History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/American Post-WWII
- 1 Tennessee Williams
- 2 Arthur Miller
- 3 William Inge
- 4 Sam Shepard
- 5 David Mamet
- 6 August Wilson
- 7 TS Eliot
- 8 Carson McCullers
- 9 Robert Anderson
- 10 Lorraine Hansberry
- 11 William Gibson
- 12 Edward Albee
- 13 Paul Zindel
- 14 Mart Crowley
- 15 Joseph A Walker
- 16 AR Gurney
- 17 Bernard Pomerance
- 18 Beth Henley
- 19 Marsha Norman
- 20 Donald Margulies
Among American playwrights after World War II, Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) figures predominantly with "The glass menagerie" (1944), "A streetcar named desire" (1947), and "Summer and smoke" (1948).
"The glass menagerie" "translated a depression story into a sensitive character drama. It gave evocative realization to the ineffectual struggles of a small family- a seedy Southern woman who clung to the memory of better days, her painfully shy crippled daughter for whom the mother tried to find 'a gentleman caller', and a restive poetic son who, tiring of perpetual nagging, ran away from home after the tragi-comic fiasco of bringing an already affianced young man for his sister" (Gassner, 1954, pp 698-699). Berkowitz (1992) commented that "rather than rejecting Amanda and Laura as misfits, we [should] cherish them as beautiful alternatives to the ordinary" (p 89). However, such an attitude reduces the sadness inherent in Laura's failure to find her man. "Laura retreats into her world of illusion, in which a menagerie of glass animals stands as symbol of her fragility. Poignantly and tenderly drawn, Laura has little chance of a life independent of her overbearing mother, who thrives on memories of a romantic youth in which she was the lady of choice to a gaggle of gentleman callers. The play, which is offered as a memory, is both powerful and sad, capturing the spirit and the longing of one who now lives on the edge of poverty but who has known a finer life" (Schlueter, 2000, p 299). “Laura is incapable of adopting the role of the belle. Her intense sexual frustration combined with her father’s abandonment and her mother’s tyranny have produced such a fragile sense of self that she is utterly incapable of the kind of projection required in the coquettish behaviors Amanda prescribes…Amanda understands the social and economic realities of their world, and, by modeling the role of the belle, she attempts to teach her daughter an important survival technique” (Hovis, 2011 p 179). Because of the tediousness of his job, Tom rejects "society's demands on working, self-sufficient, upwardly mobile young people" and so abandons mother and sister in favor of his own happiness (Greenfield, 1982 p 122). Such critics have an overly negative opinion of Jim in that "his values hold out a false hope for a wonderful America" (p 123) when his values have no direct influence on the plot. Likewise, Fleche (1997) finds Jim's associations funny when he equates knowledge with money and power; there is also a fear that "science's explanations imply an insidious will to mastery" (p 85). Granted that Jim represents a false hope for the Wingfields, that does not mean his ideas, irrelevant to Laura's fate, are false. A positive view of Jim was expressed by Krasner (2006) in that Jim “exudes optimism”, “amuses everyone with his upbeat mood”, ‘believes in the future”, “does not let the Depression discourage him” (p 32).
In "A streetcar named desire", "before Blanche’s arrival, Stanley and Stella enjoyed, through compromise, an intimate, happy marriage, and in this could be said to have achieved a degree of civilization, of humanity, unequaled by the DuBoises of Belle Reve; before Blanche’s arrival, Stanley also enjoyed the best of friendships with Mitch, who in some ways is as sensitive and in need of understanding as Blanche" (Cardullo, 2016 p 90). When Blanche arrives via "A streetcar named desire", Stanley immediately resents her presence, viewing her as a threat in reminding Stella "of their past prior refinement and sophistication" (Krasner, 2006 p 41). "Blanche stands for idealism, culture, purity, and the love of beauty, but also for falsehood, fantasy, weakness, and the rejection of unpleasant reality" (Berkowitz, 1992 p 90). Blanche is the southern belle clashing in the new south, a more hostile environment than the old south she is used to, when “ante-bellum days represent an ideal of gracious living, an ideal that includes a code of personal honor extending into every area of his experience...So Blanche appears high-strung and sensitive, on one hand, but exploiting the Kowalskis’ resources and willing to destroy her sister’s marriage, on the other. As in her youth, she plays the coquette, requesting Stanley to button up her dress, teaching Mitch how to present flowers by bowing first, dropping a French word or two. But when a tempting newsboy enters, coyness turns to downright kissing. Yet clinging to the old ways governs her mind when she refuses to bed with Mitch, disillusioned after Stanley’s report of her past conduct, even when pre-nuptial copulation appears as her last hope. The situation worsens when instead of submitting to Mitch’s love she is raped by Stanley, the opposite Pole of southern gallantry. Nevertheless, at the end, the intruding imposter appears worthy of pity through accumulated maledictions: husband’s suicide, family deaths, loss of Belle Reve, job dismissal, and send-off to a psychiatric institution" (Porter, 1969, pp 154-173). The newsboy scene's "real poignancy, is its evocation of Blanche’s own lost innocence as well as her imagination and depth of feeling— an innocence or purity suggested by her very name (the feminine form of the adjective 'white' in French), which identifies her with the achromatic color white as opposed to Stanley’s primary colors and by her astrological sign, Virgo (for 'virgin'). We may see Blanche in the negative light of seductress here, but we should also see her in a positive light, as one who recognizes her own lost innocence (not accidentally, in the figure of a young man who recalls Allan Grey) and responds to it effusively. This is one way of explaining her turning to a seventeen-year-old boy for an affair in Laurel after her many 'intimacies' with men at the Hotel Flamingo: in turning to a boy, Blanche was attempting to return to her own youth when, with Allan, she 'made the discovery— love. All at once and much, much too completely” (Cardullo, 2016 p 100). "More than any major character in the early postwar years, Blanche embodies the conflicts of a changing world. A lover of poetry and music and ballroom taffeta, Blanche stands as a fading tribute to refined life unable to survive in Stanley Kowalski’s crude and raucous world. Herself a complicated woman, Blanche has memories of an ideal she may never herself have known and finds refuge in alcohol and lies" (Schlueter, 2000, p 300). Mitch’s rejection of Blanche is a cruel counterpart of her rejection of her homosexual husband (Featherstone, 2008 p 265). There is a doubleness about Blanche’s involvement with Mitch. In each case, she seems less interested in the affair for its own sake than in the ritual of romance in its relation to her first love, the defining relationship of her life…Similarly, she recognizes the possibilities for imaginatively evoking the past when she flirts with the newspaper boy” (Hovis, 2011 pp 178-182). “Blanche…calculates the effect of her performance on her various audiences…By contrast, Stella dispenses with the role of belle and speaks candidly to her husband, trusting him to respect her openness with commensurate tenderness and honesty. Stella fled Belle Reve and the example of her older sister perhaps because she recognized the dangers of performance. Unfortunately, Stella fails to recognize the dangers of not performing. Unlike Blanche’s, Stella’s passivity is real and Stanley takes advantage of it by intermittingly bullying her and by virtually denying her a voice in the affairs of their home. He invites his drinking buddies over for poker nights and ignores her objections. He physically and emotionally abuses her, even when she is pregnant- and afterward, to the chagrin of Blanche, Stella returns home to forgive and make love to her husband. When Stanley ultimately betrays Stella’s trust by raping her sister while Stella is in labor at the hospital, Stella passively accepts Stanley’s denial of Blanche’s report and even acquiesces to his demand that her sister be institutionalized for her delusions… Stella is confronted with the choice of choosing her husband or her sister. Stella chooses Stanley (Lewis, 1965 p 63). "In contrast to her sister, Stella already has her man, a southern belle content to submit to her husband’s lack of manners and to attend to household affairs in a degraded context. Stanley’s crude taste for say-what-I-think behavior extends to mother-dominated Mitch, who when heading towards the bathroom hears his friend say: 'Hurry back and we’ll fix you a sugar-tit.' For entertainment, he wants sex and 'getting the colored lights going', akin to a people’s taste for fireworks and kaleidoscopes. There is ironic contrast between words and acts. While Stanley dirties his sister-in-law’s reputation, Blanche takes a bath" (Corrigan, 1987, p 31). "When Blanche leaves for the insane asylum, and the oblivion attending it, at the end of Scene 11, Stanley remains behind with Stella: his way of life thus appears to have won out over his sister-in-law’s. But it is not that simple. Life for the Kowalskis will never be the same after Blanche’s departure, and Williams provides plenty of evidence for this conclusion in the final scene of the play— evidence that, once again, has hitherto mostly been ignored by critics. If the Mexican Woman of Scene 9 is the symbol of death, desire, and the past in A Streetcar Named Desire, then the newborn child of Scene 11 is the play’s symbol of life, maternity, and the future—for Stella, but not for the paternal Stanley. Stella’s absence from both Scene 9 and Scene 10 while she is giving birth, coupled with her reappearance onstage in Scene 11, serves to distance her in our minds from her husband and to pressure her relationship with him beyond the perimeters of the play. That Stella does not once speak to Stanley in the last scene of A Streetcar Named Desire (even when addressed by him one time) is indicative of the essential silence that will permeate the rest of their lives together" (Cardullo, 2016 p 97).
In "Summer and smoke", Alma, whose name evokes the soul, rejects the body in favor of the soul, whereas John does the reverse (Murphy, 2007 p 181). "I am more afraid of your soul than you are of my body," he confesses. They never meet because at the moment when Alma accepts the body, John has accepted Nellie, who seems to incorporate body and soul together. John Gassner (1954) understood the play as implying that Alma "loses her chance of love as a result of too much fastidiousness...Driven to desperation by ironically losing the man she had kept at a distance too long, Williams’ heroine makes an assignation with the first footloose person she meets. Frustration, painstakingly motivated by her sensitivity and her unhappy family life, starts the idealistic girl on a road that may have many widenings but will ultimately bring her to complete moral, as well as psychological, bankruptcy" (p 741). Ganz (1965) offered an opposite view of Alma's end. "Like Blanche [Dubois of "A streetcar named desire"], she is condemned to be tormented by the urges she had turned away from, and like Blanche she turns to promiscuity, but because her sin has been somewhat mitigated by her realization of it, there is a suggestion at the end of the play that the travelling salesman she has picked may lead her to salvation rather than destruction" (p 210). “Alma…moves from her rarefied world of genteel art, idealism and hysteria to a less idealized world of drugs and assignations with travelling salesmen. At the same time, John moves in the opposite direction, from dissipation in the violent shadows of the moon lake casino to a career of hard work, heroic medicine and cloying domesticity…[When] Alma and John consider the statue of Eternity…the word at the base of the statue is worn and can no longer be read…It is the juvenile Alma who introduces John to the physical pleasures of tactile understanding…Williams suggests that the way we encounter the boundlessness of the sublime is not by repudiating sexuality but by accepting it…[At the conclusion]…John, having rebelled against patriarchy, suddenly finds his patriarchal impulses become reality with his father’s death. After this, John assumes the patriarchal position and becomes the good doctor, husband and model citizen who repudiates Alma’s advances [as a fallen woman]” (Gross, 2002 pp 93-98). In yet another interpretation of the ending, we have “John marrying the conventional Nellie and Alma seducing a salesman, suggesting that the ultimate winner in every contest is a conservative, business-minded America” (Abbotson, 2011 pp 50-51).
In general, Feranow (2007) described Williams' plays as "character-driven drama in which the plot is submerged beneath the cumulative events in the lives of the characters. Plot points emerge suddenly, often surprisingly, and reveal hitherto unseen workings of the characters' psyches. This branch of realism is often identified with Chekhov...Added to the Chekhovian structure is the mark of Williams- a romantic attraction to the grotesque, the beautiful spirit in an ugly body, compassion for the broken, the miserable, and the deformed. The plays are neither unrelievedly grim nor the damaged characters doomed, as one would expect in a work by Sartre or Genet. The plays suggest a vague hope, if not redemption, resulting from the characters' suffering" (pp 425-426).
"The glass menagerie"
Time: 1930s. Place: St. Louis, USA.
During an evening at home with her son, Tom, and her daughter, Laura, Amanda Wingfield recalls her youth spent in the south, at Blue Mountain, when young women knew how to talk and gentleman callers were plentiful. She chaffs her daughter about the absence of gentleman callers for her this evening. "What, not one?" she queries ironically. The following day, Amanda is astonished, abashed, and humiliated on learning that Laura, whom she thought a student at a business college, has been spending all that time walking around the city. Laura vomited during a typing speed test and never returned. On his part, Tom often goes to the movies after drudging all day in a warehouse to support the family. Amanda asks him to find a man his sister might date. As her brother, he should be willing to help, because Laura does not appear to be apt to work, nor is she competitive for men's attention. She only seems interested in attending to her glass menagerie and listen to phonograph records. Tom asks a shipping clerk at the warehouse, Jim O'Connor, to come over to his house for dinner without mentioning Laura. Jim already makes more money than he does and appears to have a good future. Amanda queries Tom about Jim's habits and at length is satisfied. On the alley-way landing, "a poor excuse for a porch," according to Amanda, she hopes for the best. Before Jim arrives for dinner, Amanda tries to stuff Laura's breasts with a "deceiver", but she declines to use it. A perturbed Laura recognizes Jim as the boy she once loved in high school and has often thought about ever since. As he enters the house, she panics, leaving the room precipitously in fear. During the course of the evening, Amanda does most of the talking. She has herself prepared salmon but pretends it is Laura's work. When Laura is compelled to come back in, she feels faint and rests on the sofa. Suddenly, the lights go out because Jim has neglected to pay the light bill, spending instead for a shipman's union dues as a first step in moving away, because he does not want to be like those who look at movies instead of moving. After dinner, Laura is left alone with Jim. At ease with the world, Jim thinks she obviously lacks self-confidence. Laura shows him her glass menagerie. While hearing music from the dance hall across the alley, Jim proposes that they dance. While they dance, he clumsily bumps against the glass animals, knocking the unicorn to the floor and breaking off its horn. Jim is very sorry, but Laura says it does not matter. "Now it's just like the other horses," she concludes. As they grow friendlier, Jim reveals in passing he is engaged to be married. On learning this, Amanda is outraged at her son for not knowing in advance about Jim's engagement. After leaving the family and remembering that night's events, Tom advises his imaginary Laura to blow out her candles.
"A streetcar named desire"
Time: 1940s. Place: New Orleans, USA.
Blanche DuBois arrives at the house of her married sister, Stella Kowalski, to say that she lost their ancestral home in a mortgage, and has no place to stay. Stella's husband, Stanley, is suspicious of his sister-in-law's version and promises to investigate. Blanche meets Mitch, an unattached friend of Stanley at a poker game, and they sympathize. During the course of the night, as the women listen to music, a drunken Stanley tosses out the radio in the street and hits his wife, who first seeks refuge with a neighbor but then, to Blanche's amazement, goes back to him. He confronts Blanche after discovering that she was a regular at the Flamingo Hotel in the town of Laurel, a brothel, but then pretends to believe his informer must have been mistaken. Alone in the apartment, Blanche lets in a young man who collects money for a newspaper, and flirts with him. Despite this interlude, she and Mitch grow fond of each other. She tells him an anecdote from her youth, when she married a man only to discover he was a homosexual. He killed himself and she was left feeling guilty over the event. Mitch needs someone because his cherished mother is near death and he has no one else. On Blanche's birthday, Stanley informs Stella about her sister's wanton tendencies in Laurel. Stella calls her merely "flighty" and blames men's behaviors for the way she behaves. Undeterred, Stanley gives Blanche a one-way bus ticket as a birthday gift. Having learned from Stanley of Blanche's misrepresentations, Mitch does not at first show up at her party. When Mitch finally arrives, he attempts to sleep with her, what he "has been missing all summer", but his brutality makes her cry out until he leaves. With his wife in a hospital bed soon expected to give birth, Stanley chats amiably with Blanche but then his real intention becomes clear as he moves towards her in silk pajamas and carries her off to bed. The Kowalskis, knowing Blanche has no other place to go, alert a psychiatric institution about her plight. A doctor and a nurse arrive to take her away. She is disoriented and begs for sympathy. "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," she affirms while being led away. Suspecting that Stanley had raped her sister, guilt-ridden Stella nevertheless chooses to continue living to her husband than her sister.
"Summer and smoke"
Time: 1910s-1920s. Place: Glorious Hill, USA.
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Alma seeks to attract her neighbor, John, a handsome medical doctor, just arrived from a prestigious university. She is mocked by her demented mother, who waltzes before her and chants: "Alma's in love, in love." Alma manages to get John to a culture club, but he remains in the club only briefly. In difficulty to sleep, she consults John's father, Dr Buchanan, at 2 AM, but John prevents her from seeing him, diagnosing loneliness as her main trouble. One day, the two friends go out near a gambling casino, where he suggests that the two retire inside a rented room. But the suggestion offends her. "What made you think I might be amenable to such a suggestion?" she coldly asks. She hears a rumor about how John intends to marry the daughter of the owner of the casino, Rosa Gonzales, after having lost a good deal of money, that being the only way to recuperate his losses. A desperate Alma calls Dr Buchanan on the telephone to warn him of his son's intention. As a result, Buchanan orders Rosa and her father out of his house and insults them. Losing control of his anger, Gonzales shoots him to death. Racked by feelings of guilt, Alma confesses to John that she was the person who made the call. Though recognizing that Alma loves him, John dismisses her, specifying that to him she represents "nothing but hand-me-down notions, attitudes, poses". He leaves town to pursue medical research and succeeds in notable discoveries. When he returns, he engages himself to marry Nellie, a musical student of Alma's. Nellie is grateful to Alma, because her future husband revealed the fortunate influence she has had on him. Alma seeks John out one more time, now willing to experience life in the flesh after being reminded how she once refused him. "But now I have changed my mind," she says, "or the girl who said "no" she dosn't exist any more, she died last summer- suffocated in from something on fire inside her." But it is too late. While Alma has come round to his way of thinking, he has come round to hers. Alone in a winter park, she initiates conversation with a stranger and they head together towards the casino.
Arthur Miller (1915-2005) gained prominence with "Death of a salesman" (1949) and "The crucible" (1952).
To understand a play of the 1940s, one must be reminded that "'Death of a salesman' is set in a society that does not provide 'job security, health benefits, or provisions for retirement'" (Featherstone, 2008 p 230). Willy can be seen as a victim of the idea that money is the reward of virtue, as expressed by the clergyman, Horatio Alger (1832-1899), focal-point of the Protestant ethic, as well as the idea that wealth is essential to the growth of civilization, as expressed by the essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). “In Alger...the key to success is not genius or gentle breeding but character, enabling the common man to succeed in this life and the next as well as his children’s lives should he transmit his values. It is critical that the salesman, the link between producer and consumer, be well liked because he must sell himself as well as his products. Believing up to the end in financial success ideology, he commits suicide to give Biff a chance to succeed" (Porter, 1969 p 130). The force of the play "continues fitfully to grasp at us: the idea of a man who has sold things without making them, who has paid for other things without really owning them, who is an insulted extrusion of commercial society battling for some sliver of authenticity before he slips into the dark. And battling without a real villain in sight. Willy’s boss, Howard, comes closest to that role when he fires or retires Willy for poor performance, but Howard’s failing is not ruthlessness; it is lack of understanding" (Cardullo, 2016 p 163). "Willy Loman's own experience proves that...success is... not guaranteed to the well-liked or even the hard-working...Despite his growing realization that he does not want what the world calls success, Biff can only call himself a worthless failure for not having achieved it" (Berkowitz, 1992 p 80). Money as a reward for virtue is sometimes termed "Willy’s law". Driver (1966) complained that Willy’s law is not countered by another character representing some sort of “law of love” (p 111), because Biff only seeks in trying to make his father understand that his law is false without showing him a new one. Likewise, Bernard has only negative advice for Willy: “But sometimes, Willy, it’s better for a man just to walk away.” “Loman...never knew who he was. Lear did” (Kitchin, 1966 p 79). von Szeliski (1971) also criticized the meager ambitions and goals in modern attempts at tragedy relative to the Renaissance, commenting sarcastically that "'not being able to walk away' is Miller’s idea of tragedy" (p 173). Moreover, in the view of Stambusky (1968), Willy Loman fails as an Aristotelian figure of tragedy because his emotional stature is beneath that required and because, unlike Biff, who cries out that he is “a dime a dozen”, he never recognizes his flaw, equating success in life with success in getting money and estimating popularity among one’s peers of more importance than richness of intimate relations. Freedman (1971) agreed that Loman never discovers what his flaw is (p 45). His goals are limited. “All that Willy Loman wants is the middle-class apotheosis of success: a mortgage paid off, a car clear of debt, a properly working modern refrigerator, an occasional mistress, sons “well-liked” if uneducated and aimless” (p 79). “Willy’s attitudes towards his work undermine his capacity for self-knowledge...What Willy sells is never stated, so that he can represent all salesmen. Being well-liked is so critical to him that instead of selling only products, he sells his soul. Linda is puzzled over her husband’s suicide when the house is paid for and he only needed ‘a little salary’; it is because of the work pressure he submitted himself to, which consigned him as a failure. Although Willy wants his sons to emulate Ben’s success, he is floundering, uncertain how to teach his sons to succeed in the world, and during Ben’s visit they are caught stealing lumber from a construction site with Willy’s approval” (Greenfield, 1982 pp 102-111, 233-234). Hobson (1953) disagreed with critics' complaints about the play's common speech, pointing to the final scene when, bewildered, Linda says of her dead husband that "he only needed a little salary." "No man needs a little salary," Charley responds. "He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not coming back, that’s an earthquake." Hobson found the rhythm “moving and true” and on Charley’s comment on the theme of man cannot live on bread alone he wrote: "I never heard in an American play something wiser, better said, or better worth saying” and that Linda “touched depths of sadness and reached heights of royalty that passed beyond royal and purple speech” (Hobson, 1948 pp 122-123).
In "The crucible", "Proctor refuses to yield to those who would hold him guilty of trafficking with the devil. And though he signs a confession on his dying day, and later retracts it, he refuses to name names and, finally, champions as his highest value the honor of his name. By contrast, others in the community who are accused are persuaded that confession offers the only hope of redemption, and each in turn both admits complicity and names others" (Schlueter, 2000, p 303). "Abigail is driven by revenge on Proctor and fear of being punished for dancing. To reach her goals, she is willing to have people of her town slain and 'subvert the function of the law'..."The Putnams are motivated by greed, Parris and Cheever by power. Danforth is eventually faced with a dilemma. Twelve people have been hanged...pardon for the rest would be to admit judicial error, and so he sacrifices them for the greater good, for rebellion is stirring in a neighboring town and chaos threatening the theocracy" (Porter, 1969 pp 188-195).
"Death of a salesman"
Time: 1940s. Place: USA.
Text at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.86608 https://archive.org/details/twentyfivemodern001705mbp http://www.pelister.org/literature/ArthurMiller/ http://azactorsacademy.com/uploads/plays/death_of_a_salesman.pdf
After a disappointing business trip as a traveling salesman and feeling old, Willy Loman returns home where his wife, Linda, proposes that he should ask his boss to work locally. He agrees he should. Despite showing early signs of promise, their sons, Biff and Happy, have yet to succeed financially, in Willy's view of utmost importance. In turn, the sons are worried about their father's mental condition. He often mutters to himself and shows signs of possible thoughts of suicide. When Willy accuses his sons of shiftlessness, they inform him that Biff is about to obtain a lucrative business proposition. Not only is Willy unable to convince his boss of working at the home office but he also loses his job, all this at the hands of the son of the man who first hired him over thirty years ago. Meanwhile, Biff is unable to get a job offer from a supposed friend. In frustration, he steals the man's expensive fountain pen. Willy meets Bernard, Biff's childhood friend, who tells him that Biff was never the same after going to Boston in his youth. Willy knows why. It was there that his disillusioned son saw him in the company of an unknown woman at a hotel. After a trying day, Willy meets his sons at a restaurant to hear news and perhaps celebrate. Unwilling to hear of any sort of bad news concerning Biff, the brothers feel constrained to lie about Biff's success. While Willy washes up in the restaurant washroom, Biff suddenly leaves, so does his brother to pursue the alluring company of two unknown women. Angry and aggrieved at learning about her sons' behavior in the restaurant, Linda accuses her sons of heartlessness. When a frustrated Willy learns the truth about Biff's rejection, he accuses him of failing out of spite. Biff angrily shows him the electric cable Willy used in attempting suicide awhile ago, asking him whether that was meant to inspire pity for him. Willy pretends to know nothing about it. Biff divulges he was imprisoned for a few months for theft and lost other jobs because of it, a result of being unable to take orders from anybody because of his father's tendency to exaggerate his importance. "I'm a dime-a-dozen, and so are you," he shouts. "I'm Willy Loman and you're Biff Loman," Willy retorts, still believing that since he is a Loman, he must necessarily succeed. Conscious of his worsening mental condition, he nevertheless drives away and incurs a fatal road accident, a suicidal sacrifice to his family's welfare. At the funeral, Biff refuses to take the life insurance money so start a business career, but Happy decides he will follow his father's wishes.
Time: 1690s. Place: Salem, Massachusetts.
Reverend Parris' daughter, Betty, lies in bed unresponsive after he caught her dancing in the forest with her friends. She fears punishment while he fears his enemies will use this incident to bring him down if the girls called forth spirits. He questions Abigail, his niece, about this event, who admits only to dancing. But Thomas and Ann Putman are convinced there is witchery about, because their daughter, Ruth, is afflicted with the same condition as Betty. "It's death, y'know, it's death drivin' into them, forked and hoofed," Ann declares. She is convinced a black slave, Tituba, conversed with the dead to find out who murdered her seven babies who died at childbirth. Reverend Hale arrives from out of town to investigate the rumors of witchcraft. Abigail seizes this opportunity to accuse Tituba of conjuring. In the ongoing investigation, Giles Corey reveals that his wife reads books at night. "I'm not sayin she's touched the devil, now, but I'll admire to know what books she reads and why she hides them," he declares. The deeper the investigation probes into, the higher the number of suspects increases. John and Elizabeth Proctor learn from their servant, Mary, that 34 women have been arrested and at least one man, Osburn, is condemned to hang, accused by his servant, who had been turned away empty while begging for bread. For disobediently leaving the house, John raises his hand to whip Mary. To protect herself, she cries out that she saved his wife from suspicion after being accused by Abigail, their former servant, because, according to Elizabeth, Abigail desires to take her place as John's wife. More officials arrive and Elizabeth is charged with witchcraft after all, because a doll was found in her possession with a needle in it, after Abigail had been stuck that very night with a needle in her belly. In the Salem court-house, Corey pleads his case before Deputy Governor Danforth, defending his wife accused of witchcraft, far from his original intentions, for he only wanted to find the cause why his wife reads books. Corey, John, and Francis Nurse, all three men whose wives are charged with witchcraft, accuse on the basis of Mary's confession Abigail, Betty, Ruth, and others of fraud. Afraid of what may happen to his daughter and himself, Parris immediately disbelieves it. Although Hale, having signed 72 death-warrants, nervously wishes this accusation to be seriously examined, Danforth resists, so that Mary's version is disbelieved. When Danforth examines Elizabeth's case, the Proctors contradict themselves, he admitting to have copulated with Abigail, she, to defend his name, swearing he did not. As a result, she is condemned to die. A cornered Mary now points to John as "the devil's man" and joins her friends in crying out further accusations. Later, Danforth is deeply troubled on learning that Abigail and Mercy Lewis robbed Parris and escaped from the area in a ship. Twelve witches have already been hanged, partly on the basis on their accusations, yet he decides to continue the examinations. Since Elizabeth is pregnant, her condemnation is delayed. She begs her husband to admit he used witchcraft, but he refuses and is hanged.
In addition to Miller, indirect social commentary is prominent in the plays of William Inge (1913-1973), notably "The dark at the top of the stairs" (1957). Inge also wrote "Come back, little Sheba" (1950) and "Picnic" (1953). "Come back, little Sheba" "revealed insight into commonplace life and a capacity for transfiguring it into consuming pathos. The play dealt with a well-bred man’s sense of failure in marriage and his explosive alcoholism before he relapses into remorseful quiescence" (Gassner, 1954 p 740)
In "The dark at the top of the stairs", "the loss of his job forces Rubin to acknowledge his weakness towards a wife he has neglected in a world where economic progress has left him behind and where the future and his place in it are unknown. The dark symbolizes, in part, that fear of the unknown. When Rubin stands naked at the top of the stairs...and beckons Cora to come, his nakedness suggests acceptance of his vulnerability; now unafraid to reveal his weakness as well as strength to Cora, he knows she will provide the reassurance of physical love to bolster his self-respect" (Adler, 2007 p 166).
In general, Schlueter (2000) commented that "if there was a playwright who shared the respect of Miller and Williams in the fifties, not for innovation of form but for the sensitivity with which he dramatized the American family, it was William Inge...In this important cluster of plays, which had respectable runs on Broadway, Inge examines a large but typical cast of characters and relationships, repeatedly creating situations that dramatize the details of lives anesthetized by habit, dreams suffocated by compromise, and sexuality denied- the stuff of small-town America" (p 307).
"The dark at the top of the stairs"
Time: 1920s. Place: Oklahoma, USA.
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Before going to work as a traveling salesman, Rubin discovers that his wife, Cora, bought their daughter, Reenie, a party dress he considers too expensive. Husband and wife quarrel. He hits her and threatens never to come back. She considers moving in with her sister, Lottie, but the latter thinks that solution is impractical. Lottie has her own troubles, including the troubling fact of her not making love with her husband, Morris, for over three years, though admitting that this state is partly her fault. "I never did enjoy it as some women say they do," she admits. Renee is so anxious about going on a blind date with a stranger, Sammy, that she vomits at the thought. Because her mother is a movie actress, Sammy has been living in military academies throughout his life. He is very friendly with Renee's brother, Sonny, as they head to a party given by the rich Ralston family. On their way out, Cora asks her son to walk upstairs, but he is afraid of the dark, though not when someone is with him. The next day, Reenie lies to her mother over the fact that she left the party because Sammy went off to court other girls. When asked whether she would she have done as others do, she responds that Sammy "would not have liked me that way". "I'm just not hot stuff like the other girls," she adds. Sonny bursts into the room excitedly to announce that he won $5 for reciting at a tea-party. When his mother places the money in his piggy bank, he is offended and says he hates her. The family is stunned on learning that Sammy committed suicide. Cora insists that her daughter tell her what really happened. Reenie danced three straight times with Sammy, until she was ashamed of having no other boy ask her. "I just couldn't bear for Sammy to think that no one liked me," she confesses. She introduced him to the daughter of the house, but Mrs Ralston interrupted their conversation, exclaiming that she will tolerate no Jew dancing with her daughter. Rubin returns home to say he lost his job. He is sorry for having hit his wife, but becomes impatient again when she strongly suggests a position he may apply for in town instead of traveling. Nevertheless, they are reconciled. With a view of going to bed with his wife, Rubin gives his son money to go to the movies. Ashamed at the selfish way he has treated her, Sammy smashes his piggy bank to treat his sister to the movies. With her husband waiting for her at the top of the stairs, Cora ascends slowly, as if she were the shy maiden she once was.
Sam Shepard (1943-2017) achieved prominence with "Buried child" (1978), "Curse of the starving class" (1978), and "Fool for love" (1983).
Nash (1987) showed how "Buried child" reflects an agricultural ritual, the killing of the corn spirit in the winter of his life as described in James Frazer’s “The golden bough” (1890). "Dodge represents the corn spirit whose death is necessary to make the corn grow. He wishes his body to be burnt, akin to farmers setting fire to the figure, akin to the sun needed for growth. Vince may represent the murdered brother, Ansel, or the reincarnation of the buried child, Halie and Tilden’s incestuous progeny killed by Dodge. The reality of the state of the cornfield appears doubtful. On one hand, Tilden dumps the corn in Dodge’s lap as if brought from their field. On the other, Dodge and Halie deny cornfield growth so that Tilden appears to have either bought or stolen it, an unresolved matter" (Sauer 2011, pp 202-214). "Only after Dodge’s death does Halie see the growth, an indication of mental blindness whereby she somehow was impeded from seeing it before his crime. Miraculous vegetation may be seen as a symbol of Vince’s inheritance from Dodge" (Marranca and Dasgupta, 1981 p 108). Marranca and Dasgupta criticize the Alibi Club episode as “contrived” and the gangsters arriving to blow up the family car as imposing “a cartoon quality that doesn’t suit the play’s general landscape.” (p 107). But critics are often biased towards wanting and accepting likely events naturally issuing from a play’s initial premise, whereas real-life events are sometimes composed of unlikely events not necessarily issuing from the past. Shepard tends to emphasize madness as a theme: characters are mad, events are mad, the events not necessarily being a reflection of the characters’ psychology. In such plays, the most pleasing response is to sit back and wonder, not lean forward expecting that events will grow out of characters’ motivations.
In "Curse of the starving class", "although the family members claim not to belong to the starving class, they do, starving for identity and dignity. Every family members keep opening and closing the refrigerator door. The family is so dept-cursed that their home is prey to predators...At the end of the play, mother and son recite the parable of the cat and the eagle, clawing at one another high in the air...Greedy America has seized its own killer" (Cohn, 1982 p 184). "One of the startling occurrences in the play seems to go beyond curse: Emma’s death in a car explosion. Shepard has made her rather unsympathetic in her last appearance onstage, and the notion that she is going forward and Wesley backwards (he asks her at one point, 'How come I’m going backwards?' is quickly dispelled for us when she meets her end at the hands of Emerson and Slater. By the close of the play, the girl who at the start was learning about menstruation has grown up enough to make sexual overtures to her jailer (after her arrest for shooting the Alibi Club full of holes); who was blissfully making diagrams of a frying chicken for her 4-H club demonstration, has learned to look behind the front that everybody presents to the world; who wanted to work as a mechanic, travel, and possibly write, has stolen her mother’s money (even as the latter “stole” her frying chicken) and decided to take up a life of crime...Emma’s learning experience in the play is distinctly negative, then...Weston’s and Ella’s experiences in Curse of the Starving Class are negative as well. For long periods of time they lie onstage while the action of the play continues around them. Very drunk after a night away from home, Weston falls asleep on the kitchen table in Act II; exhausted after a night spent at the jail tending to Emma, Ella falls asleep on the same kitchen table in Act III...The fact that shouting and arguing go on around the sleeping characters draws attention all the more to their dormant condition, since neither one awakens...they sleep imperviously through events that will have a major effect on their lives" (Cardullo, 2016 pp 114-115).
Time: 1970s. Place: Illinois, USA.
In a neglected farm-house, Tilden surprises his father, Dodge, by showing him that corn can picked from their field although no one has been planted any for several years. Although Dodge sits around doing nothing but drink alcohol, he complains of Tilden's inactivity who lives at his expense. Dodge's wife, Halie, defends their other son, Bradley, from his insults. Dodge does not answer her directly but instead points to the field and says: "My flesh and blood's out there in the backyard." When Dodge is asleep, Bradley comes over on his wooden leg and cuts his hair without waking him up, leading to cuts and scars. Tilden's son, Vince, arrives unannounced after six years of absence, along with his girl-friend, Shelly. To Shelly's growing concern, Dodge confuses Vince with a younger Tilden. The field mystery deepens when Tilden enters with an armful of carrots that were never planted. Shelly is all the more anxious as Tilden stares without speaking at his son. Dodge asks Vince to buy him another bottle of liquor, but Tilden does not acknowledge his presence. "I had a son once, but we buried him," Tilden says, for which Dodge admonishes him. Shelly offers to help Tilden prepare and cook the carrots, but Vince considers this a distraction. To jog Dodge's memory of him, Vince drums tunes on his teeth with his fingernails, but that does not help. While Dodge dully watches television, Tilden strokes Shelly's coat and then puts it on his own. Eventually, Dodge becomes concerned about the growing rapport between Tilden and her. "Don't tell her anything," he advises, "she's an outsider." The following morning, Shelly appears ready to take over as the woman of the house, offering Dodge beef bouillon. On entering the house, not knowing who Shelly is, Halie worries about where Tilden is. Shelly playfuly takes Bradley's wooden leg from him. She feels there is a family secret that should be known. Bradley tries to reassure her. "Everything is all right here," he says. But Dodge disagrees. He starts to tell her a secret, but Halie interrupts him. "If you tell this, you'll be dead to me," she warns, but yet he goes on to confess that Halie was once pregnant with another boy, to whom Tilden was often seen to talk. "I drowned it," Dodge confesses. Suddenly, a drunk Vince crashes in through the screen door from the porch and smashes bottles in the room. He starts to take charge and goes one step further than Shelly by continually pushing Bradley's wooden leg out of his reach. Feeling suddenly ill, Dodge declares orally his last will and testament and dies. "Tilden was right about the corn," Halie admits as she sees him enter the house carrying the bones of a long-buried corpse.
"Curse of the starving class"
Time: 1970s. Place: USA.
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An angry Weston had broken down his front door the previous day and forced his way in to threaten his wife, Ella, but left without harming her. His son, Wesley, clears up the debris. Wesley's sister, Emma, comes in to look in the refrigerator, irritated at not finding the chicken meant to demonstrate the correct way of cutting it up in 4-H class, likely because her mother ate it. Considering such courses useless, Wesley urinates on her anatomy charts. He complains of hunger to his mother. "No one's starving," she resolutely points out. "We don't belong to the starving class." Nevertheless, to improve their condition, she hired a lawyer, Taylor, to sell house, livestock, tractor, and land without consulting her husband. Wesley points out the mortgages are still unpaid. Emma, too, is hungry, as she stares into the refrigerator. "Any corn muffins in there?" she desperately asks. Wesley attempts to save a lamb infected by maggots by carrying it into the kitchen as Weston carries inside a bag of groceries. However, it only contains desert artichokes and dirty laundry. The following day, Weston learns that the laundry has not been washed, as his wife did not stay for the night. He informs son and daughter he has sold house and land. Shocked at these news, Emma suddenly leaves home. Wesley informs his father that Ella had the same idea and for this purpose left with her lawyer. Weston threatens to kill both wife and lawyer. Weston considers this mode of action reasonable in view of the fact that he owes money and intends to escape to Mexico with the new-found cash. He then raves and falls unconscious on the kitchen table. Ella returns with her own bag of groceries, throwing out the artichokes out of the refrigerator. Wesley discovers that his mother's lawyer is the same man who once sold his father useless desert land. He affirms that her plans are fruitless, since her husband has already sold house and land. The buyer, Ellis, enters with an amount of money sufficient to pay Weston's debts. He is followed by Taylor holding the final draft of his arrangement with Ella. They are interrupted by a police officer, who informs them of shocking news concerning Emma. "It seems she rode her horse through a bar downtown and shot the place full of holes with a rifle," he says. The bar in question is Ellis'. To compensate for Emma's rampage, Ellis grabs the money away from Wesley and hurriedly leaves while Taylor sneaks away. Ella follows the officer to get her daughter out of jail, after which Weston wakes up refreshed, with a new sense of ownership. He is no longer interested in selling his property. Wesley tries to enter into his father's sentiments, but is unable to. In the throes of hunger, Wesley butchers the lamb and eats ravenously his mother's groceries, imploring his father to run away, afraid that his debtor intends to kill him, but he dismisses such warnings. Emma obtains her release from jail by flirting with the police officer in charge and declares to her brother she intends to pursue a life of crime, since that alone pays off. Wesley's fears concerning his father's debts are all too justified when they hear a loud explosion outside: their car is blown up by the debtor's henchmen, carrying off Emma and the lamb he meant to eat.
"Fool for love"
Time: 1980s. Place: Near the Mojave desert, USA.
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In a drab motel, May receives the visit of her old lover, Eddie. Although his fingers smell of a woman's cunt, she asks him to stay. He promptly threatens to stab both her and himself "systematically, with sharp knives". She embraces him in apparent tenderness then knees him in the groin. Recovering from the pain, he also chooses to remain, though only for a single night. However, his anger is aroused on learning that she expects the visit of another man, Martin. While waiting for him, Eddie takes from his horse trailer a shotgun and then practices roping tricks inside the room. Suddenly, a car's headlights appear at the window. When May sees a woman in the car, he immediately drops to the floor and warns her to get away from the door. A pistol shot is heard from outside, followed by the sound of shattering glass and the blaring of a car horn. The headlights menacingly reappear as the couple get down on the floor. May guesses that the woman shooting at them is Eddie's old lover surnamed the "countess". May yells at her in the dark, at which time Martin bursts in. Thinking her in danger, he attacks Eddie until May asks him to desist. On seeing the strange rapport between May and Eddie, Martin becomes uneasy and starts to go away, but Eddie pulls him back inside. Eddie offers him a drink, at the same time pouring some in his father's cup, a man invisible to everyone except him. Eddie explains to Martin their situation. He and May are lovers from the time of adolescence, though his half-sister, their father having lived in an alternating fashion with two women unknown to each other. It was at the other woman's house that he once followed his father and first saw her. Eddie's mother never discovered her husband's adulterous relation. "He'd disappear for months at a time and she never once asked him where he went," Eddie relates. "She was always glad to see him when he came back." May adds that her mother often tried to track him down, even to the extent of travelling from one town to another. Eventually, he left and was never seen again. "And my mother just turned herself inside out," May explains. "I kept watching her grieve, as though somebody'd died. She'd pull herself up into a ball and just stare at the floor." To this comment, the father retorts to Eddie: "She's gettin' way out of line here." Noting her daughter's infatuation with Eddie, May's mother begged him not to see her again, but he ignored her wishes. She then went to Eddie's mother for the same purpose. In grief, Eddie's mother shot herself to death. Unaware that this had happened, the old man is stunned. "Speak on my behalf," he cries out to Eddie. "There's no one to speak for me now. Stand up." "It was your shotgun," Eddie retorts. The old man is further shocked on seeing Eddie and May approach each other as lovers. "Stay away from her," he warns. "What the hell are you doin'? You two can't come together." Despite his admonestations, the incestuous couple embrace. The car headlights flash again from outside. There is the sound of a collision, an explosion, and horses screaming, followed by a gasoline fire. Martin informs Eddie that his horse trailer is on fire and that the horses are loose. Eddie quickly goes out while May packs up her suitcase, convinced that her lover will return to the countess.
Also attracting plentiful notice is David Mamet (1947-?), who wrote "Sexual perversity in Chicago" (1974), "American Buffalo" (1975), and "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984). The language is rough in a Pinter-like style, in which characters needlessly repeat themselves, or speak while conveying little information; but even crude speech sometimes attains some degree of power in the proper dramatic context.
"Sexual perversity in Chicago" brought to the fore the permissive pre-AIDS atmosphere of the 1970s. Cohn (1982) proposed that the "perversity" in the title refers to "the refusal to invest in sexual relations with affection" (p 43). Herman (1987) described the play as “a ritual of seduction gone sour” where there is a “general weariness of any kind of sentiment...The older of the pairs represents hardened attitudes of permanent hostility between the sexes and even the younger couple displays a lack of trust in each other" (pp 132-133). Despite the hostility, Bernie thinks about and wants women. The play "evokes a world in which aggression is a mode of communication and words have become denatured. Its principal currency is sexuality but a sexually devalued, counterfeited to the point at which it neither buys immunity from solitude nor offers satisfaction for needs. The singles bar becomes an effective image of a society in which alienated individuals market themselves, seeking the very companionship they fear, as they substitute lifestyle for life" (Bigsby, 1992 p 208).
Demastes (1988) cited several critics who complain that almost nothing happens in "American Buffalo" (p 80). Yet here, as in “Waiting for Godot” (1953) and “Hamlet" (1600), inaction is as dramatically tense as action. Other critics see the play as a "critique of the American business ethic" (Herman, 1987 p 141), "the dog-eat-dog system...where business loyalty shifts precariously depending on who 'holds the cards'" (Krasner, 2006 p 104) when it is only a thief’s delusion of acting as a businessman (Demastes, 1988 pp 82-83). Indeed, Teach speaks of himself as the representative of free enterprise, rather a sign of self-aggrandizement (Haedicke, 2007). "The corrosive effect of such a stance is revealed in the corruption of Don, whom Teach coerces, 'simply as a business proposition' into excising Bob from their 'thing', the ludicrously planned heist of the buffalo nickel from the 'fucking fruit' who bought it" (p 413). "Mamet reveals the philosophical dilemmas raised by money as the primary concern of American Buffalo early in the first act, when his protagonist Don gives lessons on business to Bob, lessons that nicely fore ground issues central to the logic of naturalism. The first of these issues involves what is for many critics the defining theme of literary naturalism: the conflict between one's sense of free will and one's sense of behavior as determined. In discussing Fletcher- the winner of a card game that precedes the action of the play and one of Mamet's many Godot-like characters representing powerful off-stage forces- Don evokes the paradox of human freedom through his own use of the terms skill, talent, and experience. First Don ascribes Fletcher's success at cards to "[s]kill and talent and the balls to arrive at your own conclusions" (4),1 which implies some mixture of learned experience, innate ability, and independent thinking...Another of Don's business lessons for Bob, that 'action talks and bullshit walks', is another way of saying that action talks and talk acts- that action is talk and talk is action. This seeming paradox is a central truth in the work of both the playwright and the salesman....That Don is both aware of and troubled by this paradox is clear in the way he tries repeatedly to control the talk of other characters in the play. When Teach, in an attempt to replace Bob as Don's accomplice in the planned robbery, subtly refers to Bob's heroin addiction, Don interjects, 'I don't want you mentioning that,' and a few lines later, 'I don't want that talk'...More difficult to explain is Don's relation to that which constitutes the very essence of his profession: buying and selling. Nowhere in the play do we see this salesman sell anything. In fact, the one item we are told of his selling-the buffalo nickel whose sale precedes the action of the play-Don spends the entire play trying to get back. The motive for this planned robbery is not pecuniary...A perceived loss of honor, rather than any desire for money, is what motivates Don. In fact, when Teach brings up the issue of the value of the different coins the two imagine to be in their would-be victim's possession, Don is not interested...Robbery has sometimes been considered more honorable than exchange, since it involves a personal involvement and a good deal of risk on the part of the robber. In this sense, Don's desire to get his nickel back through robbery, clearly motivated by a sense of injured honor rather than a desire for money, constitutes a rejection of the alienating world of economic exchange...Unlike Don and Bob, Teach never understands talk as ,just talk'- an attempt to be friendly, to establish community. In the first act, Don's seemingly innocent question about how Teach did in the poker game the night before is interpreted by Teach as a kind of attack. Don has to explain "I'm just saying...for talk'. Similarly, when Don tries to engage in friendly chitchat about the weather, Teach takes his questions very seriously. Teach can only understand talk as manipulative, useful in getting others to act in a certain way. This is why he is so shocked to learn at the end of the play that all the planning he and Don have done in the course of the day was based on a lie: Bob had claimed that he saw the coin buyer (their intended victim) with a suitcase, apparently leaving on a trip, but finally he reveals that he did not" (Dietrick, 2006 pp 331-342). "Don is a contemporary version of a goldbug...[referring to] late-nineteenth-century advocates of an economy backed by precious metal- gold or silver- [who] argued that a greenback economy is dangerous because it relies on currency that can do no more than promise value. The promissory note is an inauthentic, unnatural, unreal form of money because it merely simulates value. Only precious metals are real money because their value is naturally stamped into their physical form" (Little, 2004 p 150).
In "Glengarry Glen Ross", "the skills and instincts that give these characters their sense of identity and worth also cripple them, making them incapable of honesty, honour or even a simple, unpremeditated conversation" (Berkowitz, 1992 p 194). As in "American Buffalo", Herman (1987) saw this play as a "critique of the American business ethic" (p 141) and Krasner (2006) as a “microcosm of the business world” (p 124) There may be more reason to, after considering Shelly's pronouncement that "a man's his job". "Few of the characters are able to reach, much less to maintain [a top position], and thus the competition ensures failure for the majority to achieve an identity defined as masculine...As Levene tells Williamson, 'a man's his job'. The clearly developed implication is that doing a job is what makes a man, what gives a person identity as a man. Levene goes on to say that if 'you don't have the balls' to do the job then 'you're a secretary', a job traditionally held by women. Or, as Roma exclaims to Williamson when the latter messes up a deal: 'Where did you learn your trade. You stupid fucking cunt! You idiot! Whoever told you you could work with men?' If a job is what defines a man, then failure in business is what defines the not-man, the woman. It is precisely the differentiation of these two positions that offers any sense of identity...The camaraderie of man-to-man talk, which is vividly developed between Roma and Lingk in scene three, is undercut by the realization that all of Roma's shared confidence has been simply a lead-in to a sales pitch aimed at the unsuspecting Lingk. Lingk's desire to believe in Roma's friendship, in their understanding and acceptance of each other as men, continues even as Roma's con-game is revealed. Lingk shows up the next day to reclaim his check, but he makes it clear that he has been sent by his wife, that she is what has come between Roma and Lingk. He tells Roma that 'It's not me, it's my wife' who has driven him to ask for his money back, and this wife has taken away from him 'the power to negotiate'. Lingk, whose relationship with his wife evidently does not reflect the masculine dominance/feminine submission dichotomy, is perhaps drawn to Roma precisely because Roma has power: Roma's identity as top salesman is secure. Even when Lingk discovers that his check has already been cashed, that Roma has evidently been lying to him, he still feels that he, not Roma, has failed in some way. He apologizes to Roma in lines reminiscent of Bobby's at the end of American Buffalo: 'I know I've let you down. I'm sorry'...The gender confusion of the men in Glengarry Glen Ross, while not complicated by the physical presence of women, is constantly evoked in language. Men who do not perform well are 'secretaries' or 'cunts'" (McDonough 1992 pp 201-203). "The very opacity of the language— its ellipses, parataxis, and concealment (as opposed to exposition)—makes us aware of speech as act, as something that functions rhetorically rather than as a lucid medium of transmission or communication. For the salesman is a rhetorician whose job hinges on the power of speech, the act of utterance, the theater of the word. Whatever the words used, the rhythms, the tones, the pauses, the fragments are designed to bully, to cajole, to advance, to retreat, to seduce, to impress" (Cardullo, 2016 p 248).
"Sexual perversity in Chicago"
Time: 1970s. Place: Chicago, USA.
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Bernie tells Danny what happened to him the previous night, when, sitting in a pancake house, he paid a pack of cigarettes to a twenty-year-old girl he did not know before. "Come up to my room and I'll play you back for the cigarettes," she said. "No!" exclaims Danny, amazed at how keen she was to invite so soon. After showering, Bernie thwacked her with a towel, threw a radio on her shoulder, and copulated while she is wearing an old Flak suit. He left after she threw a can of gasoline on the walls and set them on fire. On another occasion, Bernie meets Joan, whom he has just met, and tries to seduce her, but is unsuccessful. Danny has better luck with Joan's roommate, Deborah. The couple continue to see each other. One time in bed, she describes her thoughts when they make love. "The last time we made love, I fantasized about other women," she says, to which he responds: "The last time I masturbated, I thought about my left hand." In the nursery school where she works, Joan catches two boys fondling each other's genitals. Bernie talks to Danny about his childhood experiences, when once a man touched his penis while reaching over to another man at a cinema house. He thinks that experience had no effect on him. Seeing Danny entrenched in a long-term relation with Deborah, Bernie advises him to drop her. But refusing to heed this advice, Danny moves in with her. "I give you two months," Joan cynically comments to Deborah on learning of this move. While viewing a pornographic movie with Danny, Bernie warns him to watch out for the other customers. "They got a lot of scum here now," he comments. In the course of time, Danny and Deborah's relationship begins to deteriorate. After learning that Danny and Deborah will separate, Bernie advises his friend not to lose his sense of humor. Back to living with Joan, Deborah considers that her break-up with Danny was all her fault. Joan does not believe that for one moment. Left with no girl-friend, Danny joins Bernie in gazing on women clad in bathing-suits walking on a beach. "I see no reason to go on living," a suddenly depressed Bernie confesses. "To think I gaze upon the highest man can wish for." Looking at a particular woman, Danny cries out amazed: "I can see her fucking snatch." When Bernie says hello to another, she silently walks away. "Deaf bitch," comments Danny, a comment worthy of Bernie.
Time: 1970s. Place: Chicago, USA.
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Don, owner of a resale shop, asks Bob to spy on a client who bought from him an antique nickel for a surprisingly large amount of money. Bob then informs him that the man left his house with a suitcase. Don's other friend, Teach, informs him he can safely break into the man's house and rob him of his coins and for this, he does not need Bob. Don hesitates but, in the end, agrees with him. When asked how he will break inside the house, Teach is alarmingly vague, so that Don imposes a man named Fletcher to accompany him during the heist. That very night, Bob arrives with a nickel-head which he believes to be valuable and proposes to sell it to Don. The latter gives him some money, both agreeing to consult a catalog later to ascertain its value. Teach arrives late, but before Fletcher's arrival. He is unpleasantly surprised to find Bob there, who potters about and at last leaves. Don and Teach nervously wait for Fletcher and are unable to reach him by phone. Don is all the more unnerved when informed that Fletcher cheated Teach at cards the previous night. Finally, Bob returns with news that Fletcher is lying in a hospital bed after being mugged. When Don calls up the hospital Bob mentions, he is told no such man is registered. Don and Teach immediately become suspicious of Bob, who is unable to identify the name of the hospital and is very vague as to how he obtained the valuable nickel. Exasperated by such answers and fearing that he and Fletcher might have already robbed their intended victim, Teach strikes Bob on the head so hard that his ears begin to bleed. He also flails violently about the shop, destroying a good part of Don's property. However, they eventually learn that Bob spoke the truth about Fletcher. Teach carries Bob in his car to the hospital while Don sadly watches over him.
"Glengarry Glen Ross"
Time: 1980s. Place: Chicago, USA.
Shelly Levene, a real estate agent, tries to convince his office manager, John Willliamson, to give him leads (coordinates) of promising clients for the company they work for, Glengarry Glen Ross, to sell land in Florida. John is willing to accommodate Shelly with two leads but requests in exchange a sum of $100 which the agent cannot provide. Two other real estate agents, Dave Moss and George Aaronow, complain of the pressure tactics used by management to succeed. Frustrated, Dave suggests that they should steal 5,000 leads and sell them for $5,000 to a competing company headed by Jerry Graff. Since Dave has complained so often in the past about company policies and confesses to having a “big mouth”, he feels that George should enter the office and commit the burglary. George at first refuses to participate in the scheme but is intimidated into accepting it when informed that he would be considered an accessory to the robbery should Dave get caught. The most successful of the real estate agents, Ricky Roma, concludes a deal with a client named James, but, as a result of the burglary, is frustrated on learning that some of his unfiled leads were stolen, so that now he must try to sell to “deadbeats”. In contrast, Shelly is elated after just concluding a deal of eight units on “deadbeat magazine subscription leads”. While Dave curses the detective who accuses him of the robbery, Ricky points out that the robbery has no effect on one who has failed to close a good deal in the last month. Unexpectedly, James enters the office. Suspecting that James wants to cancel the deal, Ricky pretends that Shelly is a client to whom he has just sold five farms and that he must rush out with him. Shelly plays along. When James tells him that his wife wants him to cancel the deal, Ricky assures him that this is a “common reaction” to the size of the investment, a prudent reaction “that women have”. His attempts to trick James backfires when John, misinterpreting the situation and trying to help Ricky assure the client that the break-in had no effect on his check, lies to the client by saying that the check has been sent to the bank after Ricky had told the client that it could not be. As the detective continues to interview each insurance agent in regard to the break-in, it is Shelly,s turn to misinterpret the situation. Shelly curses John for destroying Ricky’s deal by lying to the client when Shelly had no way of knowing that John was indeed lying, as, unlike his usual habit, John had left the contract on his desk the previous night during the robbery. As a result, John accuses Shelly of being responsible for the break-in, since only the robber would know the contract was on his desk. When John threatens to reveal what he knows to the detective unless Shelly tells him where the stolen leads are, Shelly panics and reveals that Graff has them in exchange for $5,000 in cahoots with Dave Moss. When Shelly tries to cut a deal with John to give him half his sales, John tells him that his client for the eight units is insane and so his check is worthless, and then heads towards the detective to reveal what he knows about Shelly.
With "The piano lesson" (1987) and "Joe Turner's come and gone" (1988), August Wilson's place in American theatre became assured.
In "The piano lesson", the piano represents African heritage (Elam, 2007). In particular, "the piano embodies a legacy of two cultural loci: African and the south. Bernice opposes the sale because the instrument represents African ancestry" while Boy Willie "wants to plant seeds in southern roots...allowing the purchase of property once owned by Sutter...To reject the south would be to repudiate not only negro spirituals, the blues, and the oral tradition, but also the rightful ownership of land. Boy Willie's desire for Sutter's property represents the ethics of black entitlement" (Krasner, 2006 pp 158-159). Bernice is haunted by Sutter's ghost because although she keeps the heirloom she does not play on it, thus lying cut off from her African ancestry (Elam, 2007, p 328). When she starts to play the piano, the ghost is exorcized.
In "Joe Turner's come and gone", Herald Loomis arrives at the boarding house confused. To get on, he must settle "his unfinished business with his wife" artificially cut off because of an unjust jail sentence. When Herald Loomis observes the singing and dancing of African rhythms, he resists the music "but is thrown to the floor by music he fails to understand". His visions combine two fundamentals of spiritualism: afrocentricity and Christianity", the first in the form of "slaves rising from the sea" and the second in the form of "resurrection and baptism" (Krasner, 2006 pp 135-136) or Jesus walking on water. "When Loomis hears the song, he reacts vehemently against it. The song has clear political and social implications, acting as a powerful medium for change. With the assistance of the mysterious and powerful Bynum, a conjure man and resident of the boarding house, Loomis comes to understand his search as a spiritual and practical quest to find his song, a connection to a past lost while enslaved by Joe Turner. He journeys toward self-knowledge, spiritual and psychological liberation" (Elam, 2007 p 326), a form of liberation that rejects Christianity, of which Bynum approves.
"The piano lesson"
Time: 1930s. Place: Pittsburgh, USA.
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Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in town to sell a large load of watermelons. Boy Willie also wants to sell a piano he owns along with his sister, Bernice, to buy some farmland owned by the brother of a man who has recently died, Sutter, once the slave-owner of their grandparents. Though she has not played on it for many years, Bernice refuses to sell, because she considers the instrument a family heirloom, their grandfather having pictures of their family history carved on the wood. Feeling that as long as Sutter owned the piano, they were still his slaves, Boy Willie and Bernice's father along with Boy Charles stole it from him. When Sutter discovered the theft, he was so angry that he burned the father's house down. On finding him inside a box-car in the company of four hobos, he and the sheriff set it afire with them in it. Over a period of many years, several men involved in the murder have been killed by being thrown down wells, the exploit, according to legend, of the Yellow Dog ghosts, the name originating from the train because of the sound of its whistle and the yellow color of its box-cars. Bernice suspects Boy Willie himself pushed Sutter down his well. That is the supposed reason why she, her daughter, and Doaker, the brother of her deceased husband, have been haunted by Sutter's ghost. After selling most of their watermelons, Boy Willie and Lymon celebrate. Late at night, Boy Willie comes back to his sister's home accompanied by a newly found girl-friend, but Bernice sends them away and repulses Lymon's sexual advances. The following day, Boy Willie and Lymon are puzzled as to why they cannot move the piano anymore. They use a wheeled board and rope, but Bernice interrupts their endeavor. A frustrated Boy Willie feels that owning farmland will make him equal with the white man. Throughout his life, he has felt unwelcome everywhere. "The world ain't wanted no part of me," he declares. But when he tries to move the piano despite Bernice's threats and despite knowing that his sister carries a gun, he is inexplicably thrown back from it. Content with that outcome, she sits down to play on it.
"Joe Turner's come and gone"
Time: 1911. Place: Pittsburg, USA.
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Rutherford brings over sheet metal so that Seth can make dustpans for him. Bynum, a lodger in Seth's boardinghouse, asks Rutherford, known as a people finder, about whether he has seen his shiny man, a man "with light coming out of him" who once led him along a road where everything was bigger. "Said he had been thinking about me," Bynum says of the man, "and it grieved him to see me carrying other people's songs and not having one of my own." Rutherford has not seen him. Seth admonishes another lodger, Jeremy, for having being arrested on the charge of drunken behavior. But Jeremy denies even having taken one sip of a half-pint with a friend when white men showed up to arrest him and fine him two dollars. "They snatched hold of us to get that two dollars," Jeremy explains. Herald Loomis next shows up accompanied with his 11-year-old daughter, Zonia, in search of a place to stay while looking to track down his wife who left him. Seth agrees to let them stay and, following his wife's suggestion, allows Zonia to pay her way by helping her around the house. Just by looking at Zonia's face, Seth knows who the mother is, a local woman named Martha, but does not reveal this information to the suspicious-looking Herald, supposedly the deacon of a church. Mattie next shows up, also looking to recover a spouse. She requests Bynum's help, a man with a reputation of being able to bind people together, but he refuses on the grounds that the husband left when her two babies died, a sign that he should get away. Mattie's looks quickly entice Jeremy, who invites her to hear him play guitar at a public place. She accepts. Hearing about Rutherford's reputation as a people finder, Herald hires him to find his wife. Fonder than ever of Mattie, Jeremy agrees to pay Seth an additional sum so that she can lodge in his room. But when Molly shows up looking for a room, Jeremy eyes her carefully. One evening, while Seth, Bynum, and Jeremy play music together, singing and dancing to African rhythms, Herald interrupts them, admonishing their use of the Holy Spirit's name, declaring that he has visions, and starting to take his clothes off only to collapse, finally calmed down by Bynum, who asks him about his visions. "I done seen bones rise up out of the water, rise up and walk across the water, bones walking on top of the water." After Herald's recovery, an enraged Seth asks him to leave the house. Having already paid, he only accepts to go when the week is out. Jeremy informs Seth he lost his job for refusing to pay a white man fifty cents as protection money to keep his job, a foolish move according to Seth. In any event, Jeremy wants to move away with Molly. "Molly won't work," Molly tells him. He agrees. While playing dominoes, Bynum sings "Joe Turner's come and gone". "I don't like that song, mister," Herald warns. "My wife Martha gone from me after Joe Turner catched me." While trying several years ago to convince some men to stop gambling, he was arrested along with the rest and received a 7-year prison sentence. Rutherford finds Martha and brings her over to Herald, but, despite having tried to find him for years, she now refuses to follow, only accepting to take Zonia with her. To mitigate his disappointment, she encourages him to embrace the Christ who bled for him. "I don't need nobody to bleed for me," he retorts as he goes, "I can bleed for myself." "Herald Loomis, you shining, you shining like new money," Bynum enthuses.
Of interest as well is the social comedy turned sour, "The cocktail party" (1949), by Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965).
In a letter to Lucie Wolf, May 25, 1883, Ibsen stated that "verse has been most injurious to dramatic art. A scenic artist whose department is the drama of the present day should be unwilling to take a verse in his mouth. It is improbable that verse will be employed to any extent worth mentioning in the drama of the immediate future; the aims of the dramatists of the future are almost certain to be incompatible with it. It is therefore doomed" (Henderson, 1914 p 192). Luckily for dramatic art, Eliot did not believe it.
"The cocktail party" is an "acidulous comedy of manners...[but] suffers as a play mainly from the absence of its most interesting character in the third act, and from the transference of her story to reportage once she departs for Africa. For two acts the work has continuing tension, but loses it thereafter, and precisely at the point when it should mount. In the third act, too, the reunited Chamberlaynes display good breeding and sentiment, but what they make of their reunion is hardly of great consequence as drama. Nor does their later life redound to the credit of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, psychiatrist-extraordinary arid Harley Street father-confessor. His mystical status cannot be seen in a very impressive light if little more than a cocktail party status quo is the end of his endeavors on stage while the spiritual redemption of Celia Copplestone remains off stage. Fortunately, the 'high comedy' atmosphere of the third act returns us to the milieu of the first act (though with some deepening of mood)" (Gassner, 1954 pp 730-731).
Porter (1969) pointed out that Edward wants Lavinia back and Peter wants Celia. The failure of the Edward-Lavinia couple could have been countered by the success of the Peter-Celia couple, except that Celia’s love is not directed at Peter (p 59). Instead, she veers towards being a Christ-like figure whose death may eventually encourage Peter to reject his false life to embrace a truer one. In Hobson's (1953) view, Edward's plight is not loving anyone, so that he settles for "a martial road of jog-trot give-and-take." (p 7) When consulting Reilly, Celia chooses to atone rather than be reconciled. Of her violent end, Williams (1965) writes: "It has been frequently said that Celia's motives are unsubstantiated, that the play does not prepare us for her decision. It seems to me that this criticism is a rationalisation, covering an essential antipathy to the nature of her experience. 'Making the best of a bad job' is a familiar contemporary morality, and much of the play has moved on this acceptable level. But Eliot seems to have deliberately provoked the shock of Celia's experience and decision and death. By making Reilly the guardian of those who follow both ways, he has achieved, in the most striking possible way, the realisation of a particular pattern of values." Brandt (1962) pointed out that Edward’s conclusion that “hell is oneself, hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections” is opposite to Garcin’s in Sartre’s “No exit” (1942).
"The cocktail party"
Time: 1940s. Place: England.
Lavinia leaves her husband, Edward, just before a cocktail party at their house. An uninvited guest appears to speak with him. "There's ground for hope she won't come back," the guest assures him. "But I want my wife back," protests Edward, who finds such speculations offensive. "You are nothing but a set of obsolete responses," the guest counters. "The one thing to do is to do nothing. Wait." But since he refuses to wait, the guest promises that his wife will return within a day. Edward's lover, Celia, arrives next, who wishes to be reassured about the stability of their relation. He retreats. "This can't go on," he says. As the guest predicted, Lavinia indeed returns the following day. Husband and wife immediately launch into mutual grievances. He accuses her of always trying to turn him into what she wants him to be, to the extent that he has the impression of having lost his own personality. "Hell is oneself, hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections," he tells her. In turn, she accuses him of never troubling to understand her. He agrees to consult a psychiatrist, Dr Henry Harcourt-Reilly, who turns out to be the uninvented guest. To Edward's surprise, Lavinia shows up, and, to his further surprise, reveals that she, too, has had an adulterous relation. After listening to their complaints, Harcourt-Reilly concludes that there is common ground to work on: he is suffering from loving no one and she of not being loved. Their session is followed by Celia's, suffering from loneliness and a horrid sense of emptiness. "Can we only love something created by our own imagination?" she wonders. Reilly encourages her to strive for high ideals. "There is another way if you have the courage'" he says. "But the way leads toward possession/Of what you have sought for in the wrong place." "That sounds like what I want," she declares. To escape her unhappy lot, she leaves for a foreign country as a nurse, but falls as a victim to an uprising of the natives.
In "The member of the wedding" (1950) by Carson McCullers (1917-1967), the main part of the dialogue is taken from the novel of the same name with one important change: there is no meeting between Frankie and the lusty soldier.
“The theme of the play is...spiritual isolation- the type of isolation that results in an oppressive loneliness, in an intense desire to belong, and, failing these, in a need to escape...Act One...is a subjective, inner-compelled analysis by Frankie Addams of her problem- a many-faceted problem to which she returns again and again as she gropes for a solution, a solution which will alleviate her sense of spiritual isolation and cure her deep loneliness. The polarity of her quest for a solution becomes a vacillating and ever-recurring theme- the necessity to belong or else to escape from her restricted world into the world outside- which culminates, so she feels, at the end of Act One in her discovery that all along she had just been an "I" person and that she is the only person she knows who does not belong to a “We”. Act Two is largely a grotesque parable of love and death designed by Berenice to bring Frankie to a sense of reality, to carry her beyond her fantasies in an effort to make her see that one cannot merely decide what he will do to the exclusion of reason...In the final scene of Act Three, Frankie- now more properly called Frances, as she is in the novel, since she is now developing a proper feminine sex-role identity- gains her freedom from the kitchen. Frankie has formed a close, normal teen-age friendship with Mary Littlejohn. It is especially significant, symbolically so, that Frankie and Mary got to know each other in front of the lipstick and cosmetics counter at Woolworth's. Frankie's mental picture of herself- a psychic reality, which is the core of her self-concept- gradually changes with the emergence of her female identification, symbolized by the cosmetics counter" (Dedmond, 1975 pp 50-52).
"The member of the wedding"
Time: 1945. Place: Southern part of USA.
Jarvis, a soldier, is to marry Janice. His 12-year-old sister, Frankie, harbors jealous feelings towards her. "I bet they have a good time every minute of the day," she comments to Berenice, their black servant. Frankie is frustrated at being rejected from joining a girl's club. When Berenice teases her, she snatches a carving knife and threatens her with it. They are interrupted by the arrival of T.T., Berenice's suitor, in the company of Honey, her foster-brother, whose head has just been struck by a policeman following an altercation with a soldier. Tired of living at her father's house, Frankie wants to join her brother and his bride. "I love the two of them so much because they are the "we" of me," she confides to her 7-year old friend, John Henry. For the wedding ceremony, she buys for herself an orange satin dress with silver stockings and shoes. Berenice and T.T. consider it too grown up, but since it cannot be returned, she is determined to fix it. Berenice is aware that Frankie is paying too much attention to the to-be-wedded couple, warning her of the dangers inherent in loving too intensely, in her own case Ludie, the first of four husbands. "What I did was marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I came across them," she explains. "It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces." During this conversation, John Henry starts to feel sick, but the two ignore his complaints. During the wedding ceremony, after many hesitations, Frankie informs her brother she wants to follow him and his wife, but he refuses. Sick at heart, she leaves the house with her father's gun. He and T.T rush after, but cannot find her. Eventually, not knowing where to go, she returns on her own. Honey also comes back after being involved in an altercation with a white man who would not serve him in a restaurant. He drew out a razor and cut him. Although Berenice hands money over to facilitate his escape from the police, he is caught and hangs himself in a jail-cell. John Henry is diagnosed with meningitis and dies. When Frankie's father decides to move with his sister to another house, Berenice quits his service. Although Frankie promises to visit her, Berenice doubts she ever will.
Also of note: "Tea and sympathy" (1953) by Robert Anderson (1917–2009).
Lewis (1965) found that the concluding scene when Laura unbuttons her blouse for Tom has “little relation to the logic of the plot” (p 156). However, it is logical when we consider it not as a result of pity but as a spontaneous act of love for the youth and resentment against a dishonest husband, the contrast between boy and man underlined throughout. Moreover, since sex is the core of the problem, it is therefore the core of the solution. Adler (2007) criticized the same scene because "sexual physicality" is presented as "redemptive, a panacea or too-easy cure for a person's ills" (p 167), an all too-puritanical view. In contrast, Gassner (1953) approved of the ending as the story of a boy "misjudged by school and parent alike as a homosexual...The story itself is appealing, with its demonstration of how obtuseness or callousness on the part of classmates and their elders can wreck a boy's life. And the plot acquires a novel and bold twist that takes Tea and Sympathy out of the Young Woodley category of school plays when the school-master's wife gives herself to the boy after his fiasco with a local tart in order to assure him on the score of his questioned masculinity. This is more than a twist of plot, however, because Mr Anderson has related it to tensions in the domestic life of the woman, given the action as much psychological credibility as is possible under the circumstances, and treated the rapprochement of boy and married woman with as much delicacy as anyone could desire" (p 353).
"Tea and sympathy"
Time: 1950s. Place: New England, USA.
Laura, wife to one of the housemasters at a boy's school, Bill Reynolds, prepares a costume for Tom, a 17-year-old student boarder at their house about to play a woman's part in a play. Their fitting is interrupted by a teacher, David Harris, worried that his contract will not be renewed because Tom has revealed the two went swimming down off the dunes last Saturday evening. Tom denies having said anything to the dean. Soon afterwards, Bill tells Laura that two boys from the varsity club saw the man and the boy lying naked on the dunes. Laura is upset that Tom, whom she has befriended, may be expelled. Bill replies that Tom should be and that Laura should not become emotionally involved with any student, but, as the headmaster's wife suggested, merely offer them "tea and sympathy". Although there was no sexual intercourse, David is fired but Tom presumed innocent. Nevertheless, Tom's father, Herb, an old school-friend of Bill's, insists that Tom quit his role in the play and that Laura invites a girl over so that she can be his party date instead of herself. As a result, Tom is flustered and hurt. Pressure mounts as boys walk out of the shower-room when he walks in after gymnastic practice and tennis, while Bill adopts a cold, contemptuous attitude. Moreover, Tom's roommate, Al, harassed by his father, moves to another house away from his influence. To restore his reputation, Al suggests to Tom that he should meet Ellie, a waitress in a soda shop known to be free and easy with the students. Tom sets up a date with her on Saturday night on the telephone, a conversation overheard by Laura, who, on that night, tries to prevent the meeting by stalling for time. As she teaches him to dance, he kisses her passionately. When she rejects him, Tom escapes to Ellie's place, but the overwrought boy is unable to have an erection with her. In his confused state, he tries to kill himself, but Ellie prevents it. However, the noise of their struggle attracts the attention of the campus police and Tom is expelled. Incensed and hurt at her husband's involvement in the goading Tom suffered from, Laura says she wants to leave him. "Did it ever occur to you that you persecute in Tom, that boy up there, you persecute in him the thing you fear in yourself?" she asks him. After hearing this accusation, he wants her out. As she enters Tom's room to offer words of encouragement, he is still disheartened, certain he is no man. But when she unbuttons her blouse, he begins to respond. "Years from now, when you talk about this- and you will-, be kind," she pleads.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) wrote a fine domestic drama in "A raisin in the sun" (1959). The play's title derives from a poem entitled "Harlem" by Langston Hughes (1902-1967): What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?/Or fester like a sore and then run?/ Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet?/Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Wilkerson (1986) presented the historical context of white-black segregation. "In 1955...the Supreme Court had declared racial segregation in public schools illegal, marking a climax to decades of advocacy and legal challenges, but initiating a new level of resistance." The critic also pointed out the appeal of the play in the delineation of its central characters. "Lena Younger was a strong point of identification. She was everybody's Mama- strong, caring, determined- the glue that held the family together. The self-sacrificing love of wife and mother were recognizable in Ruth's quiet strength and giving nature. Although Walter Lee was a new kind of character for white audiences, intended as a 'ghetto hero' by Hansberry, the generational conflict with his mother was very familiar. For Blacks, Walter was a welcome affirmation of the urgency and potency of the Black struggle, while his sister, the ebullient Beneatha, represented its intellectual potential...characters neither sentimentalized nor stereotyped" Yet Walter Lee's dilemma raises the following question: 'In order to advance materially, must the Youngers also become materialistic? The contradiction between the profitable, economic values of acquisition, power, and status and the 'unprofitable' values of integrity, justice, and freedom runs deep in the American psyche" (pp 443-445). The play “examines differences between older rural blacks and younger urban blacks, the tensions between educated and uneducated blacks, and it presents a credible picture of a crisis in self-image among black males, which, sociologists tell us, is largely the result of the paucity of black males in meaningful, well-paying jobs”. The critic criticized that the play does not answer the economic questions it raises and that the family’s rejection of Lindner’s plan “seems to sugarcoat the very serious problems it raises by turning into an uplifting drama of social pride” (Greenfield, 1982 p 137). The Lindner episode is resolved because it pertains specifically to black people, whereas most of the social problems raised above by the critic are relevant to all poor people which is not the main subject of the play.
Washington (1988) argued that "the positive qualities of character which should lend dignity to Walter's character, such as his iron will, his high expectations of himself, and his determination to succeed, are those which often reduce him to the role of villain when he is compared to his mother. Hers may be a more positive image, but this is due to the fact that she must rely on, and fight with, Walter using the only tools available to her-patience, understanding, selflessness, and love-even though these may be, indeed are, genuine expressions of her character... That Walter seems to many to possess an inordinate degree of self-respect and to expect too much out of life for himself and for his family may have more to do with viewers' perceptions than with Walter's actions. If one has been conditioned to expect little, as many Blacks have been through racism, or to believe that Blacks deserve and are entitled to little, as some members of society have been led to believe, then the demand for any degree above this 'conditioned less' will seem excessive. For such viewers Lena Younger's dream appears much more 'normal'...Because he is "high-minded" and wants to 'be something', Walter readily accepts the American value which holds that owning one's own business is the primary path to economic success and prosperity. His acceptance of this value contrasts with Lena's belief in the efficacy of hard physical labor like that which killed her husband and which she still does...Walter's dream of success was nurtured by a young white man whom he saw in town and sought to emulate...He believes he can do what they do and that he deserves to have what they have...The freedom that Lena seeks...is freedom from racism and discrimination… [while Walter seeks] a much more important kind of freedom, economic freedom...Although the end of the play supplies conclusive proof of the soundness of Walter's character as he comes to appreciate a concept of manhood based on love rather than power and accepts the consequences of his actions by refusing to exchange his family's racial pride and dignity for money, it does not resolve the family's economic plight.” (pp 112-122)
"A raisin in the sun"
Time: 1950s. Place: Chicago, USA.
After the father’s death, the rest of the Younger family receive benefits of his life insurance premium. The mother, Lena, wants to buy a house to fulfill a dream previously shared with her husband, but her son, Walter Lee, would rather invest it in a liquor store. Walter's wife, Ruth, agrees with his mother, thereby providing a better home for their son. Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha, wants her mother to use it as she wants. In addition to the house, Lena decides to use the money for Beneatha's medical school tuition. Ruth discovers she is pregnant and fears the financial pressure a child will bring. Walter Lee says nothing when she considers abortion. Lena soon places a down payment on a new and bigger house in an entirely white neighborhood. Learning about this, white people living in that neighborhood send over a man named Lindner from the Improvement Association to buy them out. Although Walter Lee loses his part of the money to a supposed friend who stole the investment money and despite some hesitation, the Younger family refuse Lindner's offer. Beneatha rejects her suitor, George, whom she considers to be too shallow to the problems facing the black community, and rather looks favorably on Joseph, a man who wishes her to obtain a medical degree and move away with him to Africa. The Youngers move to their new neighborhood, fulfilling part of the dream, though the future seems very uncertain.
William Gibson (1914-2008) wrote "The miracle worker" (1959), based on the life of Helen Keller (1880-1936) and Annie Sullivan (1866-1936).
"The miracle worker"
Time: 1890s. Place: Alabama and Massachusetts, USA.
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Annie Sullivan is hired by the Keller family to develop their child, Helen, deaf and blind from birth. In pity of her condition, the family has so far let her do mostly as she pleases, so that she often acts like a little savage. With her finger, Annie writes on her pupil's hand the name of objects, such as "cake" and "doll", to be obtained as a reward provided she imitate the writing on her own hand. When Helen gets the cake, she crams it indelicately in her mouth. When she partly spells back "doll", she unexpectedly hits her teacher's face with it and locks her inside the room. Helen's father, Captain Keller, has to retrieve the teacher through the window with a ladder. Annie next attempts to improve Helen's table manners, since she is in the habit of picking food from everybody's plate with her fingers. A difficult struggle ensues, but Helen at last eats from her own plate with a spoon and folds her napkin. But to achieve a higher level of comprehension, Annie insists on being left alone with her in a garden house, away from the family's distracting and overly tolerant influence. Helen succeeds in imitating 18 nouns and 3 verbs, but to her it is still a "finger-game", without understanding the fundamental concept that each thing has a name. At the end of a two-week period, Helen's mother is unable to tolerate a longer period of separation. When Helen returns at table with the family, she tests their level of tolerance, cramming food into her mouth with her fingers as she did before, which the family, but not Annie, is inclined to tolerate as a sort of homecoming. Exasperated, Helen drenches Annie with a pitcher-full of water. An even more exasperated Annie drags her filthy pupil to the water pump, where the latter seizes the connection between the sign on her hand and the water on her hand. She eagerly touches various objects, asking Annie to spell everything. Annie ends the day's lesson by triumphantly spelling on Helen's hand the word "teacher".
Edward Albee (1928-2016) achieved a potent domestic drama in "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1962), a title which refers to the English novelist, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), subject to psychotic episodes leading to suicide. “The title is a pun on the song ‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?’ with the name of ‘Virginia’ suggesting a woman’s search for consciousness, liberation, or separateness. At the end, “Martha admits her fear of Virginia Woolf, the fear of madness in denying reality” (Simard, 1984 p 39).
“Martha has been punishing George for twenty odd years because he stubbornly maintained himself and refused to become the fulfillment of her ambitions…Martha willfully set her identity and self-esteem in the person and life of the man she married and in the career she planned for him...Her major concern was an association with a husband who would make her appear interesting and important in the eyes of other people, particularly her father...She did nothing constructive to help herself to make life bearable for George or for herself. For example, there is little evidence that she ever took pride in homemaking...At her first serious transgression into fantasy, the associate professor of history has no clear plan of action but he knows that once private myths enter public life they have to be destroyed” (Stenz, 1978 pp 40-50). "Martha equates George’s stagnant position in the history department as failure...She throws the worst light on the ambitious wife for her husband’s sake, turning her aggression against him as a 'flop', part of the 'Humiliate the host' game, which George proficiently replaces with the 'Get the guests' game. When Martha counters with the 'Hump the hostess' game at which Nick fails from her viewpoint as well as 'Bringing up baby', George ends it all with the imagined child’s death. Although critics are amused with the first three failures in one’s profession, ability to entertain, and marriage, the last one makes them ‘restive under the impact’ (Porter, 1969, pp 228-239), critics being unused to thinking of a child’s death as a subject of even a dark comedy." “The only approach to an understanding of the child’s place in the drama is to accept it as an effect and not a cause of the couple’s predicament” (Rutenberg, 1969 p 104). In one view, the child “is neither the product nor the means of self-deception, for Martha and George are perfectly conscious of the fact that their son is a fiction…I can’t, whether Albee wants me to or not, accept that human beings may be sustained by illusions they know to be such” (Chester, 1963 p 299). However, it can be accepted if we consider the game approach.
After Martha's attempted infidelity, George, who had left the house, re-enters with a bunch of snapdragons which he hurls like spears at Martha and Nick: small phalli of his graceful symbolic revenge. In this one scene, George's commitment to imaginary deeds is completely visible" (Baxandall, 1965 pp 32-33). The play is fraught with destructive games and rules such as “taunt the guests” and “adultery”, with only “killing off the child” apt to improve matters (Lewis, 1965 p 92-94). "Their games are attempts to cope with the pain, either as distraction...or as a way of keeping themselves in shape for the battle...A particularly skilful blow is likely to be met with congratulations or mutual celebration, and they refuse to let each other relax and coast...The imaginary son compensated for their sterility, helped to hold them together, and gave them a constant in their lives, but he has become a weapon they use against each other, and therefore must be sacrificed" (Berkowitz, 1992 p 149). "George and Martha have managed the failure of their marriage through a ritualized game of one-upmanship involving humiliation and abuse followed by forgiveness and reconciliation. The centerpiece of their lives is an imaginary son for whom they have created a sequence of stories that connect, in provocative and destructive ways, with events that may or may not have marked their own unhealthy and unhappy lives. The 'Walpurgisnacht' the audience witnesses is occasioned by a visit from a young couple; he is a new member of the faculty, she a minister’s daughter given to hysterical pregnancies and drinking that encourages her to tell tales. During the course of the early morning hours, Martha tells the couple about their son, taunting her husband in the process, until George decides to perform the ultimate act and end their game: in a compelling and heart-rending story, he kills the son in a car crash, hoping to renew the relationship between himself and his wife without the props of illusion" (Schlueter, 2000 pp 310-311). “In the attention and care the child requires, the selfish and very human demands of the parents are turned into selfless giving…Where this transformation does not take place, sex seeks other outlets, searches for excitement, gratifies the normal desire for self-sacrifice in all kinds of perversions…The son-myth [in the play] is the embodiment of that [tendency]...Martha needs victims, and she can pick them out anywhere; but George is the only one who rises to the occasion each time she lashes out. There is some secret understanding between them; she has ruined him with her excessive demands and her domineering ways; but he has not been crushed. His strength reassures her, even when she forces it against herself. George is her conscience and her accuser…Frustration is the dramatic impulse of the play. The invitation to Nick and Honey is a frenzied attempt at oblivion through a kind of saturnalia; the verbal skirmishes are frustrated attempts at communication; the history of the two couples is the story of frustrated love; the accusations are frustrated attempts at understanding; a frustrated prayer celebrates the end of the nightmare” (Paolucci, 2000 pp 47-54). At the end, “the rhetorical gallantries and linguistic attacks are nowhere in evidence. These two connoisseurs of verbal dueling now communicate simply, directly, with no wasted emotion. Once ennobled by their lexical inventiveness, by the very performativity of their performance, conferring upon an illusion the status of objective reality, George and Martha are brought to earth, not merely by sacrificing the kind of language that so animates this evening’s actions. The game-playing now is over. In place of embellished repartee we hear a disjointed, splintered exchange, a duologue whose tonal quality emphasizes their entry into the here and now- and into the Real” (Roudané, 2017 pp 60-61).
“Where George fails Nick might succeed. He is willful in a petty way, knows exactly what he wants and is callous enough to reach out and grab it. His plans are clear and realizable. He is much more practical and less idealistic than George, but lacks George’s potential to adjust to what the world calls failure…He is unable to share his wife’s fears and hopes. He is absolutely callous to her emotional needs, bent on humoring her in order to get what he wants” (Paolucci, 2000 p 50). It is noteworthy that nobody pronounces Nick's name and that his wife's name, Honey, may merely be a term of perfunctory endearment. Although the older couple win out in sophisticated humor, there is some degree of parallel between the two, since George and Martha invent a child while Nick married Honey as a result of her hysterical pregnancy. As devotees to literature, critics such as Lewis (1965) often have an overly negative view of Nick as a ‘scientist without vision’, a ‘part of the establishment, the new conformity in charge of rendering the world toward a mechanized dehumanization of the future" (p 91), as if they believed George's assessment of Nick's genetic research: "the ants will take over the world". Others criticize the young couple as leading a "life of debasement and pandering" (Krasner, 2006 pp 81-82). When Nick no longer knows whether George and Martha are telling the truth, George responds: “You’re not supposed to.” “The unavailability of a verifiable reality is fundamental not only to Albee’s work but to 20th century art…Over and over George and Martha accuse each other of being unable to distinguish the facts from the fantasies of their lives, the most crucial of which is an imaginary child who has lived at the center of their marriage...Is Albee showing us that when reality is too awful we retreat into fantasy? Or is he showing us that when fantasy and reality are not kept distinct, despair is the inevitable outcome?...If Martha is, by virtue of her position, the queen of New Carthage, she is the Dido to Nick’s Aeneas, the ‘historical inevitability’ whose new Rome represents the soulless, militarized world George fears” (Zinman, 2011 pp 40-47).
Despite the drama’s acknowledged power, von Szeliski (1971) complained that the ambitions of tragic protagonists in the modern era are too narrow. “What are the ambitions and goals in the modern attempts at tragedy? In Albee’s 'Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf' and 'Tiny Alice', the characters' dramatic action is to protect themselves from emptiness" (p 119).
"Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Time: 1960s. Place: New Carthage, New England, USA.
George, a college professor, returns from a faculty party with his wife, Martha, the daughter of the college president, to their house. "What a dump!" she exclaims in imitation of a movie scene. They have invited over a younger couple, Nick and Honey. The after-party develops obnoxiously, as Martha taunts George for his many failures. George leaves, returns with a gun, and fires it, but it is only a stage gun with an umbrella popping out. Nick and Honey grow uneasier as verbal abuses escalate. In disgust,Honey runs into the bathroom to vomit. The men discuss their life-experiences, Nick about his wife's false pregnancy of hysterical origin and George about a friend who accidently killed his father and mother. When the women re-enter the room, Martha mentions George's unpublished autobiographical novel, including the story he had just told. An angry George chokes her, but then desists. They both decide to play a game called "Get the guests". George tells the story of a "mousie" woman, to shame Nick, the very tale the latter told about his wife. Honey feels sick again and rushes out. Martha immodestly attempts to seduce Nick before George's very face, who, undeterred, calmly reads a book all the while. But as Martha and Nick walk upstairs, George throws his book down in anguish. Later, Martha reappears alone, shouting at the others to come out from hiding. She is joined by Nick and then George with flowers for the dead. Martha and George trade insults again, but this time against Nick, too drunk to have made love with Martha. The final game they play is "Bringing up baby", whereby George and Martha speak about their son, Martha accusing her husband of destroying him while he recites parts of a requiem. He then informs her that he received a telegram about their son's death, matching his earliest story. Though Martha screams and collapses, George explains to the bewildered younger couple that they never had a son. After Martha recovers and George sings: "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" she anxiously replies "I am, George... I am."
Another play of the 1960s worth remembering is "The effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds" (1964) by Paul Zindel (1936-2003).
Fearnow (2007) noted that the play concludes with Tillie's message of hope from several sectors, including the love of science, an unusual attitude on the part of dramatists in general. The student "wins the science fair, and her narration regarding the project, its demonstration of how a subtle, invisible but powerful force from outside may affect living things is a memorable statement of the scientifically unexplainable assertion of disciplined intelligence and good will in young people deprived of these things in their environment" (p 426).
"The effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds"
Time: 1960s. Place: USA.
Speaking with a teacher over the telephone, Beatrice denies that she wants to keep her daughter, Tillie, away from school, only occasionally doing so when she is needed at home. Beatrice complains of rabbit droppings found throughout the house, the consequence of Tillie's pet rabbit. The other daughter, Ruth, informs her mother that Tillie was laughed at for appearing with her hair standing on end and "that old jumper with the raggy slip" during a school presentation on the atom. "Matilda, if you can't get yourself to dress properly before going to school, you're never going to go again," the irate mother asserts. Far from being discouraged, Tillie participates in a science competition by exposing marigold seeds to various levels of gamma rays from cobalt-60 radioactivity at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "If you want to know what half-life is, just ask me," Beatrice comments. She nervously consults school authorities to make sure exposure to the plants will not cause sterility among house occupants. The family's main income is to care for old invalids, at this moment a demented woman surnamed Nanny. An added difficulty is ensuring the safety of Ruth, subject to epileptic seizures. Though planning eventually to open a tea-shop, Beatrice often has despairing thoughts. "What's left for me?" she asks Ruth. One day, unnerved about the rabbit in the house, she tells Tillie: "So, by the end of the week, you get rid of that cottontail compost heap and we'll get you a job down at the five-and-ten cent store." But she is interrupted by Ruth, announcing that Tillie has been chosen among the five finalists at the science competition. Uninterested, Beatrice tells the school principal that she does not wish Tillie to participate, "because she is not as careful in her home duties as she is with man-in-the-moon marigolds", but eventually yields. On the day of the finals, Beatrice orders Ruth to remain at home with Nanny. In anger, Ruth calls her mother by the name she was once known by in her school-years: "Betty the Loon". Beatrice suddenly freezes and decides to stay at home herself. With her daughters away, she cancels her agreement with Nanny's mother, the "career woman of the year", and kills the rabbit. During her presentation, Tillie explains that the shape of the marigolds differs because of mutations arising from their exposure to various levels of radioactivity. When Ruth announces to her mother that Tillie won first prize, she sees the dead rabbit and begins to convulse. Intending to open the tea-shop, Beatrice refuses to call a doctor in for her daughter. "We're going to need every penny to get this place open," she specifies. Tillie reflects on the conclusion of her project. "For one thing," she wonders, "the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the moon marigolds has made me curious about the sun and the stars, for the universe itself must be like a world of great atoms- and I want to know more about it...atom...atom...what a beautiful word!"
"The boys in the band" (1968) by Mart Crowley (1935-?) appeared as a boulevard-type comedy transformed into deeper dramatic depth.
"The play demands study as the linchpin of modern gay-male drama and, possibly, sensibility. [But there are obstacles in appreciating the play, some readers being disgruntled at the dramatic characters' self-loathing, considering them a “disgusting group of so-called friends” liable to “nauseating self-pity” (Schiavi, 2001 p 81). Indeed, Dolan (2007) criticized the play as possessing "retrograde political meanings" (p 490). In matters of gender and sexual orientation, some critics only value a play when positive images of the characters are prominent. In the context of the play, self-disgust can be seen as a normal response to the disgust surrounding them.
"The boys in the band"
Time: 1960s. Place: New York, USA.
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Michael is unemployed but skillful at dodging creditors. His homosexual partner, Donald, is a maintenance man and consults a psychiatrist for depression. This experience has helped him gain insight into his mental condition. Every time he fails, his mother responds with love, so that he associates the two together. "Failure is the only thing with which I feel at home," he despondently concludes. At Michael's apartment, they prepare a birthday party for Harold and have invited two homosexual couples: Hank and Larry along with Emory and Bernard. While several dance with abandon, the door buzzer sounds and Hank lets in Alan, a friend of Michael who has sought to prevent him from knowing about his sexual orientation. To tease Michael, an effeminate Emory goes out of his way to show it. Knowing Alan to be upset, Michael retires with him in his bedroom while Donald and Larry, eying each other after having met in the baths once and slept together, talk quietly apart. Alan does not disclose the reason why he is upset and prepares to leave. As Emory continues to joke equivocally, an exasperated Alan hits him on the mouth, Emory shrieking as he bleeds. After vomiting and missing the dinner and the gift distribution, Alan prepares to leave but is intercepted by Michael, who proposes a social game: "affairs of the heart", when the player must call by phone "the one person we truly believe we have loved". Hank refuses to play, but Larry insists he must. Bernard nervously calls up an old flame of his, but cannot reach him. Yet he bitterly regrets the aborted call and tries to dissuade Emory from doing the same. Nevertheless, Emory reaches his high-school love but without being able to reveal his own name. Hank takes the phone from the gypsy-footed Larry and calls up their answering service. To return the favor, though it is understood he will always seek other lovers one at a time, Larry calls up Hank on the apartment's other phone. It is Alan's turn. Michael suggests a friend's name with whom Alan had sexual relations twelve years ago, but he denies being a homosexual and calls his estranged wife instead. Harold wearies of Michael, knowing his aggressive behavior is the result of self-disgust at being a homosexual. Fearing a panic attack, Michael leaves to hear a midnight mass.
Joseph A Walker
Also of note in late 20th century American theatre is Joseph A Walker (1935-2003) with "The River Niger" (1972).
"The River Niger"
Time: 1970s. Place: New York, USA.
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John Williams, housepainter and part-time poet, and his friend, Dr Dudley Stanton, a medical practitioner, are surprised at the sudden arrival of Ann, the intended of John's son, Jeff, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force about to follow. John’s wife, Mattie, greets her kindly but not her alcoholic mother, Wilhemina, who considers Ann a brazen woman. Originally from South Africa, Ann is a nurse from Quebec, Canada, who attended to Jeff after he broke his ankle in a skiing accident. At the door, Ann greets Chips, a street-gang member who wants to know whether Jeff has yet arrived. He leers, smacks her buttocks, and threatens her with a switchblade after she slaps his face. The gang-leader, Mo, enters next with his girlfriend, Gail, along with another gang-member, Al. Mo is determined to stay until Jeff’s arrival, but at length is persuaded by John’s M1 carbine to come back later. Without telling anyone else, Jeff arrives at night in Ann’s room. The next morning, John sneaks off with Dudley from housework duties. Mattie explains to Ann that she is indulgent about John’s lapses in view of his harboring her two sisters and mother over several years some time ago. “Child, Johnny was painting houses all morning, working the graveyard shift at the post office, and driving a cab on his days off,” she explains. Ann is alone as Al and Skeeter, another gang-member, arrive to find out whether Jeff has arrived, which she denies. Al is looking to avenge the murder of Buckley, a police officer who provided drugs to schoolgirls in exchange for sexual favors. Skeeter thinks it is someone outside the gang. After desperate coaxing, Skeeter is relieved to obtain scag (phencyclidine) from Al. They are joined by Chips, eager to cajole Ann to bed with him until threatened by Jeff's sudden appearance. Mo arrives to protect Chips, but fails to convince Jeff to join their gang. John and Dudley come back drunk. John is elated to see his son but wants to see him in his uniform. Jeff refuses. Harassed about that subject, Jeff finally admits flunking out of aviator school. Disappointed, John goes off on a bender for six days. Mo returns to asks Jeff a favor: surveying a bugged public phone to be used by one of their gang-members suspected as a police informer. Jeff reluctantly agrees. John returns only to learn that Mattie has cancer and will be admitted to a hospital in three days. He is devastated but nevertheless completes his poem on the River Niger for her sake. Mo and Skeeter are hindered on their way to plant dynamite inside a government building when the latter is told by a police officer to halt. Instead, he runs and receives a gunshot wound. After bringing the officer down with two sticks of dynamite, Mo drags Skeeter away to the Williams house, where they are joined by Al and Chips, but the house is quickly surrounded by police officers. Jeff accuses Al of being the man he heard over the public phone, but he denies it. To coax him into admitting it, Jeff falsely confesses himself as Buckley’s killer. Incensed, Al pulls out a revolver while Mo, Skeeter, and Chips, to protect Jeff, cry out that they killed Buckley. When John, also armed with a gun, tries to intercede, Al whirls around and mortally wounds him but dies immediately when he returns fire. To protect his son, John orders the gang-members to hide their guns before the police officers charge inside and then put the blame on him after wiping Al’s gun and putting his fingerprints over the handle.
Albert Ramsdell Gurney (1930 -2017) achieved success in a slice-of-life drama, "The Wayside Motor Inn" (1977). The play has affinities with Schnitzler’s “The merry-go-round” (1897), both containing ten characters, except that the latter is organized sequentially and the former simultaneously. Gurney also wrote “What I did that summer” (1983) about Charlie, an adolescent whose family, Grace, his mother, and his sister, Elsie, worry over the influence exerted by Anna, the so-called “pigwoman” for having taken over a property once used as a pigsty. Anna tries to wean Charlie away from common middle-class values but is unable to.
"The Wayside Motor Inn"
Time: 1970s. Place: Near Boston, Massachussetts, USA.
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After a tiring drive, Frank and Jessie arrive at the inn, he more exhausted than she because of his heart condition. At the same time, Vince arrives with his son, Mark, a candidate to enter Harvard University next fall, the father being more enthusiastic than the son, who has diarrhea at the thought of this project. Soon after, Phil enters with Sally, a young couple living in dormitories who have had no sexual intercourse for six months and plan to sleep together at a special place, he more enthusiastic than she, who worries over whether Phil gave the impression at the reception desk that she was a prostitute. “I just paid, Sal,” Phil retorts. “They don’t care as long as you pay.” “Have you told your roommates to move out so I can move in?” she asks. He has not, so that she accuses him of being “scared of personal commitments”. To improve his son’s appearance in regard to a Harvard alumnus, Bill Baldwin who may help his candidacy, Vince has bought Mark a shirt. It is pink, Mark dislikes it, but feels forced to wear it. Andy, a medical doctor now with mostly administrative duties in running a hospital, arrives and calls up his estranged wife, Ruth, to settle material details of their divorce. Having felt cornered with medical duties, a wife, and five children, he accepted a better position in Pittsburgh, but Ruth refused to follow him. She agrees to come over. Still irritated about the shirt, Mark wants to take a year off and work in a garage. “I love cars, dad,” he states. “You’ll love Harvard,” Vince responds. Ray arrives and calls up a wife who likes to check up on him on his travels. He next calls Marlene, but is angry after discovering that a woman he slept with does not even remember him. Jessie dislikes the inn as much as Sally, suggesting that she and Frank should drive five more miles to stay at their daughter’s house. But he is too exhausted and so she goes off alone, frantic to hold her daughter’s baby. When Ruth arrives, she and Andy immediately bicker over who gets what in the matter of furniture and books. They leave for the house so that he can “repair the damage” she inflicted on their children while talking about him. Ray calls room service but is unable to enjoy his meal when the waitress, Sharon, wearing a corny, updated Pilgrim uniform, constantly criticizes the quality of the food of her own employer. He has seen her before but does not remember where. With Jessie out, Frank feels ill and asks at the reception desk for a doctor, but Andy’s phone rings with no one around to answer it. On their way to meet Baldwin, Mark replaces the pink shirt with a working man’s blue shirt, at which Vince is offended. “When I introduce you, what’ll I say? my son the hood, my son the mechanic?” he asks sarcastically and then rips it down the front. Jessie is unable to follow the road directions correctly, getting stuck around the turnpike, and so is forced to drive back. When Sharon returns for the tray of food, Ray suddenly remembers where he first saw her, at a protest rally as he was going off as a soldier; she does not remember him but they agree to meet after her work-day is done. When Frank reveals his mild attack, Jessie calls up their daughter to reach a doctor. Ruth is incensed on seeing Andy in possession of photo albums she feels are hers. They squabble, fight over them, and lie huddled in each other’s arms amid torn pictures. Feeling guilty over the torn shirt, Vince randomly knocks on Jessie’s door for needle and thread and by chance gets them. Still unable to get into the mood for sexual activity, Sally enters the bathtub to wash; Phil follows her. After being fired when a customer reported her negative comments about the food, Sharon returns to Ray's room, but she and Ray are unable to decide where to go. Andy wants to stay with Ruth awhile. “If you want to come home, Andy,” she warns, “I want more than one night.” They go out together. When Ray admits to having a wife, Sharon balks. “I happen to want a more personal relationship,” she announces on her way out. In the bathtub, Sally giggles and squeals while Vince triumphantly presents Mark with his shirt sewn up. “Do you want to check it with Bill Baldwin?” Mark asks. “Touché, pal,” Vince responds as they go out together. Jessie tells Frank that their daughter and husband have arrived to take him to a doctor. Phil and Sally are elated at having made it in the bathtub and want more of it in bed. Jessie exuberantly carries a baby in her arms while Frank is paralyzed in pain.
Bernard Pomerance (1940-?) won plaudits with "The elephant man" (1977), based on the life of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890).
This "drama of twenty-one short scenes, each with just such a philosophical or moral punctum often piercingly put, examines the abnormalities of society more than those of the irregular prophet in our midst. Throughout the play the issue is one of ethics, as the outcast protagonist learns to deal with the reality of the doctor's puritanical world. The text is spare, trimmed of every excess word; issues are introduced just enough to lead us to reflect on what we do and who we are. The plot takes its predictable existentialist turn when the patient examines the dreaming doctor, ironically inverting the words of the doctor's own diagnosis back upon him to illuminate the shadow sides of our so-called normalcy- only to find it gross. Perhaps we are the circus in which the 'elephant man' remains indeed only the side show, a minor character? And we thought we came to the theatre...to stare at the freak" (Brown, 1980 p 434).
Simon (1979) criticized Pomerance because he “minimizes or omits many of the decencies that were, in actuality, shown Merrick even by some very ordinary people, and he makes virtually all of Merrick's prosperous, highly placed friends and patrons appear suspect: either they profit from the Elephant Man directly or indirectly, or they can project their private problems onto him and, seeing him cheerful in adversity, feel purged through him… To drive home his anti-societal stance, the dramatist starts out with a Treves who is much more smug and Victorianly hypocritical than the real Treves was, and ends with a Treves profoundly shaken by doubts such as his real-life counterpart never had…As the play progresses, Treves's hatred for social success, and thus also for himself, grows in intensity, till, toward the end, the man who taught Merrick that we live by rules, and that rules make us happy, laments: ‘I am an extremely successful and respected Englishman in a successful and respected England which informs us daily by the way it lives that it wants to die. I am in despair, in fact.’ What has happened in the play to warrant such a change of attitude? Little if anything. At one point, Treves seems to have become embroiled in the shady financial speculations of an aristocrat-Lord John, an obviously fictitious character-who has feigned interest in Merrick. All this is barely hinted at, yet it is meant to imply that Treves has somehow abused his patient. Also, Mrs Kendal, whom Treves summons to bring feminine grace to the deprived Merrick, becomes ever fonder of that gifted unfortunate. One day, during one of her frequent, friendly visits, she feels so strongly for this youth who worships women without ever having seen one of them naked, that she lets down her hair and disrobes to the waist for him. Merrick is ecstatic, but Treves enters and, scandalized, chases Mrs Kendal away. We don't know what would have happened without this intervention; as it is, Mrs Kendal never returns and Merrick goes into a decline from which he never recovers...We simply do not see the reasons for Treves's moral and political change...Merrick begins to win over Mrs Kendal with his critique of Romeo and Juliet which he has just finished reading. Had he been Romeo, says John, would not just have held the mirror to Juliet's breath. To which the experienced actress, who has played Juliet, replies, ‘You mean the scene where Juliet appears to be dead and he holds a mirror to her breath’…Nowhere in Shakespeare's play does Romeo hold a mirror to Juliet’s breath, which Mrs Kendal, with Juliet in her repertory, must clearly know” (pp 404-408).
"The elephant man"
Time: Late 19th century. Place: England and Belgium.
Dr Treves, a surgeon who works at a London hospital, goes to a freak show starring Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man". He wants to study his pathology, consisting of abnormally large bone size. The owner of the show, Ross, agrees to sell his star to him. After being examined, Merrick returns on stage but is not allowed to present himself in Brussels, because the sight of him is judged to be indecent. Ross sends him back to London, where Treves can study him further. He is about to hire a nurse when she sees Merrick naked in a bath and refuses the position. When Bishop How learns of his existence, he decides to teach him the Christian religion. Due to his letter printed in a newspaper and subsequent donations, Carr-Gomm, administrator at the hospital, has secured his case for life. Treves protects Merrick in various ways, including firing an attendant for peeking inside his room. He hires Mrs Kendal, an actress, more capable than most at hiding the revulsion the sight of him usually inspires, to converse with Merrick as a companion. She is surprised on hearing him discuss with sensitivity Romeo and Juliet despite having no practical experience in matters of love. Under the bishop's influence, Merrick builds a model church. But yet the problem of sex crops up again. Derrick tells Kendal he longs for a mistress. In sympathy with his desires but unwilling to sleep with him, the actress undresses so that he can at least see a woman's naked body for the first time, but they are interrupted by the shocked Treves, who dismisses her. Ross wants Merrick back, but Merrick's medical condition worsens so that he follow. The more normal Merrick pretends to be, the worse his condition becomes, and yet he is able to finish his model church before dying. Carr-Gomm reads to Treves another letter meant for the newspaper, which describes Merrick’s stay and death at the hospital. After asking him whether he has anything to add, a distressed Treves at first can find nothing. When he returns to say he has found something at last, the letter has already been sent.
Beth Henley (1952-?)'s drama of four sisters, "Crimes of the heart" (1979), touched a chord.
In much of the play, the serious is juxtaposed with the trivial, as when the sisters' flighty-headed first cousin, Chick, reacts to Babe’s crime thus: “It’s just too awful. How I’m gonna continue holding my head up high in this community I do not know.- Did you remember to pick up those pantyhose for me?” (Demastes, 1988, pp 136-139). Lack of feeling more seriously marks the event when Babe mentions that she served her husband lemonade after shooting him, presumably because he appeared thirsty while losing blood and from her habit of attending to him at table. In both cases, a woman’s wish (pantyhose) or role (serving at table) appears in the context of a man’s pain, as a sort of gallows’ humor against the offending opposite sex. The sisters sympathize more with the fate of animals than that of men, death of a cat or horse more than their grandfather's coma, even laughed over by Lenny and Babe. "By the play's end, the sisters reunite as three stronger and feistier women who are family created anew. Their jubilant, golden last scene becomes a group awakening and catharsis" (Craig, 2004 p 159). To other critics, the "golden last scene" appears more trivial. "The basic joke of 'Crimes of the heart' is a moral and emotional displacement that makes the sisters' response to events always somehow off-centre...The play ends with the sisters laughing over the pleasure of eating birthday cake for breakfast, their inherent innocence guaranteeing them happiness" (Berkowitz, 1992 p 200) or tolerance to unhappiness.
"Crimes of the heart"
Time: 1959. Place: Hazlehurst, Mississippi, USA.
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Babe is out on bail after shooting in the stomach her husband, Zackery, a senator, who lies in critical condition at the hospital. "Don't worry, Meg, jail's going be a relief to me," she assures her older sister. "I can learn to play my new saxophone." Babe further reveals she had an adulterous relation with a fifteen-year old black boy, Willie Jay. Her husband had pushed the boy down a staircase, after which she shot him, made a pitcher of lemonade for herself, and offered him some as he lay bleeding. She first thought to shoot herself, but was then reminded of her mother's suicide by hanging herself along with the family cat after her father left the family. Thinking this over, Babe cuts out and pastes newspaper articles of her mother's case. She is considerably more upset, to the extent of banging her body against the furniture, after learning from her lawyer that, suspicious of Babe, Zackery's sister hired a private detective who took pictures of her and Willie Jay copulating in her garage. However, her lawyer obtains compromising evidence of Zackery's adulteries and is confident of striking a deal so that she can get off with a lighter jail sentence. Nevertheless, Willie Jay, being subject to possible violent retributions on the part of white racists, must leave town. The thought of losing Willie Jay and her husband's threat at committing her in a psychiatric institution on his way to recovery at the local hospital are sufficient reasons for her to hang herself, but the rope she hangs from breaks. Another suicide attempt fails when Meg arrives in time to remove Babe's head inside a turned-on gas oven. Joining the two sisters is the eldest, Lenny, who may renew relations with an old flame of hers. The two sisters buy Babe a birthday cake, though one day late. The three enjoy each other's company despite the uncertainty of Babe's eventual fate.
The subject of "'Night, Mother" (1982) by Marsha Norman is the psychological impact of a daughter's wished-for suicide on herself and her mother.
Dolan (1991) criticized the play as being "weak...from a materialistic feminist perspective" (pp 35-36) if the purpose of a play is to raise women's self-esteem, but strong if the purpose is to raise awareness of a woman's loss of purpose. "Jessie wants to commit suicide not because her life is worse then Thelma’s but because she refuses to accept it...Jessie says that if she could help her son, she would not do it. She feels helpless to help him or her mother, but is not helpless in regard to suicide, so that her suicide, being under her control, has more meaning than her existence. In her whole life, she suffers from the loss of something worse than the loss of father, husband, son, her own self, 'somebody I waited for and never came,' she says, 'and never will. I’m what was worth waiting for and I didn’t make it” (Bigsby, 1999 pp 233-237).
Although Jessie denies that her purpose is motivated by anger, she responds angrily several times, as when Thelma suggests calling her brother over in this emergency. She is also angry when referring to Cecil's handiwork skills, because although he can build houses but not happiness. Jessie's present condition resembles that of Thelma's friend, Agnes, who several times burned down derelict houses as a reaction against the men she lived with. Jessie approves her pyromania. Likewise, Jessie wants to strike down the house of her body as a final gesture of autonomy...In destroying houses, literally and symbolically, women paradoxically experience growth and cause for celebration" (Paige, 2007 pp 395-396).
Time: 1980s. Place: USA.
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Jessie announces to her mother, Thelma, that she intends to commit suicide. Knowing Thelma to be helpless over most household matters, she has written down notes on how to manage food deliveries and laundry and where everything is. To dissuade her from suicide, Thelma promises to change the nature of their relation, in particular not rely so much on her. She acknowledges that allowing Jessie to come back to her house after the latter's divorce from Cecil was a mistake. In desperation, Thelma probes into possible reasons Jessie might want to kill herself, hoping to counter them and not be left alone. Jessie hates the state of the world, feels she cannot work at anything worthwhile, is tired of it all. Thelma probes into the past, admits she never loved her mostly silent husband, now dead, though he appeared to have loved his daughter. Jessie is aghast on learning that her mother never sought medical help for her husband's absence seizures or her daughter's while still a child. To encourage her to lead a healthy outdoor life, Cecil and she took up horse-riding, but she fell off of one and has been subject ever since to generalized seizures, though well controlled. Thelma blames Cecil for leaving her, to which Jessie replies sarcastically: "Mama, you don't pack your garbage when you move." More desperate than ever, Thelma attempts to distract her daughter by talking about mutual acquaintances and food items once liked, but with no result. She next tries pity as a motivation to shake her resolve. "Jessie, how can I live here without you?" she asks, and lets her know about her overwhelming feeling of failure as a mother. "How can I live with myself after this, Jessie?" she further asks. But Jessie does not bother to argue about any reason to remain in this life or feebly changes the subject. She has arranged for her widow's dress to be cleaned, the one she looked so well in. Thelma starts to give up, especially after hearing her daughter consider matters relating to the funeral ceremony. "You'll probably see people you haven't seen for years, but I thought about what you should say to get you over that nervous part when they first come in," Jessie says, always the practical one. Jessie next instructs her on how best to handle the aftermath. "Now, when you hear the shot, I don't want you to come in," she advises. "First of all, you won't be able to get in by yourself, but I don't want you trying." She then tells her mother that she will leave her brother a list of Christmas gifts meant for her, spread over many years, and shows her boxes containing her belongings to be distributed to her drug-dependent son and to herself. Thelma calmly looks over the stuff, but when Jessie rises to go, she panics and tries without success to prevent her. Jessie says: "'Night, mother," locks the door in her room, and shoots herself.
in "Dinner with friends" (1998), Donald Margulies (1954-?) wrote on a neglected subject: what happens to the friends of a divorcing couple?
"Dinner with friends"
Time: 1980s-1990s. Place: New England, USA.
While entertaining Beth over dinner, Gabe and Karen receive the unpleasant news that she and her husband, Tom, intend to divorce. Tom is upset that Beth revealed this information in his absence, thereby serving a biased version of their troubles to their best friends. A distressed Gabe tries to determine whether the divorce may be prevented, but he finds Tom adamant. This is no act of madness. Instead, Tom says: "I've gone sane." In part because Tom rejects Beth to have a relation with another woman, Karen takes her part, finding his behavior typical of men. "It's like men get by for years without really talking to you and then, one day, when they finally do, it's to tell you they're leaving," she asserts. But then Karen is stunned and much less sympathetic towards Beth on learning that she quickly finds another man, an old lawyer-colleague of Tom's. When Karen further learns that Beth intends to marry him, she thinks her friend might give the matter more time. However, Beth has no wish to reflect further on this matter and resents her friend saying that. "I'm finally feeling whole, finally feeling I'm on the right track for the first time in my life, and what do you do? You undermine me," Beth accuses her. She further accuses her friend of being unhappy at not having a chance to feel superior at all times. "I was the Mess, the Ditz, the Comic Relief," she specifies. "You got to be Miss Perfect: everything just right." Gabe's view of his friendship with Tom is also given a serious blow on finding out that all that time he was never really happy with Beth. "Wait a minute," an irate Gabe interrupts Tom. "You were faking it? You mean to tell me that all those years- all those years, Tom!- the four of us together, the dinners, the vacations, the hours of videotape, you were just being a good sport?" When Gabe informs Karen that soon after their marriage Beth engaged in an adulterous relation with her "new man", she becomes dejected. "What does this say about our friendship?" she wonders. "What were all those years about?" Both consider that they are unlikely to remain close friends with them. Instead, they settle in to concentrate on their own marriage.