In this 9-12 lesson, students will analyze the setting, plot, and character development of Tennessee Williams’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
- Analyze how societal issues can be the centerpiece for themes and forms in drama.
- Probe specific ways philosophical and psychological theories shape themes and forms of drama.
- Explicate the power of visual and auditory expressionistic elements to help shape set design, narrative, characterization, and theme in the building of dramatic scripts.
- Craft essays of critical analysis and creative writing scripts.
- Recognize elements that build artistic tension in dramatic scripts.
- Use the writing process to expand comparative analysis skills.
- Research and gather information.
- Compare the work of two of America’s most gifted and valued playwrights.
Teachers should familiarize themselves with O’Neill and Williams’s work using the following resources: Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Eugene O’Neill Archive, Great Performances: A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, PBS American Masters: Tennessee Williams, The Tennessee Williams Annual Review
Students should be familiar with the lives of O’Neill and Williams and the types of plays they wrote.
Modify handouts, text, and utilize assistive technologies as needed.
- Tell students they will be comparing two classic pieces of American Theater, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Assign the class to read both plays.
- Have students read the Eugene O’Neill Biography, Tennessee Williams Biography, and Arthur Miller Biography.
- Begin a discussion about The Hairy Ape and A Streetcar Named Desire. Ask students, What commonalities do you notice between the plays? Brainstorm a list of similarities on the board (or students can do this in small groups).
- Review the short essay assignment with students. In a short essay, develop a comparative analysis of how each play is structured around the concept of “belonging.” Ask students to consider the following: What is the perception of each protagonist? What are the major societal forces that have contributed to the erosion of these “anchors” of “belonging?” What are the pattern of encounters that gradually strip away the initial “self-image” of each protagonist? How is the audience exposed to the “truth?” What are the consequences of destruction of the protagonists’ “pipe dream” of “belonging?”
- Tell students that in Arthur Miller’s essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” he argues that the modern “tragic hero” has “nobility” and that this “nobility” builds “optimism” about the human condition. Discuss Miller’s definition and its relation to the two plays.
- Based on Miller’s definition, have students take a position about whether or not they perceive Yank, in The Hairy Ape, and Blanche, in A Streetcar Named Desire, to be “tragic heroes.” Engage students in a class debate. Ensure students draw specifics from each text to support their position.
- Have students explore the “ape/jungle” images from both plays. In Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Hairy Ape, Mildred calls Yank a “filthy beast” which Yank perceives as an “ape” image;. In Tennessee Williams’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche makes a passionate declaration that Stanley is an “animal” and “not quite to the stage of humanity yet.” Blanche also notes that on “poker night,” the “party of apes” come out. Expressionistic “jungle” images are threaded throughout both plays.
- In collaborative groups, have students explore some ideas that explain the dramatists’ use of “ape/jungle” images. Have students develop an argument for their explanation and draw evidence from the plays to justify their position. For example, is the mindset behind the images one that argues that “civilization” is evolutionary “progress” built on refined manners, “proper” behavior and dress, certain attitudes toward sex, etc.? Is evolutionary “progress” defined in terms of technological discoveries and material wealth? Have each group share their argument and allow time for students to counter-argue or add to their position.
- Explain Carl Jung’s notion of the Modern Man. Under the stress of modern life, Jung argues that the Modern Man is deprived of past spiritual connections, and unable to forge true spiritual connections in a world where the “Dynamo” and materialism prevail as “gods.” Furthermore, that communication with others is lost and will be gradually stripped of “civilization,” evolving backward into “savagery.” Ask students: How do the plays support Jung’s theory?
- Ask students to select one of the Article or Blog Topics in which they explore Jung’s theory through the works of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and/or O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.
- Explain that in both plays, The Hairy Ape and A Streetcar Named Desire, a central tension grows out of insult (a female character referring to a male character as a “beast” and an “ape-like animal”). Both plays can be perceived as “revenge” plays. A main thread of development in each play is the drive of the male character to get “revenge” on the female who had “insulted” him. A complexity relating to this basic pattern of “insult” and “revenge”—one that adds much dramatic force to both plays—is the nature of each of the females who initiated the “insult.” Both Mildred and Blanche project, at surface level, the “civilized” trappings of material wealth and “breeding.” Both perceive themselves to be “superior” to the “savage” males. Both lament the loss of the past, but from different perspectives. However, both are described by the playwrights as being “self-conscious” and “nervous.”
- Have students discuss the following questions: What has modern life done to Mildred and Blanche? What do they value that they think justifies their use of “ape” images in reacting to the two males? Describe each author’s use of dialogue and expressionistic devices to portray how modern life “stripped” Mildred and Blanche in some way.
- Ask students to focus on one of the following school objects or surroundings: a classroom wall clock, the “passing bell” that signals the end of a class, a row of lockers, a crowded hall, the cafeteria at lunchtime, the auditorium stage, football, soccer, lacrosse, or basketball practice, a room filled with students taking a difficult exam.
- While focusing on one of these objects or surroundings, students should: Objectively describe the details of the object, place, or situation they have selected. Then describe the same object, place, or situation in expressionistic terms (distorted lines, bold colors, exaggerated elements, heightened and/or “interpretative” sounds; music). Encourage students to build in both visual and aural expressionistic effects.
- Assess students with a scriptwriting exercise. Ask students to develop a brief dramatic script using the object, place, or situation as the central framework of action. Integrate visual and aural expressionistic devices into the script to help structure, characterize, enhance a setting, and/or highlight the action.
- Have students share the scripts and select one or two to be developed for performance, including the staging of the expressionistic devices.
Jen Westmoreland Bouchard
January 24, 2020
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Process drama is an imaginative tool for non-arts teachers and students to explore issues and solve problems.
Take a peek behind the red curtain and discover the artistry and history behind the world of theater. Explore the playwriting process first-hand, learn about the cultural impact of performance, and read and perform some of the most influential works of the 20th century.
Eugene O'Neill is called "The Father of American Theater" for good reason: He was the first American playwright to write serious plays and treat drama as a serious art form.
Learn about Arthur Miller's voice of social conscience and his revolutionary Death of a Salesman.
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