To what extent can Pygmalion and A Streetcar Named Desire be seen to have, directly or indirectly, a social or political purpose?
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These two plays are quite strikingly dissimilar in many respects. Pygmalion, an English play, was written some decades earlier than the American Streetcar, and both plays differ in mode and presentation. However, they share, to a great extent, a central concern with social class.They both show the effect of social displacement, as enacted in the persons of their respective heroines. In Streetcar, this is due to a series of misfortunes which sees the heroine, Blanche and her sister lose their aristocratic family estate, while in Pygmalion Eliza is deliberately plucked from working-class obscurity by Higgins.
These are the similarities between the female protagonists of the play; their differences are equally apparent. Eliza moves up the social ladder; Blanche moves down. Eliza’s social ascent is undertaken in the spirit of a social, and more particularly linguistic experiment on the part of the eccentric Higgins; Blanche’s descent is the result of a slow decline in her family’s fortunes. But both characters experience a terrible sense of social disorientation and isolation as they are cut adrift from their own class. Eliza can’t return to her roots as a lowly flower girl, but she doesn’t know how to make her way in the new world she finds herself in. ‘What is to become of me?’ she cries. Likewise Blanche cannot return to her aristocratic origins; there is literally no place left for her to go back to, as the family estate is lost. At the same time she finds it impossible to acclimatize herself to the new strange world she finds herself in, and particularly the rundown impoverished section of New Orleans where her sister Stella now lives.
However, although Blanche clings frantically to the genteel identity of her past, she does also make an attempt to plan for both herself and her sister Stella by setting up a shop. Her plans are vague and in any case Stella is not willing to be part of it, being perfectly content with living with Stanley, but at least this shows some attempt on her part to plan for her practical future. Similarly Eliza defiantly states to Higgins that she could set up as a teacher of phonetics. Both women have been left unsure of their social standing but they show awareness that business and employment opportunities that might now be open to them.
Both Blanche and Eliza, then, are shown to be left in limbo as a result of their social experiences. However, the sense of social isolation in Blanche’s case is far more thoroughgoing, permeating the entire play; in fact it becomes tragic. The overwhelming sense of her solitude is conveyed in her famous line at the end of the play: ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ She has lost her sense of social and familial identity and appears entirely lost. Eliza’s position does not appear so terrible. It is not really rendered as tragic, on the contrary it gives rise to some comic moments, as for example when she vents her frustrations on Higgins, the architect of her social dislocation, by flinging his slippers at him.
The two plays are markedly different in outlook; Streetcar is consciously a tragedy, and draws heavily on such techniques as symbolism, whereas Pygmalion is often comic in effect (although it does not deny the seriousness of the issues which it raises) and realistic in style. This difference is apparent in the suggested fate of the respective heroines: we know that Eliza will survive and most likely flourish in whatever she chooses to do, but Blanche appears doomed.
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