and his deeds not even his own” (107). Through this quotation we understand that the author claims that there are some big forces that paralyze Brick. We can say that his homosexuality is paralyzing him. All the characters try to get Brick’s attention, Big Mama wants Brick and she calls him ‘my only son’, despite his difficulties of communication Big Daddy tries to talk to him, his wife Maggie wants Brick to make love to her, to inherit the wealth of Big Daddy, to sign the birthday card and finally Mae and Gooper try to discredit Brick in his parents’ eyes. By trying to get Brick’s attention they draw the attention of the audience in Brick as well, but Brick remains passive and non-desiring. He merely engages in the family discussions (II, 32) he either acts like he is listening or he remains silent. In the play it is suggested that Ochello stopped eating when his gay lover, Straw, died (II, 62). The characters make this link with Brick because since Skipper’s death he started drinking and stopped making love to his wife (II, 63, 43). Moreover, Brick’s alcohol addiction is a way for him to cope with his incapacity to talk about his inhibited homosexuality. He feels guilty about his relationship with Skipper and he knows that Skipper was in love with him. Moreover, Brick is consumed by his inability to confront his sexual orientation as Gross agrees (13). Brick is almost outside the play. The world around him is moving but he remains indifferent. Since Skipper’s death Brick has become a homo faber, a human machine that waits to get ‘the mechanical click’ in his head in order to be completely out of the world. Moreover he claims that he gets this click “ except when [he is] alone or talking to no one.”(II, 53) thus reinforcing his passiveness. Finally, we can say that Brick’s homosexuality is a big force that paralyzes him and turns him into a passive hero.
Even if homosexuality is not explicitly evoked in this play, the in circles conversations about Brick’s homoerotic relationship with Skipper talk louder than Brick’s refusal to admit it. Through the in circles talks, which dramatizes the atmosphere and categorize homosexuality as being negative and inadmissible, Tennessee Williams demonstrates the societal disgust for homosexuality. The author talks about homosexuality in circumlocution in order to show the repressed desires and emotions, which have been framed by the conventions of the society.