Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

A Brief Discussion of the Tennessee Williams play in light of M. Bergmann’s paper, The Anatomy of Loving

            Bergmann in his wonderful work of 1987 culled insights into the nature of falling in love from the ideas of Freud and subsequent psychoanalytic thinkers.  He highlighted Freud’s famous statement in his 1905 paper, Three Essays on Sexuality, echoing Plato, that the “finding of a [love] object is in fact a refinding of it.” This compelling idea suggests that a person seeks throughout life to “refind” parental love.  Other psychoanalytic ideas raised in the Bergmann paper relevant to a discussion of love include narcissism, splitting, merger fantasies, and reality testing. 

            Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, explores a web of love relationships in the Pollitt family in mid-20th century Mississippi.  Although the centerpiece is the love between Brick Pollitt and his wife Maggie, the relationship Brick has with his authoritarian father and his psychically-weak best friend are critical to understanding his capacity to love.

            Early in the play, Brick and Maggie bicker, illustrating that Maggie’s love for her husband is not reciprocated.  Brick, a former football star, drinks bourbon all day in order to ease his nerves.  Brick’s parents, called Big Daddy and Big Mamma, return from a trip to a cancer clinic in the belief that Big Daddy has been given a clean bill of health.  A celebration at the sprawling Pollitt estate ensues. 

            Brick is contemptuous of Maggie, who attempts to coax her husband’s love back with her feminine charms.  The play climaxes as Big Daddy learns from Brick that he is in fact dying, and as Big Daddy’s curiosity about Brick and Maggie’s nonexistent sex life uncovers the story of the suicide of Brick’s best friend Skipper.  While Tennessee Williams, who was homosexual, arguably left it open as to whether Brick and Skipper had a homosexual relationship, homosexual feelings, and especially Brick’s unresolved oedipal feelings, clearly energized this relationship.

             Big Daddy was the son of a penniless hobo, a cause of great shame to this self-made millionaire.  Yet by the end of the play, Brick causes Big Daddy to admit that his father loved him and that he loved his father.  Big Daddy’s drive to hammer his way to success and to annul the shame of his father caused him to repress his love for his father and also for his wife and children.  Likewise Big Daddy never believed in his wife’s love.  He saw Big Mamma as nothing but a money-grubbing, controlling liar.  Tennessee Williams’s characters rail about the “mendacity” of the people around them, when the mendacity actually lies within themselves, i.e. the mendacity of the repression of their emotions, including love.

            Brick was never able to experience a non-traumatic separation from his mother, which the positive involvement of his father at an early age would have encouraged.  Merger fantasies likely persisted, underpinning his yearning for an exceptionally close relationship with Skipper.  Nor later in his childhood could Brick experience a healthy resolution of the Oedipus Conflict that would have involved his giving up his wishes for his mother and identifying in a positive way with his father.  Instead he identified with his father’s shame, his father’s anger, and his father’s rejection of love.  He witnessed his father’s rejection of his older brother Gooper and concluded that only by being better than Gooper, by being a football star, could he win his father’s love.  He became an overachiever.  He developed a strong, but rigid ego – arguably the definition of masculinity in the culture of the South of these times, conquering reality instead of enjoying it and possessing love objects, instead of experiencing love.

            In attempting to “refind” the pathological triad with his parents, he found Maggie.  Maggie adored her handsome, upper-crust football star, much like Big Mama adored Big Daddy.  Brick also found Skipper, a man with a fragile ego, who idolized Brick.  They played football together; however, one day when Brick wasn’t on the field, it became clear that Skipper had little skill to play professional football.   Brick idealized this weak man, who he believed was the only one in the world he could count on.  He deluded himself into believing he could experience the bliss of a passive male relationship with Skipper, the kind of non-traumatic yielding to one’s father that occurs in a healthy resolution of the Oedipus Conflict.  In fact, he chose Skipper in order to avoid closeness with a stronger male, whom he feared would be like his authoritarian, unloving father. And, Skipper chose Brick because Brick represented the archetype of manhood — strong, capable, hard.  Skipper killed himself after his failure on the football field, after Brick hung up the phone on Skipper because he had let him down.  The sudden realization that Skipper was not the strong male he could count on may have set Brick into a rage.  Maggie went up to Skipper’s hotel room before the suicide, circumstances that led Brick to believe she was unfaithful to him with Skipper.  We learn later that this was not true.  Brick Pollitt’s “compulsion to repeat” makes for dramatic theater in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. 

Freud posited that homosexuals often set themselves up as their mothers and their objects as themselves.  They identify with their mothers instead of their fathers, according to Freud.  In this case, however, it appears that Brick played the role of his father, projecting the unloved part of himself onto Skipper.  The climax of his rejection of himself came when he hung the phone up on Skipper.  Subsequently, he could not bear the thought of having been so cruel to Skipper, having acted out his father’s rage against this fragile man; so, he projected his unwanted aggressive self onto Maggie, turning her into the lying, money-grubbing cat his father believed his mother was, and Brick believed he himself was.  She was the one responsible for Skipper’s demise, not him.  This fantasy sustained Brick’s exhausted ego.  Only then was it safe for him to identify with his father; only then could he be the strong, upright man he believed his father was.  Brick’s loss of Skipper hewed more to “melancholia,” or the loss of an intrapsychic object, than to simple “mourning,” the pain of the loss of a real object.

Very compelling was the agreement that Brick and Maggie made after Skipper’s suicide.  They would remain together, but with no love, no physical intimacy, only psychic torture.  This way she could be with her ego ideal (her handsome husband) and he could hold his debased self at a safe, but close distance.  Brick had “refound” the triad of his youth. 

            A therapeutic episode ensues when Brick tells Big Daddy he is going to die.  Faced with the truth at last, Big Daddy realizes he loved his father, which brings into relief his love for Brick, Big Mamma, and the rest of his family.  This episode also causes Brick to accept that he had let down Skipper, but that Skipper was a weak man and that Brick therefore was not responsible for his suicide.  This enables him to see Maggie for what she really is.  A desirable woman who loves him.  She is not a liar; she is not money-grubbing; though she still is a little catty, a little seductive, and a little interested in moving up the socioeconomic ladder.

             Freud’s theory on narcissism also helps explain the love relationships in this play.  Freud suggested that the narcissist loves what he himself is or was or would like to be, or even a part of himself.  Maggie’s narcissism is a love of what she would like to be, her ego ideal as embodied in Brick.  Brick’s narcissism is the love (and often the hate) of a part of himself, the rejected part, the heartless, money-grubbing man his father was, his father believed his mother was, and he believed Maggie was.  He likewise loved in Skipper that despised, weak part of himself, rejected by his father.  At the same time, in his conscious thoughts, Brick turned Skipper into his ego ideal — a supportive, kind-hearted and strong man, albeit a distorted view of Skipper.  In the event, when Skipper failed him, he swung from idealization to devaluation in the nanosecond it took to hang up the phone.

            Freud also talks about how a strong, object-oriented love can impoverish the ego.  Clearly, this speaks to Skipper’s love of Brick.  Skipper leaned on Brick.  Brick was his ego ideal, the mirroring mother he probably never had.  All Skipper’s libidinal energy was directed at Brick, leaving little for his ego.  Once Brick withdrew his love, the selfobject representation that sustained Skipper’s self-esteem went from “good” to “bad,” making suicide the only option.

            The abrupt swings in this play from loving to hating and vice versa bring to mind the concept of splitting and Freud’s discussion of emotions as distinct from instincts.  The ego synthesizes all sexual instincts and libidinal energy into love and all aggressive energy into hate. A weak ego cannot integrate these opposing emotions, cannot see people for the gray characters they often are, resulting in splitting and in sharp mood swings.  Thus, the rage, and in the case of Skipper, suicide.

            The extreme emotional reactions experienced by Williams’s male characters, in comparison with his female characters, are consistent with Altman’s notion that it is easier for women to find an appropriate non-incestuous love object from the onset of adolescence than it is for men.  This is because girls have already renounced their first love object, their mother, during the oedipal stage, when they choose their father.  Boys have a greater tendency to remain fixated on their mothers, making it perhaps more challenging to find appropriate non-incestuous object choices later on.

            In ego psychological terms, it appears that Maggie the Cat may have been the character with the strongest ego.  Although in her compulsion to repeat, she may have clung to “the hot tin roof” as long as she could, she was always sure about Brick and loved him amid the storm.  She was the most capable of Tennessee Williams’s characters at enduring frustration, showing compassion, and performing reality testing by airing the truth and integrating contradictory material.

            Clearly, the love refound by Tennessee Williams’s characters one stormy night under a hot tin roof was a refinding of the lost love, or rather the incomplete love, of childhood.  But, it was a therapeutic refinding, flexible enough to allow the kindling of mature adult relationships, and the jettisoning of unwelcome patterns.

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