Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set on a summer evening in the upstairs bed-sitting room of a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. It is the sixty-fifth birthday of Big Daddy, the head of the household. Margaret enters. Her husband Brick, who is Big Daddy's younger son, is taking a shower in the bathroom, the door of which is half open. Margaret (Maggie) is complaining that at the dinner table one of the five young children of her brother- and sister-in-law has just thrown a hot buttered biscuit at her and stained her dress. She has come into the room in order to change it. As the children can be heard shrieking downstairs, Maggie complains about them. They are a noisy nuisance, and they are making a mess of the lace tablecloth. Their parents, Mae and Gooper, encourage them to do tricks for their grandfather. They also make sly innuendoes about the fact that Brick and Maggie are childless. Mae is pregnant with her sixth child.
Brick emerges and stands at the bathroom doorway. He has a broken ankle, which is in plaster. Maggie tells him that Mae and Gooper are scheming to get Big Daddy to cut Brick out of his inheritance of the estate. Maggie explains that Big Daddy is dying of cancer. They received the doctor's report that day. It was no surprise to her, or to Mae and Gooper, and it explains their presence on Big Daddy's birthday. However, Big Daddy and Big Mama have not been informed of the diagnosis.
Maggie goes on to reveal that Brick is an alcoholic, and that his brother and her wife intend to dispatch him to Rainbow Hill, which is a place for the treatment of alcoholics. Then they would have control of the estate. Maggie vows to resist their efforts.
Maggie also reveals that Brick broke his ankle the previous night jumping hurdles on the high school athletic field at two or three in the morning. Then she mentions that Brick has a big advantage in the present situation: his father dotes on him and dislikes Mae and Gooper. She also comments that Big Daddy tolerates her and finds her sexually attractive. Maggie likes this, but Brick says it is disgusting.
The children are heard again, screaming downstairs, and Maggie explains to Brick what the scene is like at the supper-table. Brick doesn't really listen to her; he looks away with a troubled expression on his face, but as she continues, he watches her, his expression hard to define.
Maggie continues, attacking her sister-in-law. She says that Gooper thinks he married someone of a higher social class, but he is mistaken. Mae's family lost all the money they once had, and her father barely escaped a prison term for manipulating the stock market. Maggie pours contempt on that fact that Mae was once the cotton carnival queen. She does not envy her. She remembers what happened to Susan McPheeters, who had been the cotton carnival queen two years ago. Someone spat tobacco juice in her face.
As she tells this story she catches sight of Brick's face in the mirror, looking at her. She turns round and demands to know why he is looking at her in that way. He doesn't know what she is talking about. Then she blurts out that she knows that recently she has gone through a transformation. She has got hard and frantic. She gets lonely, she says, because living with someone you love can be very lonely if the love is not returned. Brick asks if she would sooner live alone, and she replies, emphatically, that she would not.
Maggie cannot maintain the intense feelings this has confession aroused, so she goes back to ordinary conversation, asking Brick if he enjoyed his shower. She offers him a rub with cologne or alcohol, but he declines. She tells him that he has kept his looks in spite of his drinking, although in a way she wishes he had not, which would make her "martyrdom" more bearable. She says he has a kind of detachment about him, which she calls the charm of the defeated.
As she hears the sound of conversation about a croquet game coming from outside, she says Brick he was a wonderful lover. She also reveals that he no longer makes love to her, and it is clear this is deeply distressing for her. But she is determined to continue to fight and win what she wants in life. She compares herself to a cat on a hot tin roof, just trying to stay on it.
She asks Brick whether he has been thinking of his dead friend, Skipper, even though she knows Brick does not want to talk about it. Brick drops his crutch and hangs on to the towel rack. He demands that she give him his crutch, even though she wants him to lean on her shoulder. She gives it to him, and he goes to the liquor cabinet for another drink. He has to drink until he gets what he calls a "click" in his head that makes him feel peaceful. Maggie tries to get him to promise it will be his last drink until after Big Daddy's birthday party. Brick has forgotten it is his father's birthday. Maggie asks him to sign a birthday card to go with his present to Big Daddy. Brick says he didn't get him a present, and Maggie replies that she got one for him. Brick refuses, saying that she is forgetting the conditions on which he agreed to stay on living with her. Maggie says the conditions were impossible, but she does not explain what they were.
This introductory part of the play is the exposition, which provides the setting, introduces some of the characters, and informs the audience of the events that have led up to the situation that is being depicted on the stage. The exposition also creates some of the dramatic tensions that will carry the play forward.
The burden of the exposition falls on Maggie, from whom we learn that Big Daddy has cancer but does not know it; that Mae and Gooper are trying to secure the inheritance for themselves; and that Maggie and Brick are having marital troubles because of Brick's refusal to make love to her.
There is an immediate contrast between Maggie, who has a zest for life and is determined to get what she wants in life, and Brick, who as the stage directions state, has "that cool air of detachment that people have who have given up the struggle." Brick is very withdrawn for some reason that has not yet been disclosed. When he talks to Maggie he only pretends to be interested in what she is saying. Even though she is obviously still in love with him and driven to distraction by his withdrawal from her, he is maddeningly uncommunicative to her. He is also strangely passive about the scheme that Gooper and Mae are planning; he does not seem to care that he may lose his inheritance. He is obviously retreating from something painful in his life. His troubled psychology is symbolized by his broken ankle; he can only hobble around the room.
Maggie is an attractive character who quickly gains the audience's sympathy. Gooper and Mae are presented in a negative light, an impression they will do nothing in the play to alter. The audience is also puzzled by Brick's passive, detached demeanor-here is an attractive man, a former athlete, who is not interested in having sex with his wife, and who drinks heavily. What is wrong with him?
This mystery is linked to the theme of secrecy and illusions. In this household, matters are not discussed openly, although eventually, they will have to be. Maggie expresses the theme perfectly when she says to Brick:
When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don't work, it's just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hopes of forgetting that the house is burning (p. 32, New Directions edition, 1975).