Modern Tragedy Essay Sample

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To what extent is it possible for an audience to have sympathy for the character of Stanley?

The conventions of Classical Tragedies such as those of Euripides and Shakespeare, manipulate an audience by giving characters clear traits. Deducing a tragic hero and villain in a play was quite simple. As society has evolved however, so has tragedy. In reality, people are not purely good or bad and this is reflected in modern tragedies such as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in which Tennessee Williams leaves the roles of each character open to interpretation. Stanley’s character is seemingly the tragic villain; he is abusive, violent and rapes Blanche but there are various times where the audience can feel sympathy for him.

In order to suppress her own insecurities, Blanche manipulates and belittles Stella and Stanley through her dialogue, openly expressing her disapproval of their lifestyle and thus allowing sympathy for Stanley’s actions; she could be seen as the tragic aggressor. She criticises Stella’s appearance describing her as “plump as a partridge” and “messy” like a child whilst saying how she has remained beautiful and slim due to staying at Belle Reve. Blanche describes Stella as “baby” frequently and Williams does this to show her view that Stella is young, naïve and unintelligent and thus allowing Blanche to gloat in her intellect. In a similar way she refers to Stanley as a Polak and provokes him by turning up the radio when he asks them to turn it down and spending hours in the bathroom. Their household is seen to be patriarchal, as common in the 40s, and Blanche continually tests Stanley’s authority. It is a clear example of the conflict between patriarchal/matriarchal supremacy of pre-millennium America. Blanche could be seen as, at least partly, the cause of Stanley’s violence therefore as she insults him and his family and ultimately is seen as a threat to his ‘ordered’ lifestyle of which he is in control, provoking Stanley so much so that some form of downfall was inevitable, suggesting an element of tragedy.

In addition, Blanche’s compulsive mendacities allow the audience to sympathise with Stanley as she creates a fantasy and as Christopher Inness says “artificial illusions”. It is surprising to the audience how recklessly she can lie, for example in Scene 10 after Mitch has left her she quickly tells Stanley that “You left before my wire came”. The audience know this is not true and later Stanley realises too. Williams does this to emphasise Blanche’s mental instability, reflected in the polka music, as even she begins to believe her own lie. Stanley begins to see through Blanche’s act which forebodes tragedy, for example he knows about the liquor she is drinking – Mitch tells her “he says you been lapping it up all summer” and hints that he also sees through all her lies. Blanche is untrustworthy to Stella and Stanley who open their home to her; she disrupts their lifestyle drastically and therefore the audience can sympathise with Stanley who merely wants to find out the truth and get everything back to normal.

There are times when Williams manipulates the audience to feel sympathy for Stanley, this can be seen in Scene 2; “Stanley [becoming somewhat sheepish]: You see, under the Napoleonic code-a man has to take an interest in his wife’s affairs-especially now that she’s going to have a baby.” Williams uses stage directions here to evoke sympathy for Stanley from the audience by describing him taking responsibility for his family in a “sheepish” manner. This could reflect how Stanley is almost afraid to show a softer, caring side to his personality – also supported by the fact that he only exclaims his love for Stella when he is drunk in Scene 3 – but does show he cares about Stella and his baby. These subtle hints that Stanley is not purely bad show his character to be more complex than one might think, differing from the conventions of classical tragedy. Thus reflecting real life and the fact that people make mistakes, but can still be loved by people, in this case Stella. Williams blurs boundaries of good and evil to reflect real life and the fact that people should not condemn others unfairly, this is perhaps different to classical tragedies in which tragic heroes/villains are easily distinguishable. Therefore, it allows Williams to make us feel sympathy for both characters, especially Stanley when it shows him to be somewhat caring and concerned.

On the other hand, Williams makes it easy for the reader to feel unsympathetic towards Stanley and view him as the tragic villain because of how violent and abusive he is towards Stella and Blanche, perhaps to show how some relationships can be. As described by critic Christopher Inness, Stanley represents “the norms of a soulless society, crude and ruthlessly competitive as well as uncultured” and during the 40s some of Stanley’s actions may have been socially accepted. Despite this, the audience cannot sympathise with Stanley for the simple reason that he does not/will not change. The first time his violence becomes apparent to the audience is in Scene 3 where he hits Stella after an incident with the radio, we learn from Mitch however that this is not the first time it has happened and he is not surprised when they’re back together at the end of the night. Stanley knows the effect alcohol has on him yet he returns drunk from bowling in scene 10 and rapes Blanche. For this reason there can be no sympathy for Stanley’s actions as he is purely violent and shows no sign of remorse or change. It could be argued, still, that Stanley’s fear of the unknown makes him unable to change; he feels safe when he is in control. For example he suspects Blanch of foul play to protect Stella and shows a caring side when he calls helplessly after her, evoking sympathy from the audience. However, this does forebode tragedy due to his immutable character.

Additionally, Williams depicts Stanley as “primitive” through his demeanour and speech and it is difficulty for the audience to feel compassion towards him. When we first meet Stanley in Scene 1, this basic speech consists only of; “Catch!”, “Meat” and “Come on!” which reflects his ape-like manor and perhaps suggests a lack of education. Throwing the meat at Stella could symbolise his role as breadwinner and “gaudy seed bearer” [st.d.], he could be interpreted as a conventional male American figure of the 40s. Stanley’s awareness of his own sexual magnetism and his treatment towards women as sexual objects reflects the view of pre-1940s men and foreshadows the events of Scene 10. We are unsympathetic towards his actions though as they are morally wrong. In comparison to Mitch; who is kind and considerate during the first 9 scenes of the play, the audience come to recognise that Stanley’s behaviour is not necessary. However, even Mitch is shown to possess these qualities in Scene 9 when he attempts to assault Blanche, “fumbling to embrace her” [st.d.]. In my opinion therefore, there is sympathy towards Stanley who presumably believes this is the correct way of acting towards others due to influence by society; one could argue that Stanley, out of fear, cannot change. Even still, many are unsympathetic towards them as Stanley’s actions are inexcusable.

Stanley is disrespectful towards Blanche making the audience unsympathetic towards him. On first arrival, Stanley is suspicious of where Blanche’s money has come from and tells Stella that “it looks to me like you have been swindled” – he has no trust in her and is not empathetic despite Stella’s explanation that Blanche has had a rough time recently. He is set to expose her past and eventually finds out the truth about her life at hotel Flamingo. It could be argued that it is her fault for not telling Stella and Stanley what was going on, but Stanley should have understood that she was trying to escape her past life. By constantly trying to expose her, he helps to cause her downfall and the audience may be unsympathetic towards him.

To conclude, an audience’s interpretation of Stanley and therefore their sympathy towards him can vary. As readers, we hold the advantage of stage directions, for example when we first meet Stanley as the confident womaniser and bread winner; we may feel unsympathetic towards him and sympathetic more so towards Blanche as it explains her moth-like tendencies, emphasising that tragedy for her is inevitable. However, an actor may choose to make him more vulnerable and so evoke more sympathy. Some may say that Blanche holds traits of a tragic aggressor and provokes Stanley allowing sympathy towards him. On the other hand I think that most sympathy ought to be given to Blanche, by scene 10 she is almost completely delusion and even when told about her past Stanley does not treat her well.

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