What elements of fiction in terms of characterization can be found in Master Harold and the Boys, Pygmalion and A Streetcar Named Desire? What connections can we draw from these?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most significant elements of fiction in terms of characterization evident in the three dramas is the way individuals relate to their respective social orders.  In each drama, individuals have to make a conscious choice to either define themselves against the prevailing social order or capitulate to it.  This choice the characters make defines both who they are and what is being said about the social worlds in which they live.  The element of characterization is enhanced by how primary characters define themselves against the social order that envelops them.

In Pygmalion, the British social order is what envelops the characters.  Henry Higgins's initial claim that he can "pass off" Eliza as a lady is a direct indictment of this external condition.  Shaw uses the challenge as a means to critique a social order where appearances and pretense defines reality.  Eliza herself recognizes this:

"You see, really and truly, 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."

The characterizations offered in the drama are set against a social order where reality is determined by appearances. This is a reality that Henry challenges and one that Eliza ends up realizing as the narrative progresses.  Eliza and Henry end up challenging the social order where individual identity is judged through external reality.  The element of characterization is shown in the relationships of Eliza and Henry towards their social order.  There is not a clear and definitive happy ending in the challenges to the social order that both offer.  As a result, the characterizations that emerge are ones that raise significant questions about the authenticity of the social order that envelops them.

The criticism of the social system is an essential element in the characterizations that Fugard offers in his drama.  The relationship between Hally and Sam is one example of how the element of characterization is defined through the social order.  While Apartheid is never mentioned by name, it is clear that Fugard is critiquing a social condition where Whites can display some of the worst emotions towards Blacks and not suffer any repercussions.  The social condition is one where "people can be real bastards," which includes Hally himself even as he speaks the line.  It is a social order that perpetuates exclusion and marginalization that causes Hally's layers of complexity in which clarity is absent.  Hally is incapable of overcoming this condition in which he cannot see the full extent of Sam's goodness:

"Don’t try to be clever, Sam. It doesn’t suit you. Anybody who thinks there’s nothing wrong with this world need to have his head examined... If there is a God who created this world, he should scrap it and try again."

While Hally might speak words that could prompt restoration, the oppressive social order ends up poisoning him.  Hally is unable to transcend it, as evident in his condescension and disrespect towards Sam. The ruptured bond between both is a result of the social system that envelops Hally, who shows that he is incapable of effectively challenging it.  Hally might disdain the social order.  However, the replication of its evil has taken root in Hally's characterization, one that would demand that a father figure like Sam refer to him as "Master Harold" and one that would allow him to spit in Sam's face.   Fugard's drama can connect to Shaw's in that both of them present a social order that must be challenged.  It is one where external appearances matter more than internal character, and is one that tests the mettle of the respective characterizations.

Shaw's characters might seek to bring awareness to the limitations of the social order.  Fugard's characters might want to bring about change to it, but are realistically incapable of doing so.  Blanche wants nothing more than to move the social order back into a world that made some sense to her.  Unlike the other dramas where characters recognized the social order in front of them as the only one, Blanche wishes to replace the current social order which surrounds her with one that is more like the world of Belle Reve. Blanche wishes to go back to a time where things made more sense to her. Even though her own perceptions are myopic, they reflect how she challenges a social order where someone like Stanley Kowalski would possess power. Blanche is left to "depend on the kindness of strangers," a condition where challenge is evident, but happiness is not.  Blanche's characterization is defined in how she cannot relate to the people in the modern world or find her own place within it.  As with the characterizations offered in Fugard and Shaw, Blanche challenges the social order that is around her.  In a similar connection, Blanche's characterization is heavily defined by her challenge. As with Shaw and Fugard, Blanche's character does not find a happy ending in her challenges to the social order.