Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

Ethnic and Religious Intolerance In Street Scene , many of the residents of the crowded tenement building express beliefs that are prejudiced and intolerant of their neighbors and others. Sitting on the brownstone’s front stoop, they deride the way those different from themselves conduct their lives. For example, in the...

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Ethnic and Religious Intolerance
In Street Scene, many of the residents of the crowded tenement building express beliefs that are prejudiced and intolerant of their neighbors and others. Sitting on the brownstone’s front stoop, they deride the way those different from themselves conduct their lives. For example, in the first moments of the play, Mrs. Jones, one of the nonimmigrant residents of the building, says ‘‘What them foreigners don’t know about bringin’ up babies would fill a book’’ about Mrs. Olsen. Mrs. Olsen is an immigrant from Scandinavia. Mrs. Jones makes this statement to Mrs. Fiorentino, a German immigrant who is married to an Italian immigrant. Mrs. Fiorentino is slightly offended by the implication. Mrs. Jones also expresses intolerant beliefs about most everyone in the play.

One of the more unpopular resident families in the tenement is the Kaplans. Elderly father Abraham, his daughter Shirley and son Sam are disliked by many of their neighbors for being Jewish as well as for holding radical political beliefs. Abraham Kaplan is a socialist who believes the capitalist economic system exploits workers. Many residents are intolerant of Mr. Kaplan and his beliefs, and blame Jewish people for various problems in their world. Similarly, most residents do not approve of the potential relationship between Sam Kaplan and Rose Maurrant. They tell Rose and her parents that they would never let their daughter become involved with someone who is Jewish. By depicting these kinds of prejudices and situations, Rice depicts the diversity of New York City’s populace and their beliefs. Not every aspect is positive.

Individual versus Machine
Throughout Street Scene, Rice underscores how oppressive the machine of modern urban life is. (The machines here are New York City, life in the tenement building, and the kind of jobs held by these lower middle class people.) The play is set on a hot day in June and many of the characters suffer from the heat. Because the characters reside in an unbearably close living situation, they are packed on top of one another, making the heat all the more oppressive. This situation also leaves them very little real privacy and, in many ways, limited opportunity. For example, everyone knows about Mrs. Maurrant’s affair with Steve Sankey, the milk company’s bill collection man. But she also might not be having the affair if the machine did not affect her husband, Mr. Maurrant, so deeply. Mr. Maurrant works as a stagehand and does not seem happy with his life. These tensions contribute to Street Scene’s tragic ending but do not end with the double murder. More tenants will move into the building, and those who live there will continue to be affected by these pressures.

Victim and Victimization; Choices and Consequences
The focal point—if there is one—of Street Scene’s diffuse plot is the affair Mrs. Maurrant is having with Steve Sankey, the milk company’s bill collector, and its effect on the tenement. In many ways, Mrs. Maurrant is a victim of the city as well as an unhappy marriage. Mr. Maurrant is depicted as a rather loutish man who tries to control his family by the threat of violence. His marriage is not particularly happy, and he does not seem very concerned about his wife’s emotional needs. To replace some of what her marriage lacks, Mrs. Maurrant has the affair. While her husband suspects that something is going on, her daughter, Rose, knows about the affair. To that end, Rose encourages her mother to be more discreet. Rose’s warnings are not heeded, and Mrs. Maurrant and Sankey are murdered by Mr. Maurrant. Mr. Maurrant believes he will be put to death for the crime.

Though Mr. and Mrs. Maurrant are victims whose choices lead to serious consequences, Rose and her brother might benefit from their mistakes. She will not be a victim of the city or a bad marriage. Rose decides not to live her life for others (except her younger brother) and rejects the amorous offers of her boss, Harry Easter, and her young admirer, Sam Kaplan. She will move her brother to the suburbs or some place outside of New York City. In her family, at least, the cycle of victimization will not be repeated.

Cycle of Life
In Street Scene, Rice includes the entire cycle of life from a birth to two (untimely) deaths. By the beginning of act 2, the unseen Mrs. Buchanan has given birth to a daughter. At the end of the same act, Mr. Maurrant has shot both his wife and Sankey. As the play ends, it appears that a new couple is about to replace the recently evicted Hildebrand family. Rice has characters of every age in the play, from infants to old Mr. Kaplan and contrasting types of similar ages (Mae Jones contrasts with Rose Maurrant; Sam Kaplan to Vincent Jones). By depicting such a breadth of characters, Rice shows the diversity of New York City and how the city affects this cycle.

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