Compare and contrast three plays: George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, and Athol Fugard's Master Harold... And the Boys. What are some major similarities and differences?
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These three plays span the entire twentieth century with Pygmalion first presented in 1913 (published in 1917), A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, and Master Harold... And the Boys in 1982. Despite the range of dates, and their all being composed in an era where modernist and postmodernist dramatic techniques were increasingly common, all three plays exhibit conventional staging, in which the fourth wall of the proscenium arch is never broken and the plots follow logical, coherent trajectories from problem or conflict to resolution. The main innovations in these plays lie in their subject matter.
All three plays address the issue of social class, and in particular the fading of the old aristocratic order. In all the plays, the upper or upper middle classes are portrayed as almost ritualistic in the way they cleave to their social traditions, and the playwrights (albeit more Shaw and Williams than Fugard), emphasize both the grace and civility of those traditions as well as their rigidity and narrowness.
All three plays deal with issues of class exclusion. In Pygmalion, it is language that defines class, and Higgins' ability to teach people the accents of the upper classes allow subalterns to "pass" in the dominant culture. However, class is not, ultimately, for Shaw defined by the way people act, but by the way people view them. As Eliza perceptively states to Pickering in Act V:
You see, ... apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, ... but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, ...
In A Street Car Named Desire the conflict is between the Old South of Belle Reve and lower class world of Stanley, of Polish immigrant descent. Like Eliza of Pygmalion, Blanche is caught between two classes. While Eliza's education has moved her up from flower girl to middle class, leaving her unable to return, in the case of Blanche, alcoholism and lack of money leave her unable to exist in the upper class world she remembers and desires, but her own frailty and ingrained habits leave her unable to function outside that world.
In Master Harold... And the Boys, set in South Africa under apartheid, the major distinction among the characters is racial. Class mobility is not possible in such a situation as there are distinct visible differences in skin color. Despite this, young Hally is in many ways closer to Willie and Sam emotionally than to his own alcoholic father; however, awareness of class and race differences leave Hally trapped in white world of apartheid and unable retain the comfortable camaraderie with Willie and Sam that would make him happy.
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