Brick is taking a shower in the bedroom he shares with his wife, Maggie. Maggie enters and undresses, complaining that one of his brother Gooper's children hit her with a hot buttered biscuit. They are no better than animals at a country fair. Gooper and his wife Mae have been having them perform for Big Daddy, incessantly reminding him of their own childlessness. They are trying to cut Brick out of the estate now that Daddy is dying of cancer.
Maggie lowers the shades and continues, saying that Brick is only aiding and abetting Gooper and Mae in their scheme with his drinking and much-publicized stunt last night on the high school athletic field. Brick broke his ankle jumping hurdles. Maggie is confident of their advantage. Big Daddy dotes on Brick, abhors Gooper and his "monster of fertility" of a wife and has a "lech" for Maggie herself.
The children scream downstairs. Maggie's smile fades when she notices Brick is oblivious to her. This constant rejection makes her humor bitchy. She recounts how Gooper and Mae plied Daddy at the dinner table and tactlessly kept exchanging tactical signals, how they affect refinement because of Mae's family name and crown as the Memphis cotton carnival queen, and an anecdote about a former queen getting a mouthful of tobacco in the eye during the parade.
Suddenly Maggie catches sight of Brick staring at her in the mirror and starts. She asks why he looks at her that way. She knows she has undergone a "hideous transformation," become hard and frantic. She is lonely, since living with someone you love, who does not love you back, is lonelier than living alone. When Brick asks if she would like to live alone, Maggie gasps and attempts to resume ordinary conversation.
Asking if Brick enjoyed his shower, she offers him an alcohol or cologne rub. Brick replies that he is no longer in shape. Maggie replies that he remains the only drunk she knows who has yet to lose his looks—he maybe even looks better. He has always looked "enviably cool." Maggie recalls that drinking was beginning to soften up Skipper, and stops short.
She recalls how Brick was the most wonderful lover in his indifference, his perfect calm. She would stab herself in the heart if she knew he would never sleep with her again. Maggie is determined to win, however. "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?" she asks. "Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can "
Maggie asks if Brick was thinking of Skipper when he was looking at her a moment ago. Brick takes a quick drink and dries his hair. Maggie refuses to follow the "laws of silence," because in silence, things fester, become malignant. Brick drops his crutch, and Maggie offers her shoulder. With sudden lightning, he demands his crutch. Maggie smirks at the crack in Brick's composure. He coolly replies that he just hasn't gotten drunk enough to get the click in his head that lets him feel peaceful.
Cat begins with a scenario familiar to Williams's readers, presenting a hysterical, dissatisfied woman who prostrates herself before a man.
Against the indifferent Brick, the frantic Maggie is the image of a woman falling to pieces. Note in particular how Williams emphasizes Maggie's relation to the image of femininity throughout Act I. Here she appears changing her clothes, posing before the mirror, and preparing herself for the party. She is at her most seductive and most vulnerable, utterly unable to lure her husband's desire. His gaze of disgust freezes her in the glass—note Williams's use of the pause here—and precipitates her "hideous transformation" into "Maggie the Cat."
As the woman in the mirror, Maggie becomes the most fascinating character of the play. Williams indicates that she holds the audiences transfixed. Her frustrated desire drives the act forward. Indeed, the exhilaration of Williams's dramaturgy so often lies in the force of the audience's identification with heroines like Maggie, women desperate in their sense of lack, women masochistically bound to men who do not want them for reasons, women who would appear all the more beautiful in their envy, longing, and dispossession. As she tells Brick, if he was to never make love to her again, she would stab herself in the heart.
Maggie's dispossession also lies not only in her husband's indifference but in her childlessness as well. Certainly her childlessness calls her status as wife, and "normal" woman, into question. Without a child, her and Brick's place in Big Daddy's household is not secure. This crisis is immediately precipitated by Daddy's imminent death. The child here functions entirely to assure their bid as Daddy's rightful heirs.
The question of childlessness underpins Maggie's bitter rivalry with her and Brick foils or doubles: Mae and Gooper. Within Cat then, fertility, the family, and, to some extent, the mother, will appear hilariously grotesque. Mae and Gooper have spawned a litter of "no-necked monsters" fit for the county fair.
In contrast to the frantic Maggie, Brick would locate himself on the far side of this family drama. On the brink of deliquescence, he possesses the charm of those who have given up and assumed a pose of indifference before the world. Brick embodies an almost archetypal masculinity. Before this "Brick," Maggie can only find herself in the throes of desire. As Maggie laments, Brick's enviable coolness made him the most wonderful lover. As we will see, it also casts aspersions on his sexuality.
Though enviably cool, Brick is also an obviously broken man, ruined by inadmissible desires. Note in particular how he stumbles through the play, continually dropping his crutches or losing them at the hands of others. As we will see, Brick's injury functions as a symbol of his unmanning or, more precisely, castration. Here it will enable Maggie to raise the question of the unmanly desires he keeps under wraps. Maggie's refusal to abide by the "laws of silence," her repression, begins to crack his wall.
The scene also introduces us to setting for the entire play, the bed-sitting room of Big Daddy's manor. Though all of Williams's stage notes merit careful consideration, we should be sure to mark the setting's explicitly symbolic elements. First the room formerly belonged to the plantation's original owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, and Williams writes that the ghost of their love haunts the room. Brick and Maggie's bed, the place where, as Big Mama will observe, the rocks in their marriage lie, was originally theirs.
Second, a gloriously grotesque console, combining a radio-phonograph, television, and liquor cabinet, towers over the room. As Williams notes, it serves as shrine to the "comforts and illusions" behind which people hide from the things the characters face. Mark especially then the moments when Brick will go to the console and, for example, turn on the radio, refresh his drink, and onward, raising a screen between him and the world.