Written in 1955, in the midst of the Leave It To Beaver era in America, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof garnered Tennessee Williams his second Pulitzer Prize. The play is about a Mississippi family and was written during a time that was in love with good ole family values and the shock-value of blue jeans. Following the destruction and chaos of the two world wars, much of America trended toward the concept of the stable nuclear family. Think June Cleaver's hair and Pleasantville black-and-whiteness.
However, in the years preceding the creation of Cat, two highly controversial books about the sex lives of humans were published. These books were known as The Kinsey Reports, and they discussed the intricate and often shifting nature of human sexuality. One of the most controversial concepts that these books stirred up was the concept of the fluidity of sexual orientation. The Kinsey Reports claimed that 10% of the American population at the time was gay. The credibility of the data used by the Kinsey Reports was hotly disputed, and the books were widely criticized, but they are associated with the marked shift in the way Americans conceived of sexuality. In a way, these reports put Sex on the map.
Kinsey Reports aside, we all know that we get the real truth from magazines, and sometimes from the movies. (Right?) But Hollywood producers and writers still operated under the strict censorship brought about by the Production Code of 1930. The Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, provided strict and carefully worded guidelines as to what could or could not be discussed or modeled in American films. These guidelines prohibited any mention or discussion of homosexuality, as homosexuality was considered a form of "sex perversion." Thus, when Cat was transformed into a major motion picture, replete with the drool-inducing Elizabeth Taylor (in a slip) and Paul Newman, all hints or discussions of homosexuality were omitted from the script. That's kind of like taking Napoleon Dynamite out of Napoleon Dynamite.
In addition to sexuality, Williams also addresses the decaying American South and America's dark history of slavery, the horrors of which continued to eat away at the country through acts of intolerance, injustice, and racism in the 1950s. Cat takes place on a cotton plantation in the post-WWII era. In this time, the South saw a marked shift in its economy: formerly completely dependent upon agriculture, it now became smitten with industrialization and cities. The Old South's agricultural history became more of a scary ghost than a memory. The play was written in the same year that the American Civil Rights movement began, a movement invigorated by the major Supreme Court decision of the previous year, Brown v. Board of Education, which ensured the desegregation of American schools.
Tennessee Williams is considered by some to be one of the most influential architects of 20th century American drama…he created bedrooms, lots of bedrooms with tin roofs. Like us, Tennessee had a cool name. Like us, Tennessee had a crazy family, he was kind of obsessed with just how loco families can be when they get together, and he saw family as a kind of ant farm that could be studied and that could reveal truths about the bigger ant farm that is American society.
Mendacity. It's a town in the Old West on the Kansas border with a saloon, a bank, a bathhouse, a jail, and a supply store. Tumbleweeds blow through the main drag and you stand facing a haggard, toothless adversary who looks vaguely like Dwight Schrute about thirty yards away. Truthkiller McLie, he's called, the local shenanigan.
McLie glares at you in the hot sun, flares his nostrils, and flicks his fingertips over his holster. You, the newly appointed Sheriff, have a penchant for Shakespeare. Mendacity doesn't take too kindly to books, and has gotten wind of your weekly Shakespeare nights in the grocer's storage room where you, Rosamond the painted lady, the grocer, and the butcher gather to read Hamlet. No siree, Mendacity doesn't like the looks of such mischievous organization, and they have sent McLie to take care of you. You can either:
A) Stay and fight McLie and risk dying in the name of reciting Shakespeare freely and following through with your lifelong plan of opening a theater and creating a company of actors.
B) Surrender to McLie, give him your badge and your Sheriff's responsibilities, feign disgust for your blasphemous book habit, and get a job waiting tables at the saloon so that you can keep up your Shakespeare nights in secret. OR
C) Surrender to McLie and become his lackey and assistant, burning your sacred Shakespeare anthology at the weekly book burning session and enforcing anti-Shakespeare laws throughout the land.
OK, OK! So maybe we don't often find ourselves with a shiny new Sheriff's badge in a town called Mendacity ready to go nose-to-nose with a Dwight Schrute look-alike. And maybe there are few places in the world where Shakespeare is not considered to be the raddest thing since sliced ham. And maybe it is rare that we are risking our lives to pursue what we love to do, think about, and discuss.
But we do all have dreams (cue the music, sunset, and singing lobster). Cat on a Hot Tin Roof explores what happens when we dream about things that society tells us we shouldn't, things like knee-high socks, robots, or Renaissance fairs; except in this play, it's about choosing to love someone when society says it's wrong.
We all know that feeling of self-betrayal. It's kind of like when you threw away your homemade lunch before lunchtime everyday in 2nd grade because people made fun of the pickled beets (secretly your most favorite food in the world) that your dad cooked especially for you. Or like that time you spent almost an hour making fun of Hanson with your friends, even though you have an autographed picture of the brothers framed on your bedroom wall, and even though the term Middle of Nowhere means something very different to you than it does to the rest of the world. You know: earth shattering, monumental moments like these when we kill a little bit of ourselves for the sake of belonging to the right team and not feeling so lost in the wide blue yonder.
Oh boy, you say, what the hey is Shmoop talking about?! We mean to ask questions. Namely, is it better to be on the "right team" or to strap on your knee socks and eat pickled beets with Hanson-loving robots? How do we know we are happy, and what makes us, well, us?