The Portrayal of Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’ Play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire
When an individual stands up to leave the theater after seeing a play such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire, it is difficult to remember that there was once a time in American theatre when the revealing of a woman’s bare foot proved entirely scandalous. What was considered the dramatization of sexuality in the eighteenth century is entirely tame and bland in comparison to the plays of the mid-twentieth century. Among these pioneering playwrights was Tennessee Williams, among whose works include modern classics of American theater.
Two of his most recognizable works, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire are known for their cinematic adaptations and more importantly, the clear and constant presence of sexuality on both stage and screen. While sexuality is the less prominent subject in one than in the other, both show a change in the portrayals of usually muted kinds of sexual behavior, with carnal desire, homosexuality, bestiality, and sadomasochism at the forefront.1 Both plays feature a definitive opening scene that readies the audience for the sexual subjects about to be conveyed onstage.
In Cat, Maggie is shown within the first moments slipping out of her dress and speaking normally, as though the audience is receiving an even more intimate glimpse into her normal life (883). Going even further is the introduction of her husband, who we’ll learn is known for his good looks, on stage wearing only a towel and a leg cast (884). The fact that this entire play is mostly set in the bedroom of Big Daddy’s manor only continues the notion that the play will feature sexuality as a major part of the theatrical experience. Streetcar does the same thing, only 1 Note: In this essay, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will be referred to as Cat and A Streetcar Named Desire will be referred to as Streetcar. As the referred quotes and actions come from the same collection by the same author, only page numbers will be used in the in-text citations. in a seemingly subtle, yet actually more pronounced way.
The first sound of the audience hears when the curtain opens is the “Blue Piano”, which “expresses the life which goes on here” (469). Taking place in New Orleans, it is obvious that the type of music being played is jazz, a distinctively sensual type of music. Moreover, the musicality of jazz doesn’t imply lovemaking: it conveys dangerous and extremely arousing sexuality, thus foreshadowing the nature of Streetcar as a whole. Williams uses the opening scenes of both of his plays to highlight the sexual underpinnings in each works’ subject. Cat is different from other types of sexual dramatizations because it is constantly being denied and ignored.
Brick’s sexual abstinence and rejection of his wife is proof of this, as is his denial of homosexual identity or desire for his deceased friend, Skipper. It could be argued that Gooper’s “breeder” family is proof that sexuality is not entirely ignored, but the truth is that nobody, not even his family, likes Gooper, and his role is of little interest to the audience in comparison to Brick and Maggie’s childless relationship. What is so remarkable about Cat is that by denying the erotic, it becomes more pronounced to the audience and reader, who can feel their own sensual expectations of the play denied over and over again. It is in this way that sexuality is dramatized internally and more subtly in comparison to the overt-physicality of Streetcar. The driving force behind the portrayal of sexual desire in Cat stems immediately from Act I. The revealing entrances of Maggie and Brick characterize them both as objects of sexual desire by the audience themselves, and it is their hope to see them have sex onstage that drives the first act. The clear problem is that although Maggie wants to make this come true for the audience, Brick makes in painfully clear that he doesn’t want her body at all.
For example, when confronting him over the way he was looking at her in the mirror, Brick bluntly insists the truth, that he, “wasn’t conscious of lookin’ at [Maggie]” and that, “[he] don’t remember thinking of anything” (890). Maggie’s sexual need of a man who doesn’t desire her is captivatingly masochistic, while it also destroys the preconceptions of male and female sexuality seen previously in American theatre. Maggie’s erotic needs are shown to begin crippling her and slowly breaking her down, suggesting an entirely new and frightening concept to an American audience.
First, an exampling of growing paralysis is how she is shown changing her clothes in Act I, symbolizing her growing restlessness and dissatisfaction. She is denied her fertility, something that the audience cannot understand due to their natural captivation by her character. Fertility, the pinnacle of American existence and considered the natural result of marriage, is threatened by the relationship between Maggie and Brick, particularly in his denial of her body. The audience expects them to resolve their issues by the end, but in the original version, the conflict is left unresolved and fertility is still something to be questioned.
To an American audience, this is perhaps one of the most dangerous things sexuality can lead to, as it implies the endangerment of their own future as well as that of the characters’. Though not the main theme of the play, homosexuality is a very important part of the characterizations and actions within Cat as a whole. Brick’s desire for his friend Skipper and devastation over his death is what cripples him, somewhat paralleling the denial of physical love that Maggie is experiencing simultaneously. Brick’s frustration over his desires and his guilt is symbolized through the cast on his leg as well as his abuse of alcohol. The cast clearly represents the castration of manhood that Brick would most certainly experience should he admit to himself his homosexual desires for Skipper. Desire has crippled him physically, as opposed to the inward crippling that Maggie experiences. Brick is a broken man purposefully driving himself to the brink of utter gets the proof that her virtuous pretense is a lie.
Williams does not address this kind of sexuality directly at first, using this scene instead as a tool to dramatize Blanche’s past and her carnal lust, as well as the debauchery of its nature. An animalistic sexuality is embodied entirely by the character of Stanley, whose commanding stage presence is a driving force behind much of the play’s action. Upon first sight of him, Stanley is shown carrying, “his bowling jacket and a red-stained package from a butcher’s” (470). His physical description comes later after Blanche has arrived, demonstrating that the first thing the audience needs to know about him is that above all other things, Stanley is an animal at his core.
In his description, Williams again mentions this fact about him, saying in a stage description, “Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes” (481). As a large part of his presence draws from his sexuality, it is implied that to lust after him is easily comparable to lusting after an animal itself, thus suggesting the perilous topic of bestiality. Sadomasochism is another highly implied aspect of Stanley’s relationships with women. In his description in the stage directions, Williams admits to this, stating, “He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them” (481). The audience knows from his violent behavior that he doesn’t mean to simply take a woman to bed; he means to push her to the edge and then “fuck” her until he is completely satisfied.
His relationship with Stella proves that this is something she finds endearing and attractive about him. In the play’s most famous scene, Stanley calls Stella’s name with “heaven-splitting violence” after an aggressive domestic dispute between them. In tune with their cycle of violence before sex, the two, “…stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belling…her eyes go Stella is that Blanche’s is derived from the need for power, while Stella’s is the product of unconventional yet passionate and true love.
Blanche is completely destroyed afterwards, showing that she has been broken by the society that she cannot understand because of her upbringing. A new social order arrived with the influx of immigrants, represented by Stanley, and with it came a complete change in American culture that Blanche’s upbringing could never have prepared her for. Williams uses sexuality to indicate a major change in American social order, represented by Stanley’s immigrant victory over Blanche’s southern gentility. Sexuality is portrayed in two different ways through these two plays: in one it is desperately trying to be ignored while in the other it is continually overbearing. In both, different types of sexuality uncommon in American theater are brought up in order to leave the audience questioning how they are a part of American society in general. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof begs the audience to reflect upon the way homosexuality is discussed and portrayed in American society.
A Streetcar Named Desire uses a clashing of different types of eroticism to imply a battle between new social orders. In both, it is the build up to these revelations of each play’s true meaning that gives each piece different kinds of energy. These hidden meanings and suggestions underlying each play suggest new kinds of sexual behavior that in turn are used to question American society as a whole. Astoundingly, when either of these plays is adapted today, the audience is still asked to consider the same questions that were posed to a clearly different society in the mid-20th century. Perhaps it is the fact that we continue to reflect upon Williams’ social commentaries through sexuality in the present day that makes the plays Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire as legendary as they are in the history of American theater.
February 2, 2023
February 2, 2023