The Portrayals of Sexuality in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire
After seeing a play such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire, a viewer may be hard pressed to remember that there was once a time in Western culture 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 what occurs in the plays of the mid-twentieth century. Among the era’s pioneering playwrights was Tennessee Williams, 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, for 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 dramas show a change in the portrayals of usually muted kinds of sexual behavior, with carnal desire, homosexuality, and sadomasochism at the forefront.
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 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). Since the play takes place in New Orleans, it is obvious that the type of music being played is jazz, a distinctively sensual type of expression. 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.
Cat is different from other types of sexual dramatizations because sexuality is constantly being denied and ignored. Brick’s sexual abstinence and rejection of his wife are 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. The clear problem is that although Maggie wants to make a sexual act come true for the audience, Brick makes in painfully clear that he doesn’t want her body at all. For example, when he is confronted 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 example 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 a natural captivation by her character. Fertility, the pinnacle of monogamous existence and 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 that values child rearing, 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 are what cripple 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 collapse by abusing alcohol, presumably to numb painful memories and regrets over his past with Skipper. By “incapacitating” the character that embodies quintessential masculinity with homosexual curiosities and urges, Williams suggests that Brick has internalized conventional morality within himself and that it will ultimately lead to his destruction.
What frustrates both the characters and the audience is the unresolved conflict and ambivalent nature of Brick and Skipper’s relationship. In his conversation with Big Daddy, Brick insists that it was a platonic and non-physical love for himself, saying, “Why can’t exceptional friendship, real, real, deep, deep friendship! Between two men be respected as something clean and decent without being thought of as…fairies…” (948). This is the question that Williams poses to the audience: could Brick and Skipper have had a romantic relationship without hurting their status in society? Skipper’s death keeps the answer to this question from the audience and forces us to reflect upon it ourselves. In the 1950s, this meant reflecting on a type of sexuality that was considered unnatural and not to be spoken of. Williams does not challenge this societal more himself, but he questions it, thus forcing the audience to consider the way in which the topic of homosexuality is treated outside of the theatre and in American society as a whole.
Representing a clash between old-fashioned American Southern lifestyle and working class immigrant culture, Streetcar is a play that is defined by and known for its depiction of sexuality as an animalistic, even violent urge. The play is a brutal clash between opposing carnal passions: Blanche Dubois’ internalized past and desires and Stanley Kowalski’s extremely powerful, beastlike sexual appetite. While Blanche is restrained by the expectations of the Southern society she was raised in, Stanley has nothing holding him back from exerting his power upon those around him. Streetcar is a definitive sign of the changes in the dramatization of sexuality seen in plays of the mid-twentieth century. Whereas sexuality was constantly denied in Cat, it is something that is both pronounced and confronted constantly throughout Streetcar.
Blanche’s sexual persona and past are key to understanding the aforementioned clash of the erotic. She acknowledges her dependence on men in her final (and most famous) line of the play as she holds onto the arm of the doctor, “Whoever you are- I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” (563). Blanche thus categorizes herself as one who needs to attach herself to a man to have access to her own soul. However, by denying herself the opportunity to find herself on her own and without a man, she has led herself inadvertently into insanity. Also contributing to her growing insanity is the aftermath of being denied by men, particularly her teenage student and her homosexual husband, Allan. While an affair with a seventeen year old is prohibited on an obvious legal level, her firing because of it denies her of both the love affair and her livelihood. Not having a man or an income to live on, Blanche is forced to escape to delusions in order to remain living. She is again denied a man to depend on when she discovers the homosexual affair of her husband Allan, which leads Allan to commit suicide. Haunted by her sexual past, Blanche erects a façade of conventional morality that slowly begins to break down over the course of the play.
This breaking down is gradual but increasingly clear as the play progresses, suggesting more and more the danger of Blanche’s sexual desires. In scene five, Blanche throws herself at the young newspaper boy, saying upon his arrival, “Well, well! What can I do for you?” (518). By attempting to seduce an innocent young man, Blanche’s unhealthy and immoral sexual appetite is uncovered and the reader and audience finally get 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. When he first appears, 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 Stanley’s 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 belly…her eyes go blind with tenderness…and [he] lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat” (503). The pair seems to take carnal pleasure in the pain they inflict upon each other – Stanley by abusing her and Stella by denying him. Their system makes them vulnerable to each other, yet abler to connect: it is from that mutual dependence that their passionate love emerges.
The power of the play comes from the growing and anticipated clash of the sexual natures of Blanche and Stanley. In the beginning, Blanche is seen trying to flirt with him out of desperation for male attention, going so far as to fish for a compliment by saying, “Would you think it possible that I was once considered to be – attractive?”. Stanley outwardly rejects her advances and responds, “Your looks are okay” (487). The passage indicates Blanche’s obvious sexual attraction to him as well subtly highlighting his truthfully repugnant view of her. However, later in the scene he says, “If I didn’t know you was my wife’s sister I’d get ideas about you!” (489). This quote is proof that although he does respond to Blanche’s flirtations, his actions and remarks towards her show that his flirtations are empty and that what he truly enjoys is having power over her. It is his desire for power over Blanche and her delusions that makes her vulnerable to the action of the climax.
This opposition of strong sexualities is clear in the final confrontation, in which Stanley rapes Blanche while Stella is in the hospital. The assault is seemingly inevitable to the audience, making it unnecessary to be seen on the stage. After all, Stanley even says, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” (555). The rape symbolizes his victory over her, shattering her delusions, sending her into complete madness, and constituting what some critics could call a “return” to Blanche for her sexual indiscretions in the past. What distinguishes the sexual encounters between Blanche and Stella is that Blanche’s sexuality 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 though futilely obscured 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 members 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.
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