Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
– Dylan Thomas
Like warm chocolate lava cake, Cat's epigraph is so rich and delicious, we almost want to ask for the check and call it a night. And that's before the curtain rises! Tennessee Williams employs Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" as the epigraph, or appetizer if you will, to Cat. He chooses the final stanza of this villanelle (see definition below), written in 1951, to set the tone for what's to come.
In the first two lines, the speaker begs his dying father to either curse or bless him before leaving this earth. He uses the final two lines of the poem entreat his father to fight death at all costs. Actually, the last two lines implore his father to RAGE. Hardcore. The speaker wants his father to live life to the fullest until the very last moment. In Cat we see a father fighting against death and giving neither curse nor blessing to his son before disappearing from the play completely. Or so we think. You may disagree with us.
The command, "rage, rage," is reminiscent of the naked Shakespearian King Lear, who wanders the heath (read: tundra) in the middle of a storm and commands the elements to "rage! blow!" When he says these words, Lear has been driven mad by the cruelty of his daughters who have turned against him after he's given them all of his riches. Cat commences with this royal ghost's words bellowing in our ears and the play tells the story of progeny laying claim to a dying father's riches. Lear's storm and Thomas' raging plea become the soundtrack for the play, and we know it to be a play about fighting death, even before we begin.
Oh, and also, villanelles are pretty honkin' cool. A villanelle is a form of poetry in which there are only two rhyming sounds. "Booooring," you might say. Au contraire, we reply. Because of these forced and limited repetitions, a villanelle often possesses a cyclical motion that mirrors the guts or content of the poem. "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" is about fighting death and the poem itself seems to fight its own ending by continuing to repeat itself.