Pygmalion — George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw — one of the most well regarded playwrights — wrote this comedy and first presented it to the public in 1912. He took some of the substance of the original Greek myth of Pygmalion and turned it into a popular play. In Greek mythology Pygmalion actually came to fall in love with one of his sculptures, and the sculpture suddenly became a living human. But in this play two older gentlemen, Professor Higgins (who is a scientist studying the art of phonetics) and Colonel Pickering (a linguist who specializes in Indian dialects) meet in the rain at the start of this play.
Higgins makes a bet with Pickering that because of his great understanding of phonetics, he will be able to take the Covent Garden flower girl — who speaks “cockney” which is not considered very high brow in England — and make her into a well-spoken classy big city girl. It turns out that the flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) actually wanted to pay in order to be able to be better spoken. In the play she is being transformed into a sassy, perky lady, and as the play moves along, Higgins has won the bet. But the two men become uninterested in the bet and Eliza is not happy at all with being used in this wager.
Interestingly, even though the master phonetics teacher Higgins has been able to get Eliza to speak with a higher class accent, in more beautiful tones, her statements reflect that she is still a girl without a lot of intellectual substance. In Act four Eliza throws slippers at Higgins because she is mad that after she was taught better use of the English language, there was no future for her beyond that. In Act five, Eliza is angry at Higgins for his part in the ploy, and turning to Pickering (she believed it was his example, not Higgins’ phonetics, that made her a lady) she seems to be a more self-assured person; she says about herself: “Oh, I’m only a squashed cabbage leaf.”
In time Eliza retreats into her old gutter speech and during an argument with Higgins, it is clear that all Eliza ever wanted was to be herself. The point of the play is about different social classes and social status in Ireland. I enjoyed the story because it was also Shaw’s way of poking fun at high society and its pretensions. And even though Higgins is heard to say that his work with Eliza was “the most absorbing experiment I ever tackled,” the audience knows that this attempt to help a flower girl who speaks cockney become a classy lady was just a ruse between two men who really didn’t care about the young lady per se. They cared about themselves, and in effect, Shaw used them to show the pretensions and posturing of Irish high society.
Oleanna — David Mamet
This play has among its main themes miscommunication, indifference, improper behavior, transformational behavior and revenge. It is a play that has a lot of confrontational dynamics. A college student named Carol has a problem that she wants to discuss with her professor. And like any college student who may be struggling in a particular class, Carol asks for a conference with her professor to discuss how she can still pass this class even though she is failing. The scene between the professor and Carol takes up the first act of the play.
The audience sees that the professor is very busy on the phone while his student is sitting there waiting for a chance to actually convey to him what she is thinking and hoping — that he will provide some ways in which she can still get through the class. What the audience sees in the first act is a college woman who appears to be quite simple. Carol seems cliched and shallow, and even kind of dumb. She says things like, “Diddid Idid I say something wrong” (p. 3); and “I’m stupid” (p. 12); and “I’ll never learn” (p. 14); and “nobody wants me” (p. 14).
In that first act the professor finally pays attention to her but begins touching her in a provocative way, and just when Carol is about to say something apparently very personal, the professor’s phone rings again and she is stymied. She has said, “I’m badOh God,” and John says, “It’s all right” and Carol continues, “I alwaysall my lifeI have never told anyone this” John says, “Yes. Go on. Go on.” And Carol starts to explain this deep personal thought; she says, “All of my life” and just then the phone rings and Carol doesn’t get to say what she wanted to say. The frustration in Carol’s character is very noticeable. Her personal life story was to be told, but now it has been lost.
In the second act, it is the professor (John) and Carol again in the office. This time their meeting is not about Carol’s problem in the class, it’s about Carol’s formal complaint that she has filed against John. Unlike her seeming simplistic behavior in the first act, this time Carol is very well spoken; and the contrast between her earlier inability to communicate and her now smooth sense of self-worth and ability to articulate is shocking.
The reader of this play would be within his or her rights to think that the playwright set this up so the professor in the first act would think she was an innocent, naive and available person for him to perhaps have an affair with. It seems as though Carol may have deliberately set a trap for the professor to see if he would attempt to take advantage of her. But by the second act, with Carol now in full bloom as a conversationalist and as a confronter, John loses his cool and tries to stop her from leaving his office. She runs out screaming, and this adds a huge amount of tension to the play.
By act three John has been fired and Carol is quite a powerful force in his office, a dramatic juxtaposition from the timid confused Carol in the first act. She has filed criminal charges of rape and battery, and his reaction: “You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in there with your political correctness and destroy my lifeRape you? Are you kidding me I wouldn’t touch you with a ten foot poleyou little cunt” (79-80). These two characters seem to have flaws which leads to an unhappy ending, and much of the confusion and drama is based on misunderstandings, which happens often in daily life between people. And perhaps that is Mamet’s point.
The Children’s Hour — Lillian Hellman
In 1934 the attitudes toward gay people — and lesbians — was vastly different than it is today in the 21st century. That fact is well illustrated in Lillian Hellman’s play, as just an accusation of being lesbian is serious cause for sanctions or even dismissal from a teaching position. In this play there are two women who have worked tirelessly to create a nice atmosphere for a school in an old revamped farmhouse. The women are Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. They are the teachers, they are competent teachers, and it is they long dreamed of desire to be doing this.
The one person who is part of the adult staff (and not really invited to be in that position) is Martha’s aunt Lily. The principal antagonist in the play is Mary Tilford, a little brat who rarely is obedient and seems to take pride in making life miserable for other girls. And her darkest deed was to start a rumor that Karen and Martha are lesbian. The circumstances under which Mary makes this lie into an accusation set the stage for the main drama in the play.
When it comes down to a question of whether or not to believe the bratty Mary, Mary has coaxed others (including Mary’s Grandmother Mrs. Tilford) into verifying her twisted lie about Martha and Karen. But the turning point in the play is when, after the school has been shut down (because all the children have been pulled out by their outraged parents) Martha confronts her true feelings for Karen, which are feelings of romantic love, more than friendship.
“It’s funny,” Martha says, “It’s all mixed up. There’s something in you, and you don’t know it and you don’t do anything about it.” This is like a confession to Karen that Martha has indeed had lesbian urges toward Karen. “Suddenly a child gets bored and lies — and there you are, seeing it for the first timeIt all seems to come back to me” (p. 105). In this dramatic moment in the play the audience is certain that something very powerful is about to happen, and it does as Martha commits suicide.
The absurdity that results from ignorance of gay people is well displayed in this play. For example, Mrs. Tilford actually worries that people can catch lesbianism; clearly the playwright has written this play with the knowledge that society in the Scotland was very suspicious and ignorant about gay people. The tragic ending is made even more outrageous when it is clear that not all of the girls who left Karen and Martha’s school were able to get into other girls’ schools. The reason was a naive fear that the girls’ knowledge of lesbianism could somehow cause an outbreak at other schools.
I really enjoyed the play when I originally saw it, and reading it again reminded me of how difficult it was in the early part of the 20th century to come out and tell the world that you were gay. In fact, it cost a good women her life in this play and she wasn’t even outwardly involved with the woman she subconsciously had desires for.
Death of a Salesman — Arthur Miller
The Death of a Salesman certainly received a lot of positive attention and critical reviews, and was a in 1949. It also received a Tony Award for best play on Broadway. This is a dark, sad play, a play that seems like it was written to bring to light the pressure society puts on people to be successful. Willy Loman is a salesman and not a very stable person. In fact he is like a child one day and the next he pretends to be a success. His life is one of an unrealistic man who has never made much of himself. He is known to cheat on his wife, and once his son Biff saw Willy with another woman, which impacted the son negatively. Willy’s wife is not all that supportive of her husband at all and when Willy talks about the future in an unrealistic tone, his wife tolerates it but she knows he is contemplating suicide.
The oldest son of the Lomans is Biff, who was a big football star in high school but like a lot of high school heroes, he hasn’t done a thing since except steal and be basically worthless. Willy has a dream that his son Biff will one day be a great salesman, and Biff does harbor a desire to make his father proud. There is another son, Harold “Happy” Loman, who has always had to live in the shadow of his big brother and who is a cheater in his job as an assistant buyer at a local store. He takes bribes to try and get ahead and makes things up just to get attention.
The story has Willy coming home very tired after first going on a trip then cancelling the sales trip. His sons are living with their parents temporarily are aware that their father is slipping both physically and professionally. This is a sad story of a father and two sons that have never really made anything of themselves and live in worlds of their own. Willy is clearly delusional and while he is always trying to justify his existence, he is an embarrassment to his family.
Still, Willy loves his brother Ben and wishes that he, Willy, could have had the success his brother has achieved (albeit his son is not an honest business person). Hence, Willy is a pathetic character, juxtaposed with a successful brother. When Charley, Willy’s neighbor, and Willy and wife Linda sit down to have a conversation about the Loman boys’ thievery, the audience can get a good idea of the mentality that Willy’s mentality. Willy pathetically tries to justify his son’s behaviors.
Charley: “Listen, if they steal any more from that building the watchman’ll put the cops on them.”
Linda: (to Willy) “Don’t let Biff”
Willy: “You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a all kinds of money.”
Charley: “Listen, if that watchman”
Willy: “I gave them hell, understand, but I got a couple fearless characters there.”
Charley: “Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters”
After Willy is convinced that by committing suicide he can somehow regain a position of honor in the family; sadly he also believes that by dying he won’t have lost the love of his son Biff. Again, this is a grim look at a failed career, a failed family, and the end result is darker yet.
Trifles — Susan Glaspell
Trifles is a one-act play that supposedly is written based on events that really happened. In fact the author, Susan Glaspell, was once a newspaper reporter and she apparently covered a murder case in Iowa, which later became the substance of her play. In the play John Wright has been murdered in his bed, as someone apparently killed him by putting a rope around his neck.
So the sheriff, with his wife, the neighbors (the Hales) and the attorney for the county come into the kitchen of Mrs. Wright. Suspicion is immediately focused on Mrs. Wright because Mr. Hale announces to the sheriff that he, Mr. Hale, came to the Wrights home the day before and that Mrs. Wright didn’t seem normal. Where is Mr. Wright, Hale asked, and the answer from Mrs. Wright was that her husband was upstairs, deceased, hence the suspicion. Interestingly, Mrs. Wright never appears on stage at all, but the other characters talk about her a great deal.
Mrs. Wright asserts (through other characters) that she was sound asleep when someone apparently snuck into their bedroom and strangled her husband — a story that doesn’t really seem to hold any water at all. She is hauled off to prison.
What comes through very clearly in the play is that the males seem to look down on women — they are obviously condescending towards the women and in the process of looking into this murder they seek only forensic (not human) evidence. Meanwhile, the women look for other clues, and they put together the fact that it was a boring and bleak life that Mrs. Wright led, based on the indifference and coldness that her husband displayed. The “trifles” come into play because the women find evidence, including a little box with a dead canary whose neck has been wrung, It is suggested that Mr. Wright perhaps didn’t like the canary’s song and so he wrung the bird’s neck but Mrs. Wright seems to have kept the little bird in the box. The discovery of the dead canary is a “trifle” in the play that the women don’t tell the men about. There are other trifles that the women find lead them to see Mrs. Wright not as a murderer at all, but as a hard-working woman who put up with a stubborn dull and oppressive husband and simply acted as a way to relieve her of her pain. The women in the play fully understand Mrs. Wright while the men in the play see her as a murderer and yet they don’t identify with Mr. Wright.
It is interesting that one of the wives is the sheriff’s wife, and notwithstanding her risk in helping to conceal the evidence, she helps to do just that.
This could well be considered a feminist play because women are seen as sympathetic to the accused woman because they know the struggles she went through. The men are clueless as to the real human dynamics in this farmhouse, and only concern themselves with the obvious facts.
Inheritors — Susan Glaspell
This play by Glaspell starts out about an idealistic American farmer (Silas Morton) who decides to give his rich farmland to a college — so it puts it in his will. The opening of the play goes back to the year is 1879 and alludes to the fact that the Native Americans had their land taken from them in the early 19th century but now characters in this play co-exist with the Indians.
In the first act readers of the play witness the pioneering spirit of earlier times in America, when generosity and altruism were commonplace. Not only was there a spirit of giving and fairness, but the audience sees that there is peaceful interaction between the Native Americans and the settlers. In the first act Sheila Burrell’s grandmother Morton is not hostile to the Indians but instead approaches them with cookies, as any grandmother would do to anyone.
Later in the play the conflict occurs because now the college (Morton College) has been there for forty years and Madeline, Silas Morton’s granddaughter, has protested the arrest of Hindu students on campus (arrested for protesting the treatment of citizens in India by the British). Meanwhile the conflict continues because Felix Fejevary, the son of a wealthy banker who is also a trustee of Morton College, vigorously objects to the protests by Morton’s granddaughter because the college might lose state money because of the protests and conflict.
The overall theme of this play actually is about freedom of speech at a time when America was very nationalistic (1920); and those who are very patriotic (like Felix) are demanding that “Americanness” be honored and that Madeline be stopped from leading protests. Doing what Madeline is doing was considered by conservatives as un-American.
The play delves into a time when funding for a college might be cut off because of protests by the granddaughter of the college’s founder — and in the end Madeline goes to prison because she stubbornly refuses to back down vis-a-vis the Hindu student’s right to publically protest actions by the British.
History Boys — Alan Bennett
The History Boys is a play written by British playwright Alan Bennett. It opened at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2004 and on Broadway in New York City in April, 2006 and closed several months later in October.
The setting is a boy’s grammar school in England; it is the early 1980s and the boys are being prepared — or supposed to be getting prepared — for the tough tests that will give them entrance into either of the iconic British institutions, Oxford or Cambridge. Typical of a grammar school anywhere, there is tension between the boys and the teachers. The three teachers are Hector, Irwin, and Lintott, and all have very different styles as they seek to lead these boys into an education-related future.
Hector is the one who is peculiar (there is always an eccentric teacher in every school and is usually the butt of jokes) and he is in love with learning and with knowledge per se. On the other hand Irwin (a history teacher) is a kind of hardnosed taskmaster; he is wheelchair bound, and the audience might deduce from that he is something of an angry person. The weird one in this play is Hector, the English teacher, who is observed fondling students on the back of his motorcycle. On the subject of Hector, a reader of the play could be justified in wondering if the author was gay, and wanted to promote the idea that it is cool to fondle young boys. In fact although the play is well written, and the characters are believable, the gay theme can become tedious. I say that at the risk of sounding homophobic, which I am most definitely not, but as a reader of this play (and a teacher) that these inappropriate acts by a teacher are a bit too much.
The headmaster is Felix Armstrong, a homophobic leader who hired Irwin to replace Hector and wouldn’t have even known about the fondling going on if his wife happens to see Hector doing his deed to a boy.
Schools universally are places of wildly different characters, and they are places that adults remember during their formative years, and in a very real way this play brings back memories of how life was back in “the day” when you were in grammar school, whether it was in England or New Jersey.
There within the chaos and the clash of personalities there is humor in the play too, and that is important. For example, one of the boys in the class mentions that when Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister (Chamberlain is credited with totally misunderstanding that Hitler meant to dominate all of Europe) Chamberlain’s choice was lord Halifax rather than Winston Churchill, but it turns out Halifax went to the dentist rather than accept the prime minister position. A boy in the play wryly asserts that “If Halifax had had better teeth, we might have lost the war.” One can image the audience in England howling with laughter over that one.
You have to give Bennett credit, he took chances with this play, and even though he was something of an icon in England, his portrayal of bright grammar school students — including one who offered a younger male teacher (who had taken a fancy for the straight boy) oral sex — was well received. Personally, I think this grammar school scene is an aberration not a normal scene, but fiction doesn’t rely on “normal” when it seeks to entertain.
Bennett, A. (2008). The History Boys. London, UK: Farber & Farber.
Glaspell, S. (1921). Inheritors: A Play in Three Acts. Berkeley, CA: University of California.
Glaspell, S. (2008). Trifles. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Hellman, L. (2013). The Children’s Hour. Whitefish, MT: Literary Licensing, LLC.
Mamet, D. (2012). Oleanna: A Play. New York: Random House LLC.
Miller, A. (2007). Death of a Salesman. Delhi, India: Pearson Education India.
Shaw, G.B. (2007). Pygmalion. Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing LLC.