An Analysis of Christopher Durang, Paul Vogel, and Tennessee Williams
Another essay from three years ago
The problems of domestic abuse, alcoholism, and sexual abuse are often cultivated behind closed doors. As a result, our society “sweeps them under the carpet”, not wanting to delve into such complex issues, as a person's image can be the cornerstone of their life. However, there are three works of literature that confront these issues head-on to bring these problems to the attention of audiences. Paula Vogel's play “How I Learned How to Drive” discusses how dignity can become perverted at the hands of lust and selfishness. Christopher Durang's play “The Marriage of Bette & Boo” uses comedy to explain how alcoholism can ravage a family, nearly bringing it to its knees. Tennessee Williams' play “A Street Car Named Desire” offers a horrifying glance at domestic abuse at a time where divorce rates were low and the man was the solitary leader. Literature provides a medium where underlying problems in society can be digested by the audience and regurgitated back into society through awareness.
Vogel paints a horrifying picture of adultery and sexual abuse forced upon a minor. This forces her to recall past instances of this that she suffered from although it does offer a window into a latent though prevalent problem in society. Vogel sets the stage for the feeling of uncomfortability immediately, pointing out during a detailed description of the setting, “There's a moon over Maryland tonight, that spills into the car where I sit beside a man old enough to be- did I mention how still the night is? Damp soil and tranquil air. It's the kind of night that makes a middle-aged man with a mortgage feel like a country boy again” (Vogel, 9). This abrupt use of honesty and simplicity immediately makes a connection with the audience, because the emotion of concern is raised at what the narrator has been going through or is about to go through. The narratorcannot find any recourse or refuge from these lascivious acts, not even within her own family. As she frames it, “a typical family dinner” is in the same vein as this conversation:
Female Greek Chorus (As Mother): Look, Grandma. Li'l Bit's getting to be as big in the bust as you are.
Li'l Bit: Mother! Could we please change the subject?
Teenage Greek Chours (As Grandmother): Well, I hope you are buying her some decent bras. I never had a decent bra...now my shoulders are crippled...Here, let me show you.
The family is not sensitive to Li'l Bit, bringing up her puberty in the middle of a family dinner. Bit's faith and trust in her family is torn down by these inane conversations. Vogel exaggerates these conversations to exemplify how family conversation can sometimes circumvent around underlying problems by shifting to any other topic. Bit cannot confide to any of her family members the horrors her uncle is putting her through. In retrospective, this is indicative of the society we live in today. No one wants to confront an ugly truth, especially at the dinner table. It would appear as if some families, and institutions of society, would rather bring up other embarrassing conversation rather than face ugly truths. Growing into a full woman is a natural process, getting molested by a family member is not. Vogel also uses members of a chorus to delineate family members. The audience cannot identify one character to blame, as Vogel skillfully dilutes the audience's ability to associate one member of the chorus to one particular part. Therefore, the audience is left with the horrifying realization that there is not one discernible characteristic a person can use to distinguish negligent people or institutions of society from the rest.
Durang captures the contours of family discourse through humor and wit. In the process, he exposes how alcoholism can break the relationships that act as the family's foundation. Vogel expresses the discontent within the family structure caused by alcohol in the characters of Karl and Boo. As Boo's father, Karl has helped perpetuate the cycle of alcoholism down to his son. As a result, Soot and Bette, the wives of these men, often take the brunt of their snide remarks and commands to do their biding:
Soot: Something about that. Karl might remember. Karl, how did I get the name “Soot”?
Karl: Get the drinks, Soot.
Soot: All right.
Karl (to Bette): Soot is the dumbest white woman alive.
Soot: Oh, Karl (Laughts, exists.)
Karl dismisses Soot's own concerns for his own pleasures. Alcohol has consumed his life and with it his relationship with his wife. An imperative, though odd, question such as where one's name derives from is pushed aside for immediate satisfaction. In this excerpt, racial ignorance becomes associated with alcoholism, as Karl will not call his wife the “dumbest woman” but “dumbest white woman” saving the prior comment for perhaps a “lower race.” Not only has Karl become ignorant towards his family, but as well as of society. Soot laughs effervescently about the situation, as she is naively under the assumption that he is kidding.
This insensitivity has transferred to his son Boo as well. Boo and Bette have an argument over Boo's drinking, as Bette pleads:
Bette: I don't want you to get drunk again, Boo. Joanie's husband Nikkos may lock himself in the bathroom, but he doesn't drink.
Boo: Bette, Pop and I are looking over these papers.
Bette: I'm your wife.
Boo: Bette, you're making a scene.
Karl: You baby's going to be all mouth if you keep talking so much. You want to give birth to a mouth, Bette?
Bette: All right. I'm leaving.
Boo: Bette. Can't you take a joke?
Bette: It's not funny.
Karl: I can tell another one. There was this drunken airline stewardess who got caught in the propeller...
Bette: I'm leaving now, Boo.
Book shakes off Bette's demands as trivial, defending his father's rude comment instead. Karl reinforces his alcoholism in the jokes he tells, as they either they are rude or involve alcohol. This incident along with others will lead Bette to divorce Boo, since alcoholism typically leads to loneliness, be it emotional or distanced from family members. The couples' son Matt is a college student and, as a result, a gulf is widening between him and his father. Education and alcohol abuse typically don't mix, and since it appears that he is the first of his family to go to college, never mind an Ivy League college, the topics that can be discussed have been shrunken:
Boo: Well, how are things up at Dartmouth, Skip? People in the office ask me how my Ivy League son is doing.
Boo: Are there any pretty girls up there?
Boo: So what are you learning up there.
Matt: Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a masochist.
Matt: It's a novel we're reading. (Mumbles) Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
Boo (laughs): A man needs a woman, son. I miss your mother. I'd go back with her in a minute if she wanted. She's not in love with her family anymore, and I think she knows that drinking wasn't that much of a problem...I miss your mother, Skip. Nobody should be alone. Do you have any problems, son, you want to talk over? Your old man could help you out.
The chasm between Boo and his son has widened with the advent of college and higher learning (and interests). All Boo can do is relate to the common pleasures of the opposite sex, whereas Matt has been overwhelmed with captivating viewpoints from great thinkers and literature. The conversation regresses back into Boo's loneliness, as he pleads with his son to understand his case. However, he's really bringing an internal problem outside of himself and talking it out, as his son cannot do much to salvage his marriage. Society doesn't like to talk about alcoholism, it's a sensitive subject often tied to individual pain and tragedy. Typically, alcoholics feel alone because, ultimately, they are alone.
In his play, Williams weaves a relationship of love and domestic abuse, presenting a marriage that rests on two diametrically opposite sides of the emotional spectrum. Stanley Kowalski and his wife Stella love each other very much, as they have lived in the apartment for a significant amount of time. Stella discusses her insanity when Stanley is traveling for business, and how “when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby...I guess that is what is meant by being in love”(Williams 25). Williams' use of the metaphor “lamb” invokes softness and innocence within the scope of the relationship. A notion of purity is also associated with a lamb, as Jesus Christ compared his followers to innocent lambs. Stella believes this is what being in love is, to go insane without the love of your life by your side, even if for a couple of days. She is so grateful to see Stanley when he gets back from a business trip that she cries. However, Blanche witnesses one of their fights along with Stanley's bellowing calls for her to come back to him. Stella tries to justify his actions to her sister, explaining:
Stella: Yes, you are, Blanche. I know how it must have seemed to you and I'm awful sorry it had to happen, but it wasn't anything as serious as you seem to take it. In the first place, when men are drinking and playing poker anything can happen. It's always a powder-keg. He didn't know what he was doing...He was as good as a lamb when I came back and he's really very, very ashamed of himself.
As previously discussed, alcoholism can easily tear down a family's foundation, and Stanley is an alcoholic. However, Stanley can become very physical and empowered when he is drunk, posing a threat to anyone in the house including his wife. Using the “lamb” reference again, Stella tries to water down the magnitude of the fight. She states that since he behaved himself similar to a “lamb”, he is innocuous and simply made a mistake. Blanche is astounded by this and cannot conceive how Stella could waive off this fight like it was nothing. Typically, battered spouses neglect to face these underlying problems, not wanting to make the other spouse uncomfortable or to raise unnecessary tension in the house. This comes at the expense of the spouse's dignity, and sometimes, life.
Unfortunately, domestic abuse can take this cyclical shape, never stopping or being met head on. This is an underlying problem within many households, though it is seldom spoken about. Even Stanley's friend Mitch plays it off as nothing, saying to Blanche “Ho-ho! There's nothing to be scared of. They're crazy about each other” (Williams, 61). Furthermore, the context in which this play was written is very pertinent to domestic abuse. Published in 1948, this was a time where the United States was just getting out of World War II and there was an influx of marriages, as boyfriends and girlfriends arrived back from overseas. However, women typically did not divorce from the husband; it was usually up to the man of the house to get the divorce. Women were still casted as subservient to the man, responsible for the sphere of domestic responsibility. It's plausible, then, to see why Stella had no choice but to stay with Stanley. Not only did she possess unbridled love for him and was expecting a baby, but the obstacles that would have obscured her path in getting a divorce from Stanley would have been nearly impossible to surmount. There is an emphasis today for couples to stay together, in going to marriage counseling and opting for divorce only if it is the only option remaining. It is also denigrated by many religions as sinful and liable to throw a person in hell or to suffer some horrible wrath in the afterlife. With all of these variables swimming around in society, getting a divorce can be a very challenging ordeal.
Through several reputable plays, the underlying problems of society can be highlighted and analyzed. Alcoholism, domestic and sexual abuse are issues that no one wants to talk about or deal with. However, these are prevalent problems that are only exacerbated when people turn their heads away. Each of the authors used literary devices such as humor, setting and choice of prose to construct images of these vile acts, so the audience may walk away with the understanding that they do exist. Some of the audience may even sympathize, for they may have suffered through what the characters suffered through.
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