Recently, I taught Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and noticed, as I reread it, the undercurrents of race that appear throughout. Over the next couple of posts, I want to explore these aspects of “playing in the dark” that buttress the story of the Politt family’s decline as Big Daddy and everyone else comes face to face with his mortality. This confrontation with death leads to the family vying for the inheritance of the 28,000 acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta valued at $10 million.
On the surface, the play skirts issues of race by focusing on the Politt family as they fight to inherit the plantation and money. While there are three African American characters. they are all servants and have very minor roles in the narrative, only making announcements, answering the phone, or other duties. These aspects do not seem out of place for a play that takes place in the Mississippi Delta in 1955; however, we need to critique he lack of African American characters and action in the play because their presence works on another frequency underneath the bickering family on the surface.
At the beginning of the play, in the “Notes for the Designer” section, Williams eliminates the work done by African Americans to make the plantation what it had become by 1955. Instead, he only states that the stage is a room in “a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta” and that it belongs to “the Delta’s biggest cotton planter,” Big Daddy, who inherited it from two bachelors, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, who originally owned it (782). We do not know when Straw and Ochello bought the plantation, but Williams does not mention anything about the possibility of slaves or the fact of sharecroppers working the land.
Even when Big Daddy talks about building the plantation into its 28,000 acres and $10 million, he leaves out the workers who essentially tilled the land and brought in the money. Big Daddy talks about coming to the plantation in 1910, when he was around 20 years old. He reminds Big Mama how he made the plantation, telling her,
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 nigger in the fields. And I rose to be 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! I did all of that myself with no goddamn help from you [Big Mama], and now you think you’re just about to take over. (815)
Within this quote, Big Daddy asserts he is the sole reason he has risen to the position he occupies. However, is this actually the case? He comes onto the Straw and Ochello plantation and starts to work as an overseer. This position means that he polices those who work in the fields farming and picking the crops. He has authority over the workers, who, during this period and location, we can assume would be African American sharecroppers. When Straw dies, Big Daddy keeps working with Ochello to make the plantation prosperous, and eventually when Ochello dies, he makes the place what it is at the start of the play.
The key moment in Big Daddy’s speech, of course, comes when he says, “I did all that myself with no goddamn help from you [Big Mamma].” While he is addressing Big Mamma here, we must keep in mind that he is also proclaiming that no one assisted him in his ascendance. Big Daddy’s self aggrandizing makes those who worked for him invisible and, for him, non-important. He is Benjamin Franklin’s and Jay Gatz’s self-made man because he supposedly did everything himself. This kind of rationalization is dangerous and only works to perpetuate racism and oppression.
At the end of Act II, the audience catches a small glimpse of those who have helped make Big Daddy what he is during the play. Offstage, as Brick and Big Daddy argue, we can hear people singing “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” Mae, Big Daddy’s daughter-in-law, comes into the room and says, “Oh, Big Daddy, the field hands are singin’ fo’ you!” (839) We do not see the singers, but we do know they are workers on the plantation, and through contextual clues, African American. Again, they do not appear on stage, but we do have their presence just off stage providing the audience with a glimpse, albeit ever so fleeting, of those who made Big Daddy.
Along with these instances in the play, we need to think about the times that the African American characters actually appear on stage or say any lines, which is not a lot. Right before a servant brings the birthday cake into Big Daddy, the stage direction reads, “One of the Negroes, Lacey or Sookey, peaks in cackling” (810). Instead of specifying, Williams leaves appears to not care which servant peaks in the room or even delivers the cake. At Mae’s prompting, “Negroes in white jackets enter with an enormous birthday cake,” and after the children sing to Big Daddy and Big Mamma, “The Negroes leave” (810, 811). Like the previous stage direction, Williams does not specify who the “Negroes” are. Rather, they remain insignificant like Lacey and Sookey who serve as no more than window dressing as the Politt family goes on about their lives. However, in order to go on about their lives in such a manner, they must have, and suppress, their servants and field hands.
There are other instances in the play where we could examine Williams’ lack of engagement with the workings that support the Politt family’s success. However, I do not have time to explore them in this post. Stayed tuned on Thursday for a discussion about the 2008 production of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, and Terrence Howard. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Williams, Tennessee. Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 781-859.