A group enters, with Big Daddy in the lead, followed by Reverend Tooker and Gooper, who are discussing memorials. Big Daddy interrupts the talk about memorials, asking whether they think someone’s going to die. Reverend Tooker laughs awkwardly, as Mae and Doctor Baugh appear, talking about the children’s immunizations. Margaret tells Brick to turn on the Hi-Fi. When he ignores her, she turns it on herself, and Big Daddy shouts to shut it off again. The speaker is turned off immediately, as Big Mama enters the room and calls for Brick. Big Daddy shouts to turn the speakers back on again, and everyone laughs, at Big Mama’s expense. She herself laughs it off and approaches Brick.
Big Daddy is introduced—he is used to being the center of everything, issuing orders, having everyone do his bidding. Reverend Tooker knows that Big Daddy is dying of cancer, and he keeps talking about memorials as a hint to the family, hoping to secure some money for the church after Big Daddy’s death. Big Daddy's response shows that he believes the health report—he thinks he's going to live. And so the people surrounding Big Daddy take on a different tone: he thinks it is normal, little fish following after a big fish, but really Tooker and everyone else are sharks drawn by Big Daddy’s wealth. Notice also Big Daddy's cruelty toward Big Mama—his effort to drown out her ability to communicate by turning on the radio—and Big Mama's sad response. Their relationship is here revealed: he despises her; she is desperate to please him.
Big Mama fusses over Brick and flops down on the couch, pulling the reverend onto her as a joke. Big Daddy bellows at her to stop joking around, and Big Mama signals the cue for the black servants to bring in Big Daddy’s birthday cake and champagne. Everyone except Brick sings “Happy birthday to you,” and when that’s finished, Mae signals at her children to sing another song about how much they love Big Daddy and Big Mama.
Big Daddy clearly has little patience or affection for Big Mama, though she seems very sincere in her affection for him. The choir of Mae’s children is obviously contrived, a naked ploy to get Big Daddy's affection and, therefore, his money. But it raises the issue that the birthday song is contrived too, an example of the kind of lie that people create to depict social harmony and project a non-existent love. Only Brick refuses to participate.
Moved by the spectacle, Big Mama again launches into a speech about the wonderful results of the health report. Margaret interjects, asking Brick whether he’s given Big Daddy his birthday present yet. Gooper bets that Brick doesn’t know what the present is, while Margaret opens the package. She sounds surprised as she pulls out a cashmere robe, but Mae accuses her of faking the surprise, since she happens to know that Margaret purchased it last Saturday. As the conversation gets cattier, Big Daddy bellows for quiet. The reverend unfortunately finishes a sentence in the silence after everyone stops speaking, and Big Daddy turns on him, accusing him of speaking about memorials again.
Big Mama’s speech makes everyone uncomfortable because they know that she’s unknowingly telling a lie about Big Daddy’s health report, so Maggie interrupts her. Maggie, Mae, and Gooper then get into their maneuvering to try to win Big Daddy's love and money. Big Daddy has no patience for it, or for Tooker. Big Daddy is filling what is clearly his traditional role: whatever he wants, while telling everyone else what to do. Yet Big Daddy's anger at Tooker talking about memorials indicates Big Daddy's intense fear of death.
As the atmosphere in the room grows uncomfortable, Big Daddy turns to Brick and asks what he was doing on the high school track field last night. In crude language, he asks whether Brick was laying a woman, while Mae quickly ushers the reverend out on the gallery. Brick denies it, and Big Daddy continues to interrogate him, asking whether he was drunk. Big Mama and Margaret try to change the subject, drawing attention back to the cake, but Big Daddy bellows in disgust for them to stop. Meanwhile, Gooper has retreated to the gallery as well.
Big Daddy wants to know what happened to Brick last night, and he doesn’t mind destroying the conversation in the room in order to do it. Big Daddy's notion of sexuality is crude and masculine. He thinks nothing of asking Brick if he was "laying a woman" in front of Brick's wife. Though perhaps he is being so crude in order to shock the conversation into truth, because he suspects the truth about Brick/Skipper?
Big Daddy says that he’s tired of Big Mama trying to take over because she thought he was dying of cancer. Big Mama tells him to hush, but he continues. He says that he made the plantation as successful as it was by himself, and he refuses to let her take it over now. Big Daddy claims that his colon has been made spastic by disgust for hypocrisy and liars. Big Mama, upset, exclaims that she has loved him all these years, but he doesn’t believe her. She rushes out onto the gallery, as Big Daddy says to himself, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true…”
Big Daddy rejects Big Mama’s affection, believing that she has ulterior motives for caring for him. He believes that her affection for him is a lie, an effort to take what he built and have it for herself. The play explores similar ideas with Maggie and Brick, as Maggie seems to love Brick, to be impossibly physically attracted to Brick, and to want the money Brick may inherit. Big Daddy sees love as a lie, though, a way for women to take what belongs to men. Incidentally, Big Daddy's comment that "liars" gave him a spastic colon is more true than he knows: the "spastic colon" is itself a lie, and so it was literally given to him by liars.
Big Daddy asks to speak to Brick, and Margaret delivers him, exiting onto the gallery with a kiss, which Brick wipes off. At this point, Big Daddy and Brick are the only ones left in the bedroom, and all the others are out on the gallery. Big Daddy compares Margaret and Mae, and he and Brick agree that they both look like a couple of cats on a hot tin roof. Brick says it’s because they’re trying to get a piece of Big Daddy’s land, and Big Daddy responds that they have a surprise coming to them—he’s not planning to die for a while yet.
Even Brick’s small actions—like wiping a kiss—reject Margaret, and Big Daddy notices this. Brick and Big Daddy, when alone, seem to be able to communicate more directly and bluntly than the other characters do. Brick easily reveals what everyone else is trying to reveals: that Mae and Margaret both want a piece of Big Daddy’s inheritance. Yet Brick doesn't reveal the real secret, that Big Daddy's belief that he's going to live on for some time is wrong. Their communication is not complete.
Big Daddy hears a sound from the bedroom and asks who’s there. Mae appears by the gallery entrance, and Big Daddy tells her to stop spying. Mae accuses him of being unkind to those who love him, to which Big Daddy tells her to shut up. He says that he plans to move Mae and Gooper out of the room next to Margaret and Brick’s, since all they do is spy and report their findings to Big Mama. Mae leaves the room dramatically, pressing a handkerchief to her nose.
Here’s another example of a supposedly private conversation being interrupted. Even if the topics being discussed in the play weren’t so sensitive, conversation would be difficult in this household. Mae accuses Big Daddy of not returning the love of those around him—an accurate assessment in the case of Big Mama, though Mae’s own motives for caring for him are suspect. Yet it's important to note that Big Daddy thinks Big Mamma has the same motives! For the characters, love and selfishness and become all tangled up.
Big Daddy tells Brick that Mae and Gooper have reported that Brick won’t sleep with Margaret. He asks whether this is true and tells Brick to get rid of Margaret if he doesn’t like her. Brick, meanwhile, has gone to the liquor cabinet to freshen his drink, and Big Daddy tells him he has a real liquor problem. He advises Brick to quit drinking and stop throwing his life away. Brick agrees, without really listening. Big Daddy comments that it’s hard to truly communicate.
As Big Daddy turns the conversation back to Brick and Maggie—to their sexuality or lack thereof—Brick again retreats into alcohol. Conversations in the play are often paused as he refreshes his drinks or waits for his “click.” Big Daddy notices how Brick uses alcohol to block communication, but also how communication is just difficult in general.
Meanwhile, the clock chimes, and Brick remarks on how pleasant the chiming sound is. Big Daddy says that he and Big Mama bought the clock on their European tour. Big Daddy adds that he’s lucky he’s a rich man because Big Mama bought so many items on that tour. He tells Brick to guess how much he’s worth, and when Brick doesn’t respond, Big Daddy informs him that he’s worth ten million dollars and has 28,000 acres of the richest land on this side of the Nile. He concludes on a somber note, however, saying that a man can’t buy his life. He continues to reminisce about his trip to Europe, saying that he has enough money to feed all of Barcelona, and remembers how an Arab woman sent her naked child to him to proposition him for sex. He claims that rich men hoard their money to buy items, however, because they hope that one of their purchases will turn out to be life everlasting.
This is a key speech by Big Daddy, linking his wealth and his health. He sees the source of men's desire for wealth as a hope for immortality. Of course, this is a doomed hope, as the one thing that wealth can't buy is immortality (though one might also argue that the play also demonstrates that it can't buy love). His comment about the Arab women also indicates how he sees sex, perhaps from all women—as something men want, but something women use to get money and comfort. He remembers his trip to Europe with his wife not for its fond memories, not for the time he spent with her or the things they saw and experienced together—he remembers it for the things they bought and what, ultimately, they couldn't buy.
Brick pours himself another drink and informs Big Daddy that he’s talking a lot tonight. Brick says that he prefers "solid quiet" and asks whether Big Daddy’s through talking to him. Brick tells Big Daddy that they never truly talk—he tries to look like he listens, but he never actually listens. Meanwhile, Big Daddy closes the gallery doors so that he and Brick are alone, and asks Brick whether he’s been downright terrified of anything in his life. Big Daddy continues on to say that he thought he really had cancer. With the new health report though, he feels much better.
Brick dislikes communication of all kinds. He does not want to interact with people. It may also be that he is uncomfortable with Big Daddy's thoughts about sex. Big Daddy's question about being terrified is important, in that the play posits two things that men are so terrified of that they cannot face or discuss them: death and homosexuality. Or as Brick will later describe them: the "inadmissible things."
Big Daddy announces to Brick that he’s contemplating "pleasure with women." He says that he slept with Big Mama until five years ago, when he was sixty, and he never even liked her. Big Mama bustles through the room on the way to answer the phone down the hall. Big Daddy tells her she should go through a different room, but she just makes a playful face at him and hurries through. Brick has started to hobble towards the gallery doors to leave, but Big Daddy tells him that the talk’s not finished yet. Big Mama finishes talking to Miss Sally on the phone, but when she tries to walk back through the room, Big Daddy closes the door and doesn't let her in. After entreating Big Daddy to take back his earlier words about her trying to take over the plantation, she retreats down the hall with a sob.
Big Daddy's cruel treatment of Big Mama even as he tells Brick about his desire to experience "pleasure with women" shows how little he cares for love, either Mama's in specific or in general. Papa sees women as a means to pleasure, not to love. Mama, meanwhile, tries to bear up under his mistreatment—seeming to think that endurance will win Big Daddy's love—but ultimately breaks down under his ill treatment of her. Brick's ongoing discomfort with any topic touching on sexuality makes him once again try to escape, but Big Daddy is dead set on a conversation, on communication.
As Big Daddy goes back to contemplating pleasure with women, talking about how he plans to use his wealth to secure a young woman, Brick rises with effort. Big Daddy asks Brick what makes him so restless, and Brick responds that the “click” hasn’t happened yet. He explains the click he gets when he drinks enough alcohol, and Big Daddy, astonished, calls him an alcoholic, which Brick calmly accepts. Brick attempts to leave again, saying that this talk is like all the others they’ve had, going nowhere. Big Daddy seizes Brick’s crutch and tosses it across the room. Big Daddy continues to talk about his test results and how he believed he had cancer, and Brick makes a wild dash for his crutch.
As Big Daddy comments on his desire for pleasure and a young women it begins to seem that he may see sex just as he sees wealth: as a way to achieve a kind of immortality, or at least to feel immortal. An aging woman just makes Big Daddy feel his own age. Meanwhile, Big Daddy finally recognizes the extent of Brick's alcoholism, and in throwing the crutch he seems to be symbolically demanding that Brick give up all his "crutches" (including alcoholism) and face and talk with Big Daddy for real.
Big Daddy yells at him to stay, and Big Mama rushes in to see what all the yelling is about. Big Daddy tells her to get out, and she runs out, sobbing. Brick attempts to hobble towards the gallery again, but Big Daddy takes his crutch again. Big Daddy demands to know why Brick drinks and refuses to return the crutch until he gets an answer. He tells Brick that he’ll pour him a drink if Brick says why he drinks. Brick responds that he drinks out of disgust. Big Daddy asks what he’s disgusted with, but Brick refuses to say until Big Daddy pours him a drink. Brick responds that he’s disgusted by mendacity, or lying and liars.
Like Maggie, Big Mama is constantly facing rejection. Brick uses alcohol as a defense, but notice how Big Daddy turns Brick's reliance on alcohol against Brick, in essence holding Brick hostage until he speaks. Maggie will do something similar later in the play. Brick's hatred of liars and lying echoes Big Daddy's comment that liars and hypocrisy are what gave him a "spastic colon".
The children start chanting that they want Big Daddy, and Gooper appears in the gallery door to ask him to come and see the rest of the family, but Big Daddy shuts him out. He demands to know who’s been lying to Brick. Big Daddy says he knows all about mendacity, having had to lie about caring for Big Mama, for Gooper, for Mae—in fact, he says the only one he’s ever had any devotion to in his life is Brick. He says there’s nothing to live with other than mendacity. Brick contradicts him, holding up his glass and saying that liquor is something else to live with.
Gooper and the children interrupt this time, breaking up the flow of conversation again. But Big Daddy wants this conversation with his son, the only person who he does love. Though one might conjecture that he loves Brick because he sees himself in Brick—that Brick in this way gives Big Daddy a kind of immortality. So Daddy's love, too, might be selfish. Whatever its source, Brick doesn’t return Big Daddy’s affection—the entire play is a web of unrequited affections. As for lies, Big Daddy sees them as just something you have to live with. Though it's interesting that Daddy sees himself as the one who is lying, here. He doesn't comprehend that people might be lying to him. Brick clearly would prefer to drink himself to death than to lie or be lied to just to make things look neat and pretty.
Big Daddy informs Brick that that’s not living. He says that he couldn’t decide who to make his will out to before the health report came in—to give it to Gooper and Mae or to support Brick as he rotted away. Brick responds with indifference before heading to the gallery door to watch Big Daddy’s birthday fireworks. Big Daddy stops Brick. He says that they shouldn’t leave the conversation there, without being fully honest with each other. Brick says that he’s never lied to Big Daddy, but they’ve never truly talked to each other either. Big Daddy wants to continue the discussion about Brick’s drinking.
Big Daddy is more invested in the conversation than Brick is, showing how much he cares for his son, who doesn’t return the affection. Brick is also the only one in the play (other than Big Mama) who is not concerned about Big Daddy’s wealth. Big Daddy, well aware of his own material worth and the power that comes with it, is stumped by this indifference.
Big Daddy suggests that Brick goes back to sports announcing, but Brick responds that he hates to sit in a glass box watching games he can no longer play. Big Daddy comments that Brick started drinking when his friend Skipper died. There’s a silence for a few moments, and then Brick asks what Big Daddy is suggesting. Big Daddy says he’s suggesting nothing, but that Gooper and Mae suggested that there was something off about Brick’s friendship with Skipper. Brick loses his composure, asking who else has made the suggestion.
Brick again shows regret that he’s no longer as athletic as he once was. This nostalgia is painful to him and he has trouble letting go of the past, as evidenced by his ankle injury on the track field. But now Big Daddy really starts to push, probing into what he suspects to be the real source of Brick's alcoholism: Skipper's death. Brick's fear that people are talking about how "off" his friendship with Skipper was indicates his related fears about his own possible homosexuality and his fear that what he thought of as pure society will think of as being dirty.
Brick yells at Big Daddy for accusing him, his son, of being a queer. As Big Daddy denies this, Reverend Tooker steps in to look for the bathroom. Big Daddy directs him on his way, and continues talking. He says he’s seen a lot in his life, and that the previous plantation owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, had a special relationship. When Jack Straw died, Ochello stopped eating and died too. Brick wheels around and throws his glass across the room, shouting at Big Daddy. Completely losing his composure, Brick accuses Big Daddy of insinuating that Brick and Skipper performed sodomy together. He charges Big Daddy with comparing Brick and Skipper to a pair of dirty old men like Ochello and Straw. Brick drops his crutch and falls without noticing the pain, while Big Daddy helps him up, trying to calm him down.
The characters of this play have an uncanny way of intruding when conversations of reaching their most critical points. Reverend Tooker’s interruption, in particular, is timely, since Big Daddy and Brick are debating homosexuality, a taboo subject (especially when it comes to religion). And Brick is very affected by the taboo nature of the subject—he seems to feel shame both that others might think he performed "sodomy" and to fear that perhaps he did have homosexual feelings. It's Brick who sees homosexuality as dirty. Interestingly, Big Daddy seems less concerned. He seems to bring up Ochello and Straw not to attack Brick (which is how Brick takes it) but to say that this is something that happens in life. Notice here how now when Brick loses his crutch his father tries to help him, support him.
Brick says that there was a pledge at his former fraternity who was found attempting to do an “unnatural thing” and was chased off campus. The pledge fled all the way to North Africa. Brick asks why true friendship between two men can’t be respected as something pure and decent. Big Daddy once again says that it’s hard to talk, but instead of letting it go, he asks why Skipper started drinking. Brick decides he’s going to tell Big Daddy the truth about the health report. First, though, he grabs another drink and starts telling Big Daddy his version of what happened with Skipper. He says that Margaret was jealous of their friendship and started planting in Skipper the idea that he was in love with Brick, and Skipper went to bed with Maggie to prove it wasn’t true. When that didn’t work out, however, he believed it was true.
The treatment of the pledge in Brick's past deeply affected him, and made clear deeply embedded society’s homophobia in his mind. But Big Daddy pushes on, trying to uncover Brick's wounds, to truly communicate. But Brick sees this effort to talk about "inadmissible things" as an attack and decides to attack himself by revealing the truth that Big Daddy doesn't know. First, though, Brick gives a version of Skipper's death that mimics Maggie's earlier version of it. And which makes Maggie the guilty party—the liar who turned Brick and Skipper's friendship into something dirty, by convincing Skipper of her lies.
Big Daddy continues to press Brick, believing that he purposefully left something out of the story. Finally, Brick admits that Skipper called Brick long-distance to give a drunken confession of love, and Brick hung up on him. That was the last they spoke to each other. Big Daddy tells Brick that his disgust is really with himself for digging the grave of his friend before he’d face the truth with him.
Big Daddy senses some dishonesty in Brick’s story and pushes for the truth. Brick reveals that his difficulty communicating or event talking about homosexuality (in this case hanging up the phone) led to his friend’s death. Big Daddy observes that Brick's disgust with liars is actually disgust with himself, as he was unable or unwilling to face the truth of his relationship with Skipper, whatever that truth was.
Brick says that no one—Big Daddy included—can face the truth. Brick blurts out that everyone but Big Daddy knows the truth of the health report, for example. As Big Daddy faces this revelation, Brick swings around on his crutches, finally escaping to the gallery. Big Daddy shouts for Brick, and Brick returns to apologize, admitting it’s hard for him to understand that anyone cares whether they live or die anymore. Big Daddy passionately condemns all liars before leaving the room and retreating down the hall. Down the hall, there is the sound of a child being slapped. It runs through the room, crying, and out of the hall door.
Big Daddy imagines himself as the bringer of truth. But now he must face the truth himself. And while the truth drives Brick to alcoholism, it drives Big Daddy to grief and rage. Brick is beyond caring about living or dying; but that is all that Big Daddy cares about. And now he must face both his imminent death but also—as his rage at liars shows—the understanding that the people around him knew, and whether out of "love" or selfishness, were making him into something ridiculous—a dying man who did not know it, being preyed upon by those he considers beneath him. The slap of the child is ambiguous, but it can be argued that it demonstrates the way that rage and violence are passed down, or that Big Daddy can't stand the idea of a child living on while he himself dies.