The squalling band of no-necked monsters in Tennessee William’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof makes their presence known. They screech and howl and run amok in an attempt to get on our very last nerve. And oh what a fine job they do. They evoke a mental “get the hell off the stage” audience response. They are to Cat what the Save the Soul mission band is to Guys and Dolls: a loud grating interruption of what we came to see. And that is the point. We are to experience those no-neck monsters, as do the primary adult characters. Their mother is a familial terrorist and her children are her weapons. It is a testament to Mr. Williams that his monsters still horrifying in the 21st century.
The 1950s (when Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was written) was a period known for “seen but not heard” children. Adults enjoyed a post-war life and children had their place, and that place was often upstairs in their rooms. Children were introduced to adults (whom they called by their surname) and were ushered out of the room/party. The manners and behavior of a child was a direct reflection of the parent. The fifties were nothing if not the exaltation of propriety. Manners and appearances mattered (which goes a long way in explaining girdles and white gloves.) For children this manifested itself in a clear understanding of limits. Adults belonged to the world and knew best. It was a frustrating but secure paradigm in which to grow.
Just imagine the shock of the 1950s adult (children did not attend the theatre) audience upon seeing those no-necked monsters. Those grating little characters were hauled out and scattered like confetti on a parade. There they are playing Dixie at the airstrip to greet Big Daddy (who reacts with the same horror/disgust of the audience.) There they are “performing” at Big Daddy’s birthday party to which adult friends have been invited. (Big Daddy voices our wishes and asks for an intermission.) There they are barging into bedrooms and demanding adults engage in play. And there they are repeating hateful remarks to their aunt. It’s enough to evoke a gasp. That it still does that today is remarkable.
Children are not sequestered today. In fact if anything the world has become theirs and adults are seen but not heard. Adults can often not be heard over the din of children in restaurants, theatres, museums and funerals. Babies and children are not so much integrated into adult lives, as adults are integrated into the lives of children’s. We’ve created retail empires for babies and children. Broadway has discovered the steady income stream of children and the white way is dotted with flying people and talking teapots. Infants and children unfamiliar with the term “indoor voices” are dining out at 7:00, 8:00 and even 9:00 PM. They don’t shy from the highest end restaurants either. A simple dress code of: No Pull-Up Pants would put an end to that; but we digress. The point is that the world has changed tremendously since Mr. Williams created those no-neck monsters. Yet they still have the power to horrify. That is partly due to the scenic background of their terrorizing. They are clearly in an adult environment. The house in which they are running rampant is stately; there is no great room, there are no toys. It is clearly adult space.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is about living and dying and truth telling. The struggles within and between the characters are fascinating. The children are a reflection of the vulgarity of their parents: Gooper and Mae (the least interesting characters in the play.) The no-neck monsters’ antics threaten to get in our way as we try to learn about the adults. But by the middle of the play they are gone. Put to bed (or out to pasture); they are gone and that’s when things get really interesting.