Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Where It All Goes Down
Pollitt Plantation in the Mississippi Delta
The play takes place on one of the largest cotton plantations in the Mississippi Delta during the 1950s. It is summer, and man is it hot. The play is centered in Brick and Maggie's bedroom, a bedroom that once was occupied by the plantation's ancestors, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, who we discover were lovers.
Williams describes the style of the bedroom as "Victorian with a touch of the Far East" (15.10-11), and tells us it has not changed much since Straw and Ochello lived there. This is strange, because we don't really know what the Far East has to do with a plantation in Mississippi. However, this detail does make us think that the set may have trinkets and ornaments that would suggest other un-American places.
Williams says there is the "quality of tender light on weathered wood," inspired by a reproduction of a photograph he once saw of Robert Louis Stevenson's home on a Samoan Island. The tenderness and softness of this weathered wood is an important quality for the set to possess, when the story that unfolds "deals with the extremities of emotion" (15.27-29). Again, we hear a reference to a land far, far away (Samoa - a country-island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand) and we are not quite sure why, except that it seems to act like coordinates on a map, orienting the Pollitt Mansion within America and within the world. The set almost becomes maternal, softening the blow of the hurtful words and mud-slinging that ensue.
At the center of the bedroom is, well, a bed. And that, if you were paying attention to Big Mama, is the root of all marriage troubles. Maggie and Brick's bedroom is a transitory place, like a busy intersection, for on one end it is lined with doors and windows that lead out to the gallery, and on the other end a door leads into the hallway of the Pollitt mansion where phones are always ringing and where children are always screaming. We know that the doors to this room are rarely locked, at Big Mama's request, and we know that people are constantly eavesdropping to catch the juicy gossip being discussed inside. People are constantly moving in and out of the room, and the summer heat compels everyone to wear deodorant and to keep windows open.
The Pollitt mansion is also couched in a moment in American history that is more turbulent than a plane ride through a thundercloud. Jim Crow laws were still in full effect, mandating a "separate but equal" status for African Americans. This meant that there were separate public schools, public transportation, restaurants, public drinking fountains, restrooms, lodging, and more for whites and blacks living in America. Black Americans were subjected to racism and acts of intolerance daily, especially in the South.
After World War I, the Great Migration gained momentum. This historical movement saw black Americans fleeing the racial intolerance rampant throughout the South, and moving to great northern cities like Chicago and New York. Following World War II, American soldiers returned home. The economy saw a huge boost as American industry grew, and the baby boom was taking the country by storm. The American South also turned toward the trend of industrialization and became more like the North.
Big cotton plantations, the likes of Big Daddy's, were few and far between. In fact, many Southern farmers turned toward soybeans, corn, and other delicious things instead of to the fabric of our lives. In many ways, the virility and success of the Pollitt plantation is kind of an impossibility in the true context of the economically strained South of the 1950s. In this way, the Pollitt household seems dreamlike, impossibly suspended in a pre-Civil War era, detached from the real poverty that struck other Southern farmers and landowners.
Just like Big Daddy is dying of cancer, we know the Old South (a time of slavery, corruption, economic growth, and opulence) is dying as well, giving way to the temptress called Industry and to the powerful call of freedom and equality incited by the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. Keeping in mind all of this weighty history, we know to take Big Daddy's millions with a grain of salt.