The ideas of marriage and social class are both key themes in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ by Edward Albee and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams. The plays are used to criticise these institutions with characters such as Stella and Stanley (Streetcar) showing the darker side of marriage with domestic abuse via physical and emotional means as well as Martha and George (Virginia Wolf) showing how Martha feels she has ‘married down’ in class as George was an employee of her father at their college.
Both dramatists debunk the stereotype of marriage as a positive and stabling institution based on love and the idea that in post-war America anyone can achieve ‘The American Dream’. One motivation for the dramatists’ challenging and questioning of these institutions may be their personal histories and backgrounds; both dramatists were gay and this may have informed their societal perceptions. In this essay I shall attempt to present a detailed analysis of the ways in which the dramatists criticize these societal ‘institutions’.
In ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ we first meet the protagonists after a late night drunken party at the college where George works as a lecturer. The games that happen between Martha and George, a middle-aged married couple, are a clear example of how marriage is criticised throughout the whole play. Neither one seems to show love or affection to each other outside of a sexual connotation “I’d get beside myself, and I’d take you by force, right here on this living-room rug” (Page 7), indeed their relationship is based upon goading.
When Nick and Honey return to George and Martha’s house after the college party, Albee uses this as an opportunity to show the illusion of marriage where Martha and George try to act civil with one another to try give a good impression to the young newly married couple “Late! Are you kidding? Throw your stuff down anywhere and c’mon in” (Page 9). It is clear that Albee used this scene to drop a subtle message of what marriage looks like when no one is looking. Contextually speaking, divorce was still a taboo and so many couples would have just tried to present the illusion of their marriage going well but really this was just a pretence, showing a criticism of marriage as a facade.
This same criticism of marriage is paralleled in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ with Stella and Stanley. On the outside their marriage could be perceived as a sweet love story in that Stella ‘married down’ in class to Stanley out of love and are expecting their first child soon, however the marriage is physically and emotionally abusive, manipulative and unhappy “There is the sound of a blow. Stella cries out.” (Page 35). Stella’s judgement is clouded due to love and almost certainly lust which is a far cry from the romantic image of marriage post-war America upheld.
The theme of marriage being an illusion is relevant in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ because even after Blanche has had a horrible ending to her marriage with her husband committing suicide after being outed as a gay man being unfaithful “the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out the casino. A few moments later – a shot!” (Page 67), she still pursues Mitch. Here, perhaps she allows herself to live in this illusion to feel accepted, relating to the idea of marriage being a necessary obligation for society’s members. Blanche, a failed school teacher with a somewhat muddy past, finds herself in social obscurity having no money or status due to her lack of a husband. Her motives for seducing Mitch therefore, are not simply related to loneliness but possibly opportunism. “I want to deceive him enough to make him – want me” (Page 55) “Blanche, do you want him?” (Page 55), this choice is something of a last resort.
Conformity also links into marriage in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ through the make believe child Martha and George have. Following the social norms and values of the time, a middle aged couple such as George and Martha should have children by their age but do not.
However, conformity and the peculiar way the couple entertain themselves through games has made it possible for Martha and George to keep a lie that they have a child. The child Martha and George invented is without name and its features are constantly shifting “Our son does not have blue hair· or blue eyes, for that matter” (Page 39), this is done repeatedly in the play alluding to the fact he isn’t real, which is later confirmed by Nick at the end of the play “Jesus Christ, I think I understand this” (Page 126), here Martha and George’s world is blown apart as they finally must face reality. .” The metaphor of stripping away illusions to arrive at reality and an understanding of self is a critique of American society which promoted conformism at the cost of individuality. (Bansal, 2016)
Social Class is criticised in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ through Blanche’s behaviour and interactions. She comes from an upper class background but has found herself in dire straits having lost her money and her home Belle Reve (beautiful dream) and being a widow. Her reaction to these circumstances is somewhat shocking as Blanche becomes a prostitute and lives life lying to people “But even the management of the flamingo was impressed by Dame Blanche”(Page 71). Blanche defies all stereotypes of being upper class by having problems that her class opposite would have to deal with. Despite this, Blanche still keeps up a pretence of being sophisticated and educated “Like an orchard in spring! You can remember it by that” (Page 34) and keeping secrets such as the paper lantern to shield the light from her face “I can’t stand a naked lightbulb” (Page 34) or lying about her age, “She’s somewhat older than I.” (Page 34) and saying Stella is the older sibling, This contrasts with how Stanley lives his life where the American Dream has helped him in terms of moving to America from Poland, finding a job, getting married and expecting a child. Williams suggests however that this is a false image , yet the immigrant Stanley has in fact usurped Blanche’s position and as we see in the shocking sexual assault scene has destroyed Blanche and all she stands for “We’ve had this date with each other since the beginning” (Page 97). Blanche’s ultimate destiny – to go insane – seems to suggest this is the only path for ‘old America’ and that the new, brash America represented by Stanley is the future.
In ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Social class is explored through the two men in the play, George and Nick. George being a teacher of history can be argued to be representing the idea ‘Past America’ along with its ideals and values while Nick, the younger man represents the ‘new America’ who is about making something for themselves by utilising the American Dream despite this being something of an allusion due to the circumstances of Nick and Honey’s marriage. This is seen during the start of George and Nick’s interaction when they discuss “You people are going to make them in test tubes, aren’t you?” (Page 20). Further, George then begins to talk about his life under Martha’s father who is his boss saying how he “expects his·staff·to cling to the walls of this place, like the ivy” (Page 21). George has fulfilled this wish however he hasn’t moved up in his career, but he hasn’t had a chance to move up in his career “we make excellent fertiliser” (Page 21). George’s exasperation is clear when he says “because nobody got killed” (Page 20) referring to his colleagues being called up to war but all returned to his previous positions. Despite the assumed advantage of having the principle as a father in law, he still fails to achieve. Much to Martha’s chagrin he remains the “old bog in the history department” (Page 26) exemplifying Martha’s contempt for him.
It can also be argued that keeping up the pretences of Social Class can have a direct effect on one’s mental health, for example through Blanche’s deterioration throughout ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. This is symbolised by the paper lantern “I bought this adorable little coloured paper lantern at a Chinese shop on Bourbon” (Page 34) and eventually spirals into a web of lies which when added with the sexual assault Blanche goes through from Stanley shows the harsh effect Social Class can have on someone. The sexual assault scene also represents the hierarchy of power being toppled as
Blanche is removed from the position of being socially superior to the lower class “Polack” (Page 9)
Stanley, perhaps a point Williams was trying to make saying that the pretences we keep with social class and who has the power is perceived and can very easily be dismantled. By the end of the play, Blanche is just a shell of the woman who the audience was first introduced to and considering the fact she wasn’t in a healthy state of mind to begin with shows old America being taken over by the new in post-war America. Furthermore, it can be argued that Blanche’s character was created by Williams to create a parody of the upper class, this point can be supported through Blanche’s use for comedic effect in relation to social class and its pretences “I took the trip as an investment, thinking I’d meet someone with a million dollars” (Page 43). The little quirks she has such as the constant bathing “singing in the bathroom” (Page 17) or taking any opportunity to educate others to reinforce her own ego “Aries people are forceful and dynamic” (Page 51). This parody shows a criticism of the upper class by using Blanche as a character to be unable to live without dependence, in a mindset of lying to oneself and being part of a fragile hierarchy that doesn’t work. “Blanche has been in terrified, alcoholic flight from reality.” (Maguire, S, 2015).
Stella is another example whereby the hierarchy of the upper class being fragile as in Stella and Stanley’s marriage, it was Stella who ‘married down’ in class to be with Stanley. When comparing Blanche and Stella’s traits, it becomes apparent that both characters have a tendency to lie to themselves “The hotel Flamingo is not the sort of establishment I would dare be seen in!” (Page 52). Blanche lying about her age “She’s somewhat older than I.” (Page 34), Shep Huntleigh (an old flame who she hopes will return to rescue her but never will), her teaching life and so on. Similarly, Stella thinks she’s happy with Stanley who is an openly abusive man and is known to seemingly forget about any consequence of the abuse given by Stanley the next day “He was as good as a lamb when I came back and he’s really very, very ashamed of himself” (Page 41). This again shows the switch of power that has happened with the upper class Blanche and Stella and the lower class immigrant Stanley.
Both dramatists present social class and marriage as abusive and ultimately leading to conflict within society. One example is the theme of words versus actions relating to abuse, Blanche uses words such as “Polacks” (Page 9) to describe Stanley, which is an offensive term for Polish people, but Stanley uses actions for abuse such as hitting Stella “There is the sound of a blow. Stella cries out.” (Page 35) and the sexual assault scene between Blanche and Stanley “He picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed” (Page 97). This is a criticism of social class by Williams because he is showing an example where social class is not an important factor in someone’s life at Stella and Stanley’s house and despite Blanche’s efforts to come across as sophisticated and from a higher style of living, it is no match for the realities of life portrayed by Stanley.
In ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Nick and Honey, the topic of conformity can be discussed with their example. Their marriage is based on the notion that in post-war America, a couple can’t have a child before marriage as that would go against societal norms, “And while she was up, you married her” (Page 49). This example shows that an established institution like marriage is flawed because Nick felt the need to conform to what society’s norms and values were in order to remain a part of society and one day progress in his career. This is seen earlier on in the story as Nick continually tries to casually bring in facts about himself to try impress Martha, as her father is the principle of the
college “No, nineteen really” (Page 25) “It’s still pretty good. I work out” (Page 27) “Why give it up until you have to” (Page 27).
Despite these quotes being examples of Nick appears to be the victim of the games Martha and George play and Nick feeding into them isn’t doing him any real favours, it still goes to show that Nick is part of the generation that has been raised to think that a good marriage and high social status is the key to achieving ‘The American Dream’.
Albee has used this scene to present an objective insight into try and achieve this and how it actually does more harm than good, as people like Nick who reflected what a lot of young men were like in this period, come across as naive and lacking in independence as they are constantly seeking the approval of those higher than them, showing how the dramatist has criticised both marriage and social class through the character of Nick.
Relating to this point of Nick conforming, the audience can see simultaneously what the effect of conforming to marital and social class expectations look like through Martha and George, the couple so out of love with each other they play games to humiliate the other “Humiliate the Host” (Page 73) and have a make believe child just so they can say they have a child and aren’t outcasts in society “Just leave the kid out of this” (Page 9). This quote specifically, does show the extent of their situation as behind closed doors Martha and George can admit their child isn’t real. It’s only at the climax of the play does the dramatist show how terrible the effect of living a life of conformity does to a person “YOU CAN’T KILL HIM! YOU CAN’T HAVE HIM DIE!” (Page 125) in terms of their mental health which was stigmatised during post-war America. This blatant portrayal of an unhappy married couple who have lived through the trials and tribulations of conforming to society is a criticism by the Albee because he’s showing how the safe sturdy institutions of marriage and social class has only had a negative effect on the couple and whilst they have been dramatized it is still clearly showing a post-war, ‘American Dream’ believing audience that in a way society is broken and they’re all living in an age of imagery and fabrication.
In conclusion, both dramatists have written plays with marriage and social class being key themes through their respective stories. Both themes are heavily criticised throughout the plays which can be a direct effect of who the dramatists were in their personal lives. We see a socially high character experience a fall from grace in Blanche; a woman from an upper class background who had resorted to prostitution in a disreputable hotel the Flamingo and being inferior to Stanley who was a lower class Polish immigrant who had the power over Blanche. With Albee despite the absurdist genre, he lays bare the cold reality of these institutions with the chilling truth of how conformity only leads to despair as shown by Nick and Honey only being married due to societal norms and values and are mirrored by Martha and George who have lived through having to conform and are worse off because of it, having to invent a child which gets exposed at the end of the play and using games to humiliate each other in some attempt at having a spark in a relationship that goes past the physical. The dramatists leave little to the imagination as through their characters they criticise two of post-war America’s fundamental institutions, marriage and social class.
(Total word count: 2744 words)
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