Concerning tragedy - Sample Essay
Miller argued against the Aristotelian ideals concerning tragedy: where Aristotle believed tragic heroes had to be of high social standing (for reasons above stated), Miller proposed that tragic heroes could be formed out of the working classes. Domestic tragedies of this nature became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of writers such as Miller, portraying the breakdown of a social construct, emphasising the distortion and destruction of domestic order.
‘Streetcar’ could, then, be construed as a domestic tragedy, as it portrays the demise of the social system from the old agrarian South (as represented by Blanche) and the rise of the post-war urban industrial society (as represented by Stanley). Furthermore, ‘Streetcar’ concerns the fates of Blanche and Stanley in the main, Stanley being irrefutably lower class; although Blanche is not as straightforward to categorise according to class, at the beginning of the play, Blanche’s demise has already occurred: she has already fallen from her previously high status, having lost her estate and fortune.
Therefore, although ‘Streetcar’ charts her descent into insanity, it does not show her fall from a high position in society, again rejecting the Aristotelian norm. It therefore seems as though ‘Streetcar’ could easily be defined as a domestic tragedy, a judgement Dan Isaac agrees with: “‘Streetcar’ is a modern tragedy, and Blanche DuBois’ tragic flaw is hubris – pride of intellect and pride of sexual prowess10”
If one tragic hero can be singled out, then it is possible to find their personal hamartia, and ‘Streetcar’ becomes a domestic tragedy with aspects of classical tragedy. However, one prominent feature of ‘Streetcar’ has yet to be introduced into the debate, and that is the huge emphasis on melodrama and expressionism. Melodrama was the most popular form of drama in the early stages of 19th Century American drama, and is characterised by a simplified moral universe, use of stock characters, frequent romanticised scenarios and exaggerated emotions, and lavish sets (i. e. mise-en-sci?? ne).
Signi Falk maligns Williams for using such brashly stock characters in ‘Streetcar’, labelling him a careerist. However, there is undoubtedly too much psychological depth to many of the characters, Blanche in particular, and too much indecision concerning who is the villain and who is the victim or hero for ‘Streetcar’ to be considered a complete melodrama: Williams does, however, employ the twin expressionist devices of exaggerated emotion and heavy symbolism.
The former may be observed throughout the play, especially in Blanche’s speech, which is characteristically hysterical (“The boy – the boy died. I’m afraid I’m – going to be sick! “, “But you are the one that abandoned Belle Reve, not I! I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it! “); the latter includes the use of leitmotifs, such as the use of the Varsouviana Polka (which reminds Blanche of the night her husband committed suicide) whenever imminent disaster is anticipated, due to its connotations of death, and constant imagery.
Such imagery includes Blanche’s desire to keep the paper lantern on the light, which is representative of her desire to hide the truth and maintain her illusions: the instances when the paper lantern is torn off (both by Mitch and, in the last scene, Stanley) are representative of the outpouring of the truth, which distresses Blanche greatly). However, by far the clearest instance of mise-en-sci?? ne and expressionism occurs in Scene Ten, when Blanche’s is on the verge of insanity, at her most fragile, and Williams introduces highly melodramatic stage effects: “Lurid reflections appear on the walls around Blanche.
The shadows are of a grotesque and menacing form… The night is filled with inhuman voices like cries in a jungle. ” All of these features of ‘Streetcar’ chart a departure from the tragic norm, instead moving very markedly towards melodrama: Williams’ use of music such as the ‘blue piano’ and the Varsouviana Polka in particular is evidence of this, as melodrama was originally a name for a type of theatre with musical accompaniment.
There can be little doubt, then, that ‘Streetcar’ contains aspects of tragedy, and yet does not conform to the Aristotelian definition of tragedy enough to be considered a classical tragedy, instead assimilating enough aspects of tragedy to be deemed a domestic tragedy. However, the melodramatic traits and general ambiguity with which Williams has imbued ‘Streetcar’ show that it is impossible to judge ‘Streetcar’ to be solely a tragedy.
It is difficult to ascertain the genre which defines ‘Streetcar’; it may be most prudent to think of ‘Streetcar’ as an intricate psychological melodrama with features of tragedy, but not as a pure tragedy. BIBLIOGRAPHY The Profitable World of Tennessee Williams – Signi Falk Streetcar Named Desire is Striking Drama – Richard Watts, Jr. The Streetcar Isn’t drawn by Pegasus – George Jean Nathan ‘Treatment Is Everything’ – Deborah G. Burks No Past to Think in – Dan Isaac Notebooks – Tennessee Williams (edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton) The New York Times – Brook Atkinson – Arthur Miller