Margaret marches into the bedroom, undressing, while Brick showers in the connecting bathroom. She complains that one of Gooper’s “no-neck monsters” hit her with a hot buttered biscuit, so she has to change. Brick finishes his shower and reluctantly engages in the conversation, supporting himself on the towel rack as he does so because he has a broken ankle. Margaret continues to complain about Mae and Gooper (Brick's brother) and their five kids while standing in her slip.
As Margaret talks, Brick barely answers or listens, introducing the audience to how difficult the act of communicating will be throughout the play. Margaret in her slip—and yet ignored by Brick—suggests the coming theme of (frustrated) sexuality. While Brick's ankle, the way he can't just stand upright, suggests his brokenness.
Margaret says that Mae and Gooper aim to cut Brick out of Big Daddy’s estate, now that they have a report confirming that Big Daddy is dying of cancer. She continues to complain about Brick’s behavior, which she says is only making it easier for Mae and Gooper to make a case against giving him part of the inheritance. Brick has quit work, started drinking, and just last night he injured his ankle while attempting to jump hurdles on the high school track field.
Margaret introduces the play’s immediate scenario, which revolves around Big Daddy’s cancer and his wealth. Margaret is trying to prevent Gooper and Mae from cutting her and Brick out of the inheritance, and this desire to accumulate wealth brings the family together in one place. Brick, meanwhile, is clearly in some sort of freefall.
However, Margaret says that Brick still has one big advantage—Big Daddy dotes on him and dislikes Gooper and Mae. Margaret also suspects that Big Daddy has a “lech” for her, from the way he stares at her body when she’s talking to him. She continues to tell Brick about the details of last night’s supper, how odious Mae and Gooper were, talking about their children, and how little Big Daddy seemed to care. Brick doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the conversation, however. Margaret continues on, talking about how Gooper believes he took a step up on the social ladder by marrying Mae, when in reality, her family was only money, and then they lost that too.
As Margaret talks, Brick barely pays attention, and the constant rejection only pushes her to talk more and act cattier. Margaret is very aware of the wealth and status of those around her, including Mae’s background. Margaret also introduces the theme of sexuality when she mentions Big Daddy’s “lech” for her, pointing to her own physical attractiveness, which she hopes Brick will notice.
As Margaret continues to make fun of Mae’s title as a former cotton carnival queen, she suddenly notices the way that Brick is staring at her. Frightened, she asks Brick why he’s looking at her like that. Brick claims that he wasn’t conscious of looking at her, but Margaret continues to speak. She says that she’s aware that she’s gone through a transformation and become thick-skinned and mean.
Margaret alludes to the fact that she used to act differently—nicely—but circumstances have forced her to change. Her reaction to Brick’s stare also emphasizes how much distance there is between them and how little they understand each other.
When Margaret recovers and gets Brick’s attention again, she tells him that she gets lonely. Brick tells her that everyone gets lonely, but Margaret continues, informing him that living with someone you love can be lonelier than living alone, when the person you love doesn’t love you back. Brick asks whether she would like to live alone, and Margaret vehemently says no—before turning the conversation to more ordinary matters. She asks Brick whether he had a nice shower and offers him an alcohol or cologne rub. Brick says that cologne rubs are nice after a workout, but he hasn’t been working out lately.
Brick rejects all of Margaret’s advances, returning none of the affection that Margaret shows him. In fact, when Margaret mentions that she’s lonely, rather than offering comfort, Brick asks her whether she’d like to live alone, forcing Margaret to change the topic and reel in her feelings. All conversation between the two is very strained, particularly as Brick makes no effort to engage or be pleasant.
Margaret replies that it’s impossible to tell he hasn’t been working out—in fact, she thinks he might have gotten better looking since he started to drink. She starts to mention Brick’s friend Skipper before abruptly interrupting herself and apologizing. She starts reminiscing about how wonderful Brick was as a lover and says that if she thought he would never make love to her again, she would find a knife and stab herself in the heart. She hasn’t given up hope, however, and compares herself to a cat on a hot tin roof—trying to stay on the roof as long as she can.
At this moment, as in other moments in the play, the past seems like a much better place than the present. It sounds like Margaret was once happy with their marriage, but circumstances changed, and Brick no longer returns her love. The topic of Skipper is yet another subject Margaret knows she should not talk about, yet another obstacle in conversation, yet another secret or repressed issue.
Margaret again asks what Brick was thinking of when he was looking at her. She asks whether he was thinking of Skipper, and Brick ignores her, as Margaret informs him that the “laws of silence don’t work.” Brick drops his crutch, and when Margaret tells him to lean on her instead, he loses his temper, yelling that he doesn’t want to lean on her shoulder. Margaret hurriedly hands him his crutch.
Margaret tells Brick that they mustn’t shout because the walls have ears—but she believes that a crack in his composure is a good sign. Brick smiles over a new drink he has poured for himself and says he only lost his temper because the “click” hasn’t happened yet. He explains that he gets a “click” that makes him peaceful after he’s had enough to drink.
Brick’s alcoholism is yet another roadblock in his ability to communicate with others. He uses alcohol as a means of dulling his senses and cares about little else, waiting for his “click.”
Brick asks Margaret for a favor and tells her to keep her voice down. Margaret whispers that she’ll keep her voice down if he agrees to make this drink his last until after Big Daddy’s birthday party, which Brick has forgotten about. She tries to get Brick to sign a card for his present to Big Daddy so that Big Daddy won’t know that Brick forgot his birthday, but Brick resists.
His exchange with Margaret continues to be tense, as he asks her to be quiet so that he can focus on his “click.” He is such a drunk that he has forgotten his own father's birthday. And yet Margaret doesn't care that he has forgotten, just that he make it seem like he didn't so they still have a chance at the money. It is noteworthy that Brick resists lying.
Brick says that they decided on certain conditions when Brick agreed to continue living with Margaret, but Margaret retorts that they aren’t living together—just occupying the same cage. She interrupts their argument when she hears footsteps in the hall.
The conditions Brick mentions seem to imply lack of physical contact and not talking about certain things. Note also how physically difficult communication is in the Pollitt household, with frequent interruptions like this one, with Mae coming down the hall.
Mae enters, carrying the bow of an archery set. She asks whether it belongs to Brick, and Margaret responds that the bow is her Diana Trophy, won at an intercollegiate archery contest. Mae reproaches her for leaving such a dangerous item around children, and a tense exchange ensues as Margaret puts away the bow. Mae tells Brick about her children’s musical performance for Big Daddy after supper, and Margaret asks why Mae’s children all have dogs’ names—Dixie, Trixie, Buster, Sonny, Polly. Mae asks Margaret why she’s so catty, and Margaret responds that she’s a cat. Mae starts to explain her children’s names before someone downstairs calls her away.
Mae and Margaret’s relationship is another in which communication fails, though neither party really tries. They both see the other as competition for Big Daddy’s inheritance, so their exchanges are full of catty remarks and only slightly masked insults. Margaret’s Diana Trophy also references her past, before she was attached to this family and marriage. Even back then, Margaret was a determined hunter, as her trophy, named after the Greek goddess of the hunt, symbolizes. The trophy predicts the determination Margaret has to get what she wants in the play. Though it's significant, too, that Diana was also the goddess of virginity, perhaps symbolizing both Margaret's former purity and, ironically, her current forced "virginity" due to Brick's refusal to sleep with her.
Brick tells Margaret that being catty doesn’t help matters, and Margaret says she knows that—but she’s eaten up with longing and envy. Brick tells her that she’s spoiling his liquor with her voice, and Margaret says that she feels all the time “like a cat on a hot tin roof.” Brick’s response is that cats can jump off roofs and land on their feet—he advises her to jump and take a lover. She says that she can’t see other men and wishes Brick would get fat or ugly so that she could stand their lack of a sex life.
Brick's liquor is both a symbol of and means to achieve his escape from the world. By saying she is spoiling his liquor with his voice indicates how his escape is predicated on not communicating. Meanwhile, Margaret again openly pines for Brick, to Brick’s annoyance. It’s this constant rejection that makes her feel like a “cat on a hot tin roof,” constantly jumpy and tense, just trying to hold on.
Margaret locks the door, and Brick tells her not to make a fool of herself. He tells her that she agreed to conditions, and she screams that she can’t accept them and seizes his shoulder. He breaks away from her and grabs a small chair to block her. They pause before breaking into laughter, at which point Big Mama calls through the door.
Margaret acts on her frustrations and tries to use force to get Brick to return her affections, while Brick physically shields himself from her. It is not a coincidence that he uses a chair the way a lion-tamer does. Though they laugh, nothing is resolved. And even in this intense moment, Big Mama interrupts them at the door. The house makes uninterrupted communication impossible.
Big Mama says she has wonderful news about Big Daddy. Margaret opens the door while Brick hobbles into the bathroom, but Big Mama meanwhile has entered through the other entrance, Gooper and Mae’s gallery door. Big Mama tells Brick to come out of the bathroom so that she can give him the good news. Meanwhile, she comments on Margaret wearing only a slip, and Margaret explains that one of Gooper and Mae’s children used her dress as a napkin. Big Mama accuses Margaret of disliking children, but Margaret denies it—she says she just likes well brought up children. Big Mama responds that she ought to have some of her own then and bring them up well.
Big Mama comes in to bring news about Big Daddy, but Margaret’s slip and the fact that Brick has hidden himself away distract her. Again, communication is delayed. The conversation here also furthers the sense of competition between Margaret and Gooper and Mae, as Margaret seems to be trying to make Mae and Gooper look bad in Mama's eyes. The discussion of children also foreshadows the end of the play.
Big Mama yells for Brick again and then discloses that the results of Big Daddy’s health report were all negative—he’s in fine condition, save for a “spastic colon.” Big Mama is disappointed with Brick’s lack of response, saying that she fell on her knees when she heard the news. She tells them to get dressed, since everyone’s coming up to their room to celebrate, on account of Brick’s broken ankle. One of the black servants interrupts to say that there’s a Miss Sally on the phone, and Big Mama shouts into the phone before passing it on to Margaret to deliver the news about Big Daddy’s health report.
Brick continues to hide himself away from the world, refusing even to speak with his mother. This section is full of miscommunication and confusion, as Big Mama gives her news to an unresponsive Brick and Miss Sally interrupts the scene with her phone call. Meanwhile, Mama's news about Big Daddy's health report introduces the idea of death—in this case it seems to be death avoided.
As Big Mama leaves the room, she jerks her finger towards the liquor cabinet to ask whether Brick’s been drinking, and Margaret pretends not to understand. Big Mama rushes back and tells her to stop playing dumb. Margaret laughs and answers that he might have had a highball after supper. Big Mama tells her not to laugh and that Brick started drinking after he got married. She asks whether Margaret makes Brick happy in bed, to Margaret’s indignation. Pointing at the bed, Big Mama that when a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there—and leaves the room with Margaret feeling alone and fuming. Margaret rushes to the mirror and asks, “Who are you?” She answers herself in a high voice: “I am Maggie the Cat!”
Big Mama makes assumptions about Margaret and Brick’s relationship that make it difficult for Margaret to communicate the truth of the situation—that it’s in fact Brick who does not make her happy in bed. And, as will be revealed, the rocks in their marriage are to a large degree in their bed. Margaret’s unhappiness stems from the fact that she not only has to deal with Brick’s lack of affection for her, but also his family’s. As she looks in the mirror she seems to be losing hold of herself. She sees herself becoming permanently the tight, jumpy cat.
Margaret straightens when Brick exits the bathroom. She announces that she believes their sex life will revive as suddenly as it stopped, and that’s why she keeps herself attractive. She says that other men still look at her and recounts the story of one good-looking man who tried to force his way into a powder room with her at a party. Brick asks why she didn’t let him in, and she responds that she’s not that common and also wouldn’t risk letting anyone catch her cheating. She doesn’t want to give him any excuse to divorce her. Brick responds that he’d be relieved to know that she took a lover, but Margaret says that she’ll take no chances—she’d rather stay on her hot tin roof.
Margaret tries to make Brick realize how attractive she is by recounting how other men find her attractive. Brick is still indifferent, however, and even pushes her to take a lover, which she refuses to do. She’s determined to hang on and get what she wants. It is never entirely clear whether Maggie's refusal to do anything to let Brick divorce her results from her love for him or her desire to gain Big Daddy's money through him. It may be that the answer is both.
Brick tells Margaret that she could leave him, but she refuses and adds that he wouldn’t have a cent to pay for it except for what he gets from Big Daddy, who’s dying of cancer anyway. Brick looks surprised and says that Big Mama reported that the results were good. Margaret reveals that both Big Mama and Big Daddy were given a false story and that Big Mama will find out the truth after the night’s party. In any case, the cancer is malignant, and this is why Gooper and Mae have been trying to convey Brick and Maggie’s shortcomings to Big Daddy before he makes a will.
Margaret reveals the play’s big lie—that Big Daddy doesn’t have cancer. He does! His coming death has been hidden—been repressed. Big Daddy is dying, and Mae, Gooper, and Margaret are all vying for a piece of his wealth. Brick, meanwhile, had been completely taken in by the lie. This will become more important in hindsight, as Brick's hatred of lying is revealed in Act II.
Margaret says that she’ll defeat Gooper and Mae though. She launches into a rant about having been poor all her life, always having to kiss up to relatives she didn’t like, just because they had money. She says this is why she’s like a cat on a hot tin roof—it’s one thing to be young and poor, but she doesn’t want to be old and poor too.
Margaret gets visibly upset again, moving restlessly about the room as she says that she made her fatal mistake when she told Brick about the “thing with Skipper.” Brick warns her to stop talking about Skipper, but Maggie continues. She says that she and Skipper made love, but they both did it to feel closer to Brick. Brick says that Skipper is the one who told him first. Maggie doesn’t see why that matters and continues to speak, as Brick turns and calls to a little girl over the balcony, telling her to get everyone to come upstairs now. Margaret says that she couldn’t stop herself from speaking, even if everyone were there.
Margaret brings up the past with Skipper again, and Brick does everything he can to try and stop her, even inviting everyone upstairs when just few moments earlier he couldn't bear even to talk to his mother. At first it seems that Brick can't face the infidelity of his wife, but as she explains that both she and Skipper loved Brick it becomes clear that he can't deal with the possible homosexual aspect to his friendship with Skipper. His comment that Skipper revealed the infidelity to Brick first is an attempt to redeem Skipper, to make him good and pure. Margaret's refuses to give into to Brick's attempt to repress the past.
Margaret remembers a double date they had in school, during which it seemed more like Skipper and Brick were on a date, and the girls were chaperoning. Brick interrupts the memory, threatening to hit her with his crutch. He says that his friendship with Skipper was the one true thing in his life, and he accuses her of making it dirty. Margaret denies this and says she’s aware that only Skipper ever harbored even unconscious sexual feelings for Brick. She reminisces about the beginning of their marriage, which was ideal and happy, but adds that eventually something turned bad. Skipper started drinking, and one evening, Margaret drank with him before accusing him of loving her husband. He slapped her and later that night, they made love—afterwards, Skipper gave in completely to drinking.
Now the tension really starts to come out. Margaret's story makes clear Skipper's love for Brick. While Brick uses his crutch—his only support in his physical brokenness—to try to shut Margaret up and in so doing preserve his only support in his spiritual brokenness—the idea that his friendship with Skipper was pure and true and had no homosexual overtones. Margaret seems to think that Skipper was the only one who harbored such feelings—and that it was sleeping with her that made him turn completely to drink and then to die. But Brick's desperation to shut her up suggests that perhaps that isn't true.
Brick continues to try to attack Margaret with his crutch as she tells this story. She says that she knows what she did was wrong, but that Skipper is dead and she’s alive. Brick hurls his crutch at her and misses, just as Mae and Gooper’s daughter Dixie runs into the room with a cap pistol and shouts, “Bang, bang, bang!” Breathless, Margaret tells her that someone ought to teach her manners.
Like the earlier interruptions by Mae and Big Mama, this one also arrives in the middle of an intense exchange between Brick and Margaret, which doesn’t allow them to carry the conversation any further. Margaret urges Brick to let go of the past—the ghost of Skipper—so that he can be with her in the present. It's interesting that the child bursts into the scene shooting an imaginary gun, doing imaginary killing. The children seem to pick up the violence inherent in the family. Also note that Big Daddy's "children"—Gooper, Mae, Margaret, all seem to want him to die so they can get his dough.
Ignoring Margaret, Dixie asks Brick why he’s on the floor. Brick responds that he tried to kill her Aunt Margaret, but failed, and asks Dixie to fetch his crutch for him. Margaret explains that Brick broke his ankle trying to jump hurdles on the high school track field, and when Dixie asks Brick why he was jumping hurdles, he replies that people like to do what they used to do, even when they’ve stopped being able to do it.
Brick’s surprisingly honest response to the child reveals how much he still lives in the past. He wants to go back to his days as an athlete, throwing footballs with Skipper, when their friendship was pure, good and (in Brick's mind) uncomplicated. His jumping hurdles was a drunken attempt to go back to those times. But you can't go back; and he broke his ankle trying.
Margaret tells Dixie to go away, and Dixie points the cap pistol at Margaret, who loses her temper and yells for Dixie to get out. Dixie says that Margaret’s just jealous because she can’t have children herself. This leaves Margaret shaken, and after Dixie exits, Margaret tells Brick that she went to see a gynecologist in Memphis, and the doctor confirmed that she can bear children. Brick says he doesn’t know how she’s going to have a child by a man who can’t stand her, and Maggie responds that she’ll figure it out. She wheels around and announces that everyone is coming up to the room now.
Clearly, Dixie has either absorbed what Mae has been saying or been conscripted to help her mother in her "battle" with Maggie. The exchange also once again highlights the issue of children, and along with Maggie's efforts to make sure that she can conceive makes it clear that Big Mama's earlier comment about children was not idle: Maggie bearing Brick a child would play a role in Big Daddy giving them his money. Brick's sexual rejection of Maggie is therefore doubly an issue for her: it hurts her emotionally and sexually, and also affects her ability to get the money she craves. Now it is Maggie looking to stop the conversation by using others as an interruption.