The two plays in this discussion represent significant historical events in American history, as well as expose human struggles and emotions that accompany these situations. August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire were written and staged within fifty years of each other, but each aims to showcase the prevalent concerns of certain groups of individuals during their respective eras. Families are at the center of both plays, which immediately establish the tone for history and tradition, including long-standing conflict and opposing views.
Thematically, Wilson’s work focuses on the concepts of legacy and remembrance, specific to the storied past of African Americans that has informed much of their cultural values and sense of identity; while Williams’ play is largely about coming to terms with the reality of the past and the present, and the subscription to the traditionalist view of male domination—albeit without the often present value of chivalry, in this case. Literary allusions are “figure [s] of speech that make brief reference to a historical or literary figure, event, or object” (Holman and Harmon 13), which are used significantly in both plays.
The common ground they share is generally within the literal and figurative context of path and journey, with the element of actual trains as the means to propel this goal being integral in both works. Other allusions are notable in each play, all of which function to provide the reader or audience with a known historical or popular piece of information that can contextualize the narrative in relation to the themes and conflict exposed. II. The Yellow Dog and Other Memories in The Piano Lesson August Wilson is known to be one of contemporary America’s best playwrights, and is evidenced by his critically-acclaimed works.
Born in 1945, Wilson’s childhood experiences of poverty and racism eventually became the main sources of his plays’ themes, found in the iconic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson. All three were written and staged in the 1980s, but the last three are all set in earlier periods of America and essayed the plight of African Americans during the time. Fences and The Piano Lesson each received the Pulitzer Prize for Wilson, which sealed his name in the annals of American literary history.
August Wilson passed of liver cancer in 2005, after completing ten successful plays and being given numerous writing awards (“August Wilson” pars. 1-8). The Piano Lesson is set in the 1930s, and features the conflict of siblings Boy Willie and Berniece over an old piano that holds carved images of their enslaved ancestors, a family heirloom that serves a memorial of their identity, as well as their tortured past. Also informing the setting is the Great Depression, which is accompanied by the subsequent migration of the blacks from the south to more opportunities up north.
In his goal to purchase the Sutter land that was once owned by his ancestors’ masters, Boy Willie wants to sell the piano and in the process avenge his father’s death. His sister Berniece refuses to let Boy Willie do this, which creates the conflict between them. Real and imagined ghosts—of landowner John Sutter, who also owned the piano, and the memory of the siblings’ father Boy Charles, who stole the piano and died on a train as he was being chased—make their presence felt in the argument as well.
The train on which Boy Charles was killed was called the Yellow Dog, and the rest of the passengers who died along with him as their car was set on fire are said to haunt the railroad. The Yellow Dog is the most significant of all allusions used in the play, for it refers to a piece of history that reveals the conditions of the African Americans during the early 1900s; the yellow dog contracts prevented railroad workers from participating in unions that could fight for workers rights and wage increases (“Yellow Dog Contracts” par 1).
It is not only used as a means to place the event but also as a representation of the African American journey from slavery to freedom. The ghosts referred to in the play are specified to be the people caught and burned on the train who have all come back to avenge their death on John Sutter, but they also pertain to the figurative ghosts of the African American legacy.
The effects of slavery and the desire of blacks to assert their freedom and to correct the evils done unto them by the whites are symbolized by these ghosts, who keep coming back until their objectives are met. Another allusion in the play is the work song, which refers to the music and chants sung by African American slaves in fields and work grounds; this symbolizes the pain and suffering of the slaves, which are acknowledged parts of African American history.
Slavery, in the text, is represented by both the Yellow Dog and the old piano; Boy Willie and his determination to sell the piano and purchase the old slave land is his interpretation of how his family can exact revenge, while Berniece and her staunch decision to keep the piano is an affirmation of the sacrifices made by their ancestors, an acceptance of the past and the promise to remember all values learned. In the end, after another bout of arguments and the presence of Sutter’s ghost, Berniece plays the piano while calling to her ancestors.
This decides the fate of the piano, which remains in the Charles household with Boy Willie taking the train to go back south. Thus the resolution is in the preservation of legacy and history, notwithstanding the ills and wrongs; they are all part of their identity as a family and race, and should not be exchanged for the immediate satisfaction of revenge. III. Past and Present Reality and Masculine Notions in A Streetcar Named Desire American icon Tennessee Williams was born in 1911 in Mississippi, and started writing at a young age.
Despite his father forcing him to work as a shoe salesman like himself, Williams still pursued his passion for writing, particularly plays. The Glass Menagerie, acknowledged to be his best work, is believed by many to be based on the author’s life—including the characters of a controlling mother and a handicapped sister. A Streetcar Named Desire and other notable plays were staged in Broadway to astounding success, earning two Pulitzer Prizes for Williams. The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were both adapted for cinema, which are already recognized as classics.
Tennessee Williams passed in 1983, and is credited with dozens of plays, novels, short stories and poems as his lifetime work (“Tennessee Williams” pars. 1-7). Like the abovementioned themes of past and present, perception and reality, and chivalry and roughness, the play’s characters are undeniable polar opposites. Sisters Blanche and Stella are extremes in terms of character and sense of identity, while Stella’s husband Stanley runs against the standard male hero with his unapologetic rudeness combined with sensuality and masculinity.
However, the story is clearly centered on Blanche and Stanley, who embody past and present, and illusion and reality. This is negotiated in their actions toward each other upon Blanche’s arrival at the couple’s home, to the ultimate scene of Blanche being sent to a mental institution. Desire, though palpable in both characters, is more significant in Blanche—her refusal to live in the present keeps her attached to the past, conveniently forgetting all unfortunate events in her life.
Allusions are noted in this play, referring to the opposing characters of Blanche and Stanley and the conditions they are facing. One curious use of this technique is seen in the name of Stanley and Stella’s rundown apartment building, Elysian, which is ironically a nod to the Elysium of Homer—a place depicted for its perfection (Struck par 6). Allusions that are particular to Blanche and her experience are in the paper lanterns and the song “Paper Moon”, which both mean temporariness and pretense; these mirror the facade and delusion being maintained by Blanche and her refusal to acknowledge reality.
On a lighter used by Mitch, one of Stanley’s friends, is inscribed a line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem, “Sonnet 43” (Browning line 1), which is ready by Blanche and somehow refers to her old love for her dead husband; this is echoed by her quote of a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Ulalume”, which speaks about love and loss (Poe line 104). Blanche is consistently depicted to be living in the past, among her happier memories.
On the other hand, references to blue piano music and the tamale vendor are associated with Stanley’s character, portrayed to be brutish, sensual, and masculine. However, this appropriation also includes his lack of civility and politeness; it is almost as if his brand of masculinity is to be devoid of sense and reason, only invoking primal desire and domination. These opposites operate within the thematic context of the play, which, to the end, showcases the debate between Blanche and Stanley.
But the delusional nature of Blanche proves to be no match for the straightforward attitude of Stanley, as in the end it is Blanche who succumbs to the repercussions of her personal choices. Her actual journey to Desire reveals it as her final destination, the place where her past and present come together as the reality Blanche had to face. IV. Conclusion For the reader or audience to fully comprehend the meanings of any literary text, writers often use allusions; this is with the hope that such references will be understood and placed in the context of the narrative.
These conveniently eases the problem of the writer in explaining any number of background information or situation, or for any other purpose related to the exposition of the theme or conflict. Using allusions in The Piano Lesson and A Streetcar Named Desire efficiently located each play’s factual or thematic details, such as the Yellow Dog for Wilson’s play and the telling appropriation of Elysium in Williams’. At once, the informed reader or audience can form in his their minds the direction being taken by the play.
The mention of the Yellow Dog would bring the African American labor experience into the picture, without having to get into detail; using this also adds a dimension to the play not exactly addressed in its entirety, which is the continuation of ill treatment of blacks long after the abolition of slavery. Labor is still deemed to be the African American role, not unlike when they were slaves, and stripping them of their rights to protection echoes old slavery traditions.
In Streetcar, the most notable and intriguing allusion remains to be the ironic comparison of Stella and Stanley’s place to paradise as depicted in the classics; that it ultimately turns out to be quite the opposite reveals the delusional mindsets of both Blanche and the play itself. While in Homer’s text, Elysium is described as perfect and heavenly, and an individual’s dream location, the Elysian Fields in the play shows it as Blanche’s ‘ideal’ place as well—where she thought she could continue to live the life of pretense and make-believe.
Works Cited Primary Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Tandem Library Books, 1986. Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York: Penguin, 1990. Secondary “August Wilson”. 2009. Three Plays of the Absurd. 04 May 2009 <http://www. imagi-nation. com/moonstruck/clsc48. html>. Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “Sonnet 43”. 2009. Poets. org. 04 May 2009 < http://www. poets. org/viewmedia. php/prmMID/15384>. Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon, ed. A Handbook to Literature, 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992. Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ulalume”.
2009. The Literature Network. 04 May 2009 < http://www. online-literature. com/poe/579/>. Struck, Peter. “FAQ, Books 1-12”. 2009. Department of Classical Studies, University of Pennsylvania. 04 May 2009 <http://www. classics. upenn. edu/myth/homer/faq112. php>. “Tennessee Williams”. 2009. Three Plays of the Absurd. 04 May 2009 <http://www. imagi-nation. com/moonstruck/clsc9. htm>. “Yellow Dog Contracts. ” Gale Encyclopedia of U. S. Economic History. The Gale Group Inc. 2000. Encyclopedia. com. 5 May. 2009 <http://www. encyclopedia. com>.