Study Guide

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Visions of America

By Tennessee Williams

Visions of America

Notes to the Designer
[…] a monumental monstrosity peculiar to our times, a huge console combination of radio-phonograph (hi-fi with three speakers) TV set and liquor cabinet, bearing and containing many glasses and bottles, all in one piece […] This piece of furniture (?!), this monument, is a very complete and compact little shrine to virtually all the comforts and illusions behind which we hide from such things as the characters in the play are faced with…. (Notes.16.36-47)

The console is a focal point of the set. Williams makes a point of drawing our attention to it so that we know exactly where it is and what it is. The console contrasts greatly with the history that surrounds it. In a house that is over 100 years old, the console represents modernity and all of the latest technology. It represents a "new" America that is in love with sensory-enticing technology and that is capable of producing multi-functional things. Each of the functions (the TV set, the radio-phonograph, and the alcohol) serves to both drown out reality and to connect the watcher, listener, and drinker to others. By making a point of describing this console, Williams shows us exactly what Americans were interested in during the 1950s.

STAGE DIRECTION
A phone is ringing in hall. A N**** voice answers: "Mistuh Polly's res'dence." (I.45.653-654)

One of the few times we hear the voice of an African-American character, it seems important that the voice is detached from the actual speaker. As an audience, we hear the voice without seeing who speaks it. As a reader, we see the racist stereotype of the manner of speaking demonstrated, and we notice that the "N**** voice" does not belong to a character with a name. Here, this character is naming the owner of the house. In this way, we see the power structure between the Pollitt family and its maids more clearly.

STAGE DIRECTION
N****es in white jackets enter with an enormous birthday cake ablaze with candles and carrying buckets of champagne with satin ribbons about the bottle necks. (I.68.131-133)

Here we see further one-dimensional, derogatory depictions of African-Americans, and we also see the exorbitant wealth and luxury on which the Pollitt family live. This wealth, taken in conjunction with the fertility we see evidenced by the many children running and around and by the success of the Pollitt plantation, becomes bizarre when juxtaposed with the encroachment of death.

BIG MAMA
I can't stand TV, radio was bad enough but TV has gone it one better, I mean […] – one worse, ha ha! (II.66.90-91)

If the radio connects humans through sound, the TV connects humans through sound and image. Big Mama finds both objects to be negative. Both are tools of society, bringing people together and allowing them to comment on each other. In this way, the radio and TV also aid in the mendacity inherent in society.

BIG DADDY
I made this place! I was overseer on it! I was the overseer on the old Straw and Ochello plantation. I quit school at ten! I quit school at ten years old and went to work like a ______ in the fields. And I rose to become overseer of the Straw and Ochello plantation. And old Straw died and I was Ochello's partner and the place got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger! II.77

Big Daddy recharts his rags-to-riches story, but this time, he reveals his racism and he positions himself in relation to those he works with in the fields. Because of his privileges as a white man, he is able to move up the societal ladder, to live the American Dream. In this way, we see an exclusivity inherent to the American Dream, and we see perhaps how racism has infected even that Dream. Here, we also see more directly how the wealth and success of the Pollitt family is built upon racism and mendacity.

BIG DADDY
I said 'Hold on!'—I bummed, I bummed this country till I was—
[…]
Slept in hobo jungles and railroad Y's and flophouses in all cities before I—
[…]
I seen all things and understood a lot of them, till 1910. Christ, the year that—I had worn my shoes through, hocked my—I hopped off a yellow dog freight car half a mile down the road, slept in a wagon of cotton outside the gin—Jack Straw an' Peter Ochello took me in. Hired me to manager this place which grew into this one—When Jack Straw died—why, old Peter Ochello wuit eatin' like a dog does when its master's dad, and died too!" (II.115-117)

Here, Big Daddy traces his "rags to riches" story, a story that looks a lot like the prototype of the American Dream. He hangs around railyards, stays in boarding houses, and keeps moving until he finds—thanks to the generosity of the plantation's owners—a steady job and a home on a plantation. He works hard until he becomes the owner of the land.

MAE
Oh, Big Daddy, the field hands are singin' fo' you! II.127.1425

Williams evokes a vision of the Old South, a time of slavery and agricultural wealth, on stage in this powerful family drama. The field hands and maids are African-American and, while characters Souky and Lacey have actual names, all others do not. These characters have only a few cursory lines, and stage notes indicate they are often singing or laughing, evoking racist and derogatory images of African Americans that are deeply entrenched in the history and mechanism of slavery and in the African-American experience. By intentionally making these characters one-dimensional, Williams comments on the mendacious, racist, corrupt, and rotten core of the Old South. With the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum in the year preceding Cat's premiere and with the South largely losing its agricultural power, the 1952 audience would have been keenly aware of the implications of the racist stereotypes represented in the play.

MARGARET
My family freed their slaves ten years before abolition, my great-great grandfather gave his slaves their freedom five years before the war between the States started!
MAE
Oh, for God's sakes! Maggie's climbed back up in her family tree! (III.130.17-23)

Maggie points to specific moments in the Old South's past, and reveals that her family was part of the mechanism of slavery, but also saw fit to defect from this mechanism before the Civil War and its aftermath would force others more corrupt and unenlightened to do so. In this way, Maggie differs from the Pollitt family, whose wealth is built upon the horrors of slavery.

BIG MAMA [overlapping Margaret]
Yais, he simply adores it! An' candied yams? That man put away enough food at that table to stuff a ______ field hand! (III.130.40-41)

Again, we see the persistence of racist ideology and racist language in a family of the mid-20th century. Williams shows us how racism continues to infect society. The Pollitt family is literally cancerous and is falling apart. Williams draws connections between this destruction of family and the rotten human corruption upon which it has been built.

REVEREND TOOKER
I think this house is the coolest house in the Delta.—Did you all know that Halsey Banks' widow put air-conditioning units in the church and rectory at Friar's Point in memory of Halsey? (III.133.101-104)

Here we see the intersection between religion and modern technology. America's love for earthly comfort and ease has reached even the religious circles. It's as though religion is also a bit wonky and misguided. There is no attention given to God or to a higher being in the play. The concern is for the here and the now.

BIG MAMA
WHY DIDN'T THEY CUT IT OUT OF HIM? HANH? HANH?
DOCTOR BAUGH:
Involved too much, Big Mama, too many organs affected.
MAE
Big Mama, the liver's affected and so's the kidneys, both! It's gone way past what they call a—
GOOPER
A surgical risk.
[…]
Yes, it's gone past the knife. (III.141.279-288)

If the Pollitt family is a microcosm of the Old South, then this cancer in the patriarch of the family can be compared to the corruption, mendacity, and slavery at the heart of the Old South. The cancer affects two vital organs within Big Daddy, both organs designed to protect the human body from toxins. But the cancer cannot be cut out, because it has become part of Big Daddy's body and is killing him. By following this comparison, we understand the death of the Old South and the ways in which racism permeates every aspect of society.