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Space is an important element in drama and is embodied by the stage itself as a representation of a space where action is presented. Plays differ significantly with regard to how they present space and how much information about space they offer the audience. The analysis of place and setting in plays can help the audience get a better feel for characters and their behavior as well as for the overall atmosphere. In the script of a play, the layout and overall appearance of the set is usually described in stage directions or descriptions at the beginning of acts or scenes. The dichotomy between extremely detailed and sparsely mentioned stage sets in the secondary texts of plays is another crucial starting point for further analysis, since the preponderance or lack of setting description tells the reader something about more general functions of settings.
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The significance of scene descriptions is very apparent in Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The extensive descriptions introduce the reader to the setting for the entire play, namely Brick and Maggie’s bed-sitting room in Big Daddy’s Southern Mansion. Though all of Williams’s stage notes merit careful consideration, it is undeniable that certain elements of the setting have strong symbolic associations. Through these symbolic elements, greater insight into the both the emotional composition of Brick and Maggie and the overriding homosexual tension of the play can be unearthed.
Williams explicates some of the symbolic elements of his play;,including the console that holds a radio-phonograph, television, and liquor cabinet, in the secondary notes. The significance of this console is to serve as a shrine to the “comforts and illusions” (6) behind which people hide from the things and, throughout the play, offers the characters auditory and (with alcohol) sensory distraction. However, a more passive symbolic set element of the play is the large double bed which Williams instructs the actors to make a “functional part of the set as often as possible” (6). This large furnishing is the focal point of the set, and setting the entire action of the play in Maggie and Brick’s bedroom makes sense because a major plot point concerns whether or not Brick will resume sleeping with Maggie.
When Brick and Maggie fight openly, the bed serves as a point of refuge for each, in turn. When Maggie confronts Brick with her own vitality in the face the death of his true love, Skipper, Brick throws his crutch at her, over the bed behind which she takes refuge. This is a symbolic action in that Maggie is crouching behind an object loaded with sexual tension; literally hiding behind that the setting where Brick would have to perform sexually with her in order to refute her claim of his homosexuality. To get to Maggie, then, Brick literally has to overcome the thing that is keeping them apart. This is why Brick must throw something over the bed – it is a metaphorical attempt at overcoming Maggie’s accusation. When his throw misses Maggie, Brick refills his drink and sits on the imposing “great four-poster bed” (44). His pathetic return to the formidable piece of furniture is the ultimate failure. Brick has been forced to return at least temporarily to their detested love nest
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Williams makes a point of revealing that Brick and Maggie’s room formerly belonged to the plantation’s original owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello. These two bachelors apparently shared an “uncommon tenderness” (5) and, as Williams writes, the ghost of their love haunts the room. Ironically, the bed was once shared by a homosexual couple, a concept that would clearly be abnormal to the sensibilities of Brick and Maggie’s culture. A second, related anomaly is that the bed remains unshared by Maggie and Brick because of Brick’s struggle with his latent homosexuality. When Brick and Big Daddy finally cut through the mendacity of their relationship and have a true conversation, Brick accuses his father of thinking that he and Skipper “were a pair of dirty old men” (92), making a veiled reference to Straw and Ochello. Brick is literally crushed by the confrontation. He “loses his balance and pitches to his knees…he grabs the bed and drags himself up” (93). It is symbolic that Brick uses the bed where the men slept and where he and his wife are supposed to sleep, to try to regain his advantage both physically and emotionally. Ironically, the only thing that brings Brick back up to his feet is the very fixture that has contributed to his emasculation in the eyes of his father, wife, society and self.
Maggie’s dissatisfaction rests in the bed as well, in that it stems from her childlessness and having “a big beautiful athlete husband [who] won’t go to bed with her” (121). Certainly, her childlessness calls her status as “normal” wife and woman into question. Without a child, moreover, her and Brick’s place in Big Daddy’s household is not assured. As Big Mama deduces from Brick’s alcoholism and Maggie’s childlessness, “when a marriage goes on the rocks the rocks are [in the bed]” (33), a fact that Brick’s continuous rejection of her conjugal embraces never allows her to forget. Even in her slip and at her most seductive, Maggie is unable to lure her husband’s desire, or even get him to take his pillow to the bed and not the couch.
Tennessee Williams fills the setting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with subtle nuances that enrich the theatrical experience. One of these elements, the four-post bed, can be mistaken to a casual observer as a useful prop and staging tool. Upon closer inspection however, it becomes obvious that the bed makes both literal and metaphorical revelations in the play, especially in regards to Brick and Maggie’s character and is a necessary element in facilitating the movement of the plot.
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