Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: mendacity

This webpage is based on work by John Fritscher.  I cannot find the original material which I adapted many years ago.   

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick’s “big howl against American life is ‘mendacity’ which includes his greedy brother, the church, the luncheon clubs, and his wife’s craving to have a baby.”  Through all the disparately imbalanced ideals of all the American institutions Brick fumbles, trying to rip his way to the graver questions of the balanced interior self. The mendacity he despises is the lived lie forced by the unreal but existent forces of a puritanism and cavalierism which deny the balance in human nature.

“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out an’ death’s the other.” Both ways he knows well, the one from his own experience and the other from the death of his friend, Skipper. For interior reasons he rejects “twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile,”

Maggie, and Brick are sparked to their own peculiar kinds of self-violence: Maggie subjects herself to violent situations because, unwillingly childless, she is out of harmony with herself.

Williams counsels that a fully developed sexuality be incorporated into the organic personality. In a Puritan culture which tends to fragment sexuality, he maintains that the individual does essential violence to his own organic whole when he denies sex a fulfilling role in the personality: any division of personality from sexuality is a condition which can only lead to psychic fragmentation and violence.

Cat‘s Maggie viciously tries to subjugate Brick by telling him now she had destroyed Skipper and made him only a passive receptacle: “When I came to his room that night…I destroyed him….From then on Skipper was nothing at all but a receptacle for liquor and drugs.”.  “At the center of most of Williams’ plays there is the same slightly repellent pas de deux: the man austere, eager to keep his purity; the woman turning to him like Potiphar’s wife unto Joseph.” Magid, p. 38.

In more direct terms the “expectant” Maggie says to the life-force Big Daddy: “Announcement of life beginning!” And Big Daddy studies her and agrees in italics, “Uh-huh, this girl has life in her body, that’s no lie!”  Earlier, Daddy had insisted to Brick that life was tolled by ejaculation, the office of the life-bringing seed-bearer: “They say you got just so many and each one is numbered.”

The expurgated mendacity of movie-fied Puritanism on the subject of death is condemned by Big Daddy who forces the inter-issue of literal death-life into the open where Brick can place it in an existential dimension.

Brick: Big Daddy….It’s hard for me to understand how anybody could care if he lived or died or was dying or cared about anything but whether or not there was liquor left in the bottle and so I said what I said without thinking. In some ways I’m no better than the others, in some ways worse because I’m less alive. Maybe it’s being alive that makes them lie, and being almost not alive makes me sort of accidentally truthful.

Cat‘s big debate of life and death is not whether the Ochsner Clinic can or cannot save the literal life of Big Daddy; Cat‘s debate centers on Maggie’s attempts–whatever be her motives and drives–to hand Brick back the life of his existential, and secondarily upon Brick’s attempts to establish some viable communication with his merchant father.

Big Mama asks Brick to impregnate the childless Maggie to give the dying Big Daddy the life everlasting he desires.

Brick tries to correct the existential mendacity endemic to the misuse of love by sex. He and Williams employ a situation which requires a new set of tolerance from their audiences’ straight middle-class values. The distortion presented tells much about more socially accustomed relationships of love.

Brick: Skipper and me had a clean, true thing between us!–had a clean relationship, practically all our lives, till Maggie got the idea you’re talking about. Normal? No!–It was too rare to be normal, any true thing between two people is too rare to be normal. Oh, once in a while he put his hand on my shoulder or I’d put mine on his, oh, maybe even, when we were touring the country in pro-football an’ shared hotel-rooms we’d reach across the space between the two beds and shake hands to say good-night, yeah, one or two time we–
Big Daddy: Brick, nobody thinks that that’s not normal!
Brick: Well, they’re mistaken, it was! It was a pure an’ true thing an’ that’s not normal.

Brick sums up the hatred of materialistic mores under the epithet of mendacity.

Other webpages:

Love and death in Tennessee Williams – Jack Fritscher 

Homosexuality, Narrative and the Southern Plantation in Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Michael Bibler of Tulane University