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 Angus Wilson
- 7 T.S. 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 Bernard Pomerance
- 17 Beth Henley
- 18 Marsha Norman
- 19 Donald Margulies
Important American playwrights writing mostly or completely after World War II include Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), author of Important plays by Williams include "The glass menagerie" (1944), "A streetcar named desire" (1947), and "Summer and smoke" (1948).
In "A streetcar named desire", Blanche is the southern belle clashing in the new south, a more hostile environment for such as she, reflecting the passing of the south, 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” (Porter, 1969, p 154). 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 (p 173). 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).
"The glass menagerie"
Time: 1930s. Place: St. Louis, USA.
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During an evening at home with her son, Tom, and her daughter, Laura, Amanda recalls her youth 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. 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. She 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 may 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 O'Connor'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. She 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. Amanda does most of the talking. She has 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 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 he 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.
"Summer and smoke"
Time: 1910s-1920s. Place: Glorious Hill, USA.
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Alma is seeking 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 stays only briefly. She has difficulty sleeping. She comes over to consult with Dr Buchanan, John's father, at 2 AM, but John prevents her from seeing him, diagnosing loneliness as her main trouble. One day, they 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. The angry 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. He returns to be engaged to Nellie, a musical student of Alma's. Nellie is grateful to Alma, because her future husband told her of the fortunate influence she had on him. Alma seeks him out one more time, now willing to experience life in the flesh. Reminded she once refused him, she now says: "But now I have changed my mind, or the girl who said "no" she dosn't exist any more, she died last summer- suffocated in smoke 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) became a prominent playwright with "Death of a salesman" (1949) and "The crucible" (1952).
As Porter (1969) pointed out, Willy is a victim of the idea that financial success 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) (129). “In Alger…the key to success is not genius or gentle breeding but character” (p 130), 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. Driver (1966) complains that Willy’s law is not countered by another such as some sort of “law of love” (p 111), for 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).
To some critics of "Death of a salesman", 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 (Stambusky, 1968). Freedman ( 1971) agrees that Loman never discovers what his flaw is (p 45) Loman’s 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” (Freedman, 1971, p 79). von Szeliski (1971) criticizes the merger ambitions and goals in modern attempts at tragedy.. He finds that “not being able to walk away” is Miller’s idea of tragedy (p 173).”
In "The crucible", 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” (Porter, 1969 p 188). 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” (p 195).
"Death of a salesman"
Time: 1940s. Place: USA.
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. 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 his 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 washroom, Biff suddenly leaves, while his brother also leaves 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. A frustrated Willy learns the truth about Biff's rejection and 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 not to know anything 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 of exaggerating 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. At the funeral, Biff refuses to take the life insurance money for a business career, but Happy decides he will follow his father's wishes.
Time: 1690s. Place: Salem, Massachusetts.
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Reverend Parris' daughter, Betty, lies in bed unresponsive. Her father caught her dancing in the forest with her friends and she fears punishment while he fears his enemies will use this incident to bring him down, should the girls have 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," says Ann. She is convinced a black slave, Tituba, conversed with the dead to find out who murdered her seven babies, dead at childbirth. Reverend Hale arrives from out of town to investigate the rumors of witchcraft. Abigail seizes this opportunity to accuse Tituba of conjuring. 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 suspects increases. John and Elizabeth Proctor learn from their servant, Mary, that 34 women have been arrested an 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, she wants 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 disbelives it. Although Hale, having signed 72 death-warrants, nervously wishes this accusation to be seriously examined, Danforth resists, so that Mary's version is not believed. 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 on, Danforth is deeply troubled on learning that Abigail and Mercy Lewis robbed Parris and escaped 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.
The social content of William Inge (1913-1973) is also prominent in "The dark at the top of the stairs" (1957).
"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. She has her own troubles, including the troubling fact of her not making love with her husband, Morris, for over three years. "I never did enjoy it as some women say they do," she admits. Reenie is anxious about going on a blind date with a stranger, Sammy, to the extent of vomiting 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 her brother, Sonny, as they head to a party given by the rich Ralston family. As they leave, 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 by saying 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 in an excited fashion, announcing 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 to dance. "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 them, exclaiming that she will not tolerate a Jew dancing with her daughter. Rubin returns home to say he lost his job. He is sorry for hitting her, 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-?) 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, described in James Frazer’s “The golden bough” (18). 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, as 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 there is any cornfield growth so that he 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 that she somehow could not see it before of his crime. Miraculous vegetation seen as a symbol of Vince’s inheritance from Dodge (Marranca and Dasgupta, 1981 p 108). Marranca and Dasgupta (1981) 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). Critics are 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. The empty refrigerator, shows an image of “deprivation in the land of plenty” (p 106)
Time: 1970s. Place: Illinois, USA.
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In a neglected farm-house, Tilden surprises his father, Dodge, by showing him that corn can picked from their fiel 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. He does not answer her directly but 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. Unexpectedly, 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. She 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," he says, for which Dodge admonishes him. She offers to help Tilden prepare and cook the carrots, but Vince considers this a distraction. To jog Dodge's memory of him, he 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 is more relaxed, quite the lady 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 does not agree. 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," confesses Dodge. Suddenly, a drunk Vince crashes in through the screen door from the porch and smashes bottles. He starts to take charge and goes one step further than Shelley did 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 he enters 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, 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, Ella, 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. 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. He considers his action reasonable in view of the fact that he owes money and intends to escape to Mexico with the new-found cash. He 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 informs her 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, he 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 says 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, he 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 along with 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, he says. However, his anger is aroused on learning that she expects the visit of a man called Martin. While waiting, he takes from his horse trailer a shotgun and then practices roping tricks inside the room. Suddenly, a car's headlights appears at the window. When May informs him a woman is 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 stop. 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. He explains to Martin their situation. He and May are lovers from the time of adolescence, though she is 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 explains. "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 going from one town to another. Eventually, he left and was never seen again. "And my mother just turned herself inside out," explains May. "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, the old man 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," answers Eddie. When Eddie and May approach each other, their father is shocked. "Stay away from her," he warns. "What the hell are you doin'? You two can't come together." Despite his cries, they 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, certain that her lover will return to the countess.
Also attracting notice in the 1970s, David Mamet (1947-?) wrote "Sexual perversity in Chicago" (1974), "American Buffalo" (1975), and "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984). The language is rough with a Pinter-like style, in which characters needlessly repeat themselves, or speak while conveying little new information; but it is also new in that crude speech sometimes attains some degree of power because of the dramatic context.
Demastes (1988 p 80) cited several critics who complain that almost nothing happens in "American Buffalo". Yet here, as in “Waiting for Godot” (1953) and “Hamlet (1600), inaction is as dramatically tense as action. Other critics see the play as “an indictment of the American business ethic” (pp 82-83) when it is only a thief’s delusion of being a businessman.
"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 for 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 her quickness. 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. They continue to see each other. One time in bed, she describes what she thinks 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. Seeing Danny entrenched in a long-term relation with Deborah, Bernie advises him to drop her. But Danny, refusing to heed this advice, moves in with her. "I give you two months," comments Joan 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 unravel. On 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 the break-up was all her fault. Joan does not believe that for one moment. Left with no girl-friend, Danny joins Bernie at gazing on women clad in bathing-suits walking on a beach. "I see no reason to go on living," says a suddenly depressed Bernie. "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 off. "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 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.
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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. 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 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 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 before the burglary with a client named James, but 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, Ricky's client, James, enters the office. Suspecting 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. When James tells him that his wife wants him to cancel, Ricky assures him that this is a “common reaction” to the size the investment, a prudent reaction “that women have”. His attempts to trick James backfires when John says that James’ check has been sent to the bank after Ricky told the client it could not be. As the detective interviews each agent, Shelly misinterprets the situation. Shelly curses James 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 left the contract on his desk the previous night during the robbery. As a result, John accuses Shelly to be the robber, as only he 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 his client for the eight units is insane and his check worthless. John 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.
"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 in cunjuction 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 says. 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 of 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 Serth'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," he reveals, "and it grieved him to see me carrying other people's songs and not having one of my own." Seth admonishes another lodger, Jeremy, for having being arrested on the charge of drunken behavior. He 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 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, Herald interrupts them, admonishing their use of the Holy Spirit's name and starting to take his clothes off, only to collapse, finally calmed down by Bynum. After Herlad'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," Herlad 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 Herlad, 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). As Porter (1969) pointed out, 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." 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) (Brandt, 1962).
"The cocktail party"
Time: 1940s. Place: England.
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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 be back 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. To escape such feelings, 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 dialog is taken from the novel of the same name with one important change: there is no meeting between Frankie and the lusty soldier.
"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 much hesitating, 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 her, 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 hand over money 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. Frankie promises to visit her, but Berenice doubts she ever will.
Also of note: "Tea and sympathy" (1953) by Robert Anderson (1917–2009). When Laura unbuttons her blouse for Tom, Lewis (1965) found the scene has “little relation to the logic of the plot” (p 156). It is a spontaneous act of kindness to the friend in detriment to the dishonest husband.
"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 he 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 his son quit his role in the play and 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 he 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, he escapes to Ellie's place, but an overwrought Tom 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 drama in "A raisin in the sun" (1959).
"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 Walter Lee, her son, would rather invest it in a liquor store. His 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 he wants. In addition to the house, she 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. Her 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 of 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 seeks to test their level of tolerance, cramming food in her mouth with her fingers as she did before, which the family is inclined to tolerate as a sort of homecoming, but not Annie. 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 strong drama with "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1962).
In this play, Martha equates George’s stagnant position in the history department as failure (Porter, 1969, p 228). 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” (p 239), unused to thinking of a child’s death as a subject of even a dark comedy.
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).” The title of Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a pun on the song “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf” (Lewis, 1965 p 93-94), with the name of Virginia meant to suggest a woman’s search for consciousness, liberation, or separateness. 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. (p 92) As devotees to literature, critics such as (Lewis, 1965) often have an overly negative view of Nick as “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)
"Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Time: 1960s. Place: New Carthage, New England, USA.
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George, a college professor, returns from a faculty party his wife, Martha, to their house. "What a dump!" she exclaims in imitation of a scene in a movie. The couple 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 one with an umbrella popping out. Nick and Honey grow uneasier as verbal abuses escalate. At last she 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 copulated with Martha. The final game they play is "Bringing up baby," whereby they talk about their son, Martha accusing her husband of destroying him while he recites parts of a requiem. He then informs her 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."
Paul Zindel (1936-2003) wrote "The effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds" (1964).
"The effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds"
Time: 1960s. Place: USA.
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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 needs help at home. Beatrice complains of rabbit droppings found throughout the house, the consequence of Tillie keeping her pet. 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 taking care of marigold seeds exposed 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. Their 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-?) is a boulevard-type comedy transformed into deeper insight.
"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 does not want 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 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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While John Williams, a housepainter and part-time poet, talks with his friend, Dr Dudley Stanton, a medical practitioner, they are surprised at the sudden arrival of Ann and her luggage. They learn that she is the intended of his son, Jeff, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force soon to arrive. 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 tended 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 is at length 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 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 stop. Instead, he runs and receives a gunshot wound. Mo drags him away to the Willliams house after bringing the officer down with two sticks of dynamite. 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 put the blame on him after wiping Al’s gun and putting his fingerprints over the handle.
Bernard Pomerance (1940-?) wrote "The elephant man" (1977), based on the life of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890).
"The elephant man"
Time: Late 19th century. Place: England and Belgium.
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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, he builds a model church. He tells Kendal he longs for a mistress. In sympathy with his desires but unwilling to sleep with him, she 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 his medical condition is worsening and he refuses to go with him. 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 the play, the serious is juxtaposed with the trivial, as when the sister’s 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.
"Crimes of the heart"
Time: 1970s. 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." She 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 had at 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. She 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, on learning from her lawyer that, suspicious of her, Zackery's wife 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 gets off with a lighter 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 are sufficient reasons for her to hang herself, but the rope breaks. During her next suicide attempt, Meg arrives in time to remove her 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. Jessie wants to commit suicide not because her life is worse then Thelma’s but because she refuses to accept it (Bigsby, 1999 pp 233-237). She says that if she could help her son, she would not do it. She is helpless to help him or her mother, but not in regard to suicide, so that her suicide, being under her control, has more meaning than her existence. She suffers a loss worse than that 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.”
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: "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 poor results. 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 says. "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.
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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 she revealed this information without him, 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 says. 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 given a serious blow on finding out that all that time he was never really happy with Beth. "Wait a minute," says an irate Gabe. "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.