I sat down and did a 2 hour paper 2 essay under exam conditions this morning. I typed it – my handwriting is completely shot, so that’s an advantage, I read it through once and then marked it. I’ve included the IB assessment criteria at the end and (if I do say so myself) I think it’s a 22-25 (so at the top end). I can’t see where I’ve dropped marks, but I’d be more than interested if someone can point out where.
Anyway, it’s a useful sample for anyone who wants one – the only real samples for final school year essays are hidden away behind paywalls, so you can have this one for free.
Human illusions have always been a powerful subject of plays, both tragic and comic. In what ways have the plays in your study considered this aspect of human behaviour and with what effects?
Both Athol Fugard and Tennessee Williams make compelling drama out of lifting the veil of illusion. In the plays “Master Harold”…and the boys and A Streetcar Named Desire an interesting range of characters, some deeply delusional, battle against a backdrop that is itself illusory – Apartheid South Africa and an antiquated post-war New Orleans struggling to adapt to the consumerist age. The effect of these battlegrounds and these battles is what creates thought-provoking drama in both plays and may have audiences asking questions about their own perceptions and illusions.
Both Plays set up an illusory world. In the case of the Williams Play, the antagonist, Blanche Dubois, who is arriving in town to stay with her sister Stella and brother in law, Stanley Kowalski, even has to ride a streetcar to get to the house, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The streetcar is named ‘Desire’ suggesting that Blanche is on a spiritual as well as figurative journey. Her own desires are exposed as illusions (or dangerous delusions over the course of the Play). The French Quarter is fading; “The sky…gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay”. It is this beauty in the midst of pre-war decay that Blanche mirrors and Williams’ juxtaposition of grace and decay is also a skilful portrayal of Blanche, a woman whose beauty is only exposed in the full glare of light. She is a woman who is most effective in shadows, where her magician’s skill at illusion can be spun. Drama comes from the confrontation of this illusion with Stanley’s gleeful and hurtful exposure of it.
Fugard’s Port Elizabeth is a world apart from New Orleans but nevertheless shares a similar old world philosophy. In this case it is the assumed superiority of whites over blacks, and the endemic restrictions of Apartheid that informs the actions of the characters who inhabit the café on a rainy day. Much of the Play involves the crumbling of the intellectual assumptions of white supremacy, with time and again 17-year-old Harold’s adolescent assertions about life being exposed in Sam’s less than gleeful, and certainly not hurtful counterpoint. As Harold does his homework with the help of Sam (and to a lesser extent Willy), the thin veil of illusion that carries the Apartheid system inexorably forward, comes undone. As with Streetcar, the very drama of the Play derives from the moments in which, exposed away from the veil of illusion, the reality of society hits home to Harold; and finally, sadly, when the reality of Sam’s illusion that Harold can be saved, hits him: “You’ve just shown me…that I’ve failed”, Sam utters in the falling action, and as with the Williams Play, the effect of illusions that have been suddenly torn down is violence.
As well as setting up societies riven with delusion, the two playwrights construct wonderfully delusional central characters. Blanche and Harold are the beating heart of both Plays and it is a tribute to the subtlety of the writing that the audience doesn’t know whether to boo them as antagonists or feel sorry for them as victims. There are differences between them, with Williams portraying Blanche as the victim of possibly psychotic delusions (she is eventually incarcerated in an asylum) whereas Hally is merely a confused boy whose philosophies have been derived from an insane system. The audience is exposed to Blanche’s manias early on when she denies her drinking problem: “No I rarely touch it” she responds to Stanley’s offer of a shot. It is the first time we see her old world manners – the genteel way in which she insists that people communicate with each other so as to deliberately paper over the cracks of their weaknesses. Later on in the Play she briskly enters a room and says “Don’t get up” – Stanley informs her tersely that no one was going to and yet again drama is created in this juxtaposition of old world gentility and manners and new world directness. Stanley is from the new America of consumer ideals, of work hard and play hard and equality. He is Polish, a Polak as Blanche calls him, one of the new immigrants from Europe who have never had to suffer the inequalities of old European values. These are the very values that Blanche uses to gain power in the world: her faded looks, her haemorrhaging of money, it is all going, it is all lost. The necessary illusions of her life have gone the way of people like Stanley – she is literally face to face with the man who robbed her of her identity. At the beginning of the Play Stanley’s removal of his shirt is the symbolic lifting of this veil. What Blanche sees beneath confuses her, she is both attracted and repelled by his brute strength, his animalistic physique – and Blanche has been given a glimpse of what really lies beneath, what she ordinarily masks with drink and tall stories. The audience at this point is given a visceral lesson in what this demasking feels like.
Hally’s demasking is less personal but equally profound. The audience will get the feeling that at 17 time is on his side and he has not yet made his illusions his whole identity. He is at least willing to listen to Sam (or at least until the end of the Play). His delusions come from the political structure he was brought up with. He feels that white people are intellectually superior to black people and sees Sam’s lack of book knowledge as justification for this claim (a claim repeated often by his father). He sees his role in the café as being to educate: “Tolstoy may have educated his peasants but I have educated you” is another of his comically ludicrous claims, channelling the ‘great’ men of history and in one fell swoop aligning himself with them in scope and vision. The audience will be aware of this, almost touchingly naïve, delusion: the 17-year-old who can’t pass a Maths exam and struggles to get through Shakespeare and Darwin tacitly accepts his own genius whilst deriding the black servants in his presence. His illusory hope is that they may glean something from his existential struggles and he doesn’t see that Sam’s intelligence is being demonstrated in front of his very eyes – he remembers the rivers that Hally has studied for Geography. It is not Harold who is educating his peasants but his peasants who are picking up intellectual morsels from the floor by Harold’s table.
Fugard at no point pokes fun at Harold but rather sets up the situation as ridiculous. This may have been his aim all along; as Winston Churchill says “Don’t protest the case, let the facts do that for you”, and the effect on the audience is to see the inequality of the Apartheid system in all its murky glory. The words of Willy and Sam and the words of Harold do not carry equal weight, which creates a sense of surrealism. A 17-year-old beating men in their forties and telling them to cut out acting like kids is absurd, but completely in keeping with the philosophies of time, when blacks could not sit with whites and were forced into a completely subservient role in society. The title of the Play is an ironic inversion of the accepted norms of behaviour and the audience is aware of this irony the whole time. When Hally beats Willy with a ruler the effect on an American audience in 1982 (when the Play was first staged) would have been absolute horror. Fugard sets the Play during an educational afternoon (Harold is doing his homework) to demonstrate how these illusions work their way into societies – through a philosophy inculcated at school, through parents, through the laws of a society, and perhaps it serves as a sharp reminder to the American audience of the 1980s that they should not get too illusory about their own society; with a subtle shift in a philosophy every society can teeter towards authoritarianism.
And this message he hammers home with a series of dramatic set pieces. Williams too takes great pleasure in destroying illusions with set pieces. Kowalski’s removal of his shirt is a foreshadowing of the dramatic highpoint of the Play: the rape of Blanche Dubois. There is no better symbolic act to cure Blanche of her genteel pretensions. Stanley even subverts her mannered talk of courting and princes and marriage: “We’ve had this date with each other since the beginning” he utters, and so his initial shirt removal has been foreshadowed in this horrible act. Anyone whose coping mechanism for their own rape is to weave yet more illusions is heading towards mental illness and perhaps it comes to some relief to an audience that Blanche may finally be safe from society, locked away with her fantasies.
If the rape is a horrible symbol of innocence destroyed, then the scene towards the end of Master Harold, in which Hally spits at his mentor, friend and servant Sam is Fugard’s own version. The curtain comes down as Kowalski goes in for the kill in Streetcar, but Fugard’s Play has no scenes, it is really one long, continual conversation. There is a pause after the spittle hits Sam’s face, the moment “punctuated” by a long groan from Willie. The effect on the audience might be more of being ‘punctured’ than punctuated as in all societies there is no greater sign of disrespect than to spit in someone’s face. Bizarrely this moment signals the end of Sam’s illusions, and the audience, who up to this point may have been equivocal about Hally’s implication in Apartheid, can now have no doubt. Their illusions, and the illusions of Sam are shattered and the long pause that follows allows them to full appreciate the moment. There may equally be gasps in the theatre. “For a few seconds Sam doesn’t move” instructs the stage directions, and an actor will work this stillness for maximum effect. Similar set pieces punctuate both Plays and add to the dramatic intensity of the piece; Stanley hitting Stella, Hally hitting Willy, the arrival of the Doctor at the end of the Streetcar and Harold’s phone call from the hospital to say his father is being discharged. Each of these shatters the Status Quo.
Sam’s loss of innocence and illusion at the end of Master Harold is one of a number of ancillary delusions shattered over the course of both Plays. Both Playwrights are nothing if not adaptable and they even promote fantasy as being, at times, useful. The dance competition with its illusion of a perfect world in which no one bumps into each other and everyone is in step and creating perfect beauty in the world comes straight out of Blanche Dubois’ book of fantasy. But Fugard and Sam’s illusions have a direct political point to make. It is only by dreaming of a better society that the black population of South Africa were able to build it for themselves. After all, if you cannot iterate an alternative to the bleak reality you are confronted with, how are you expected to escape it? Fugard portrays the dance competition as positive, as progressive, but most of all it is real; the music that emanates from the jukebox in the early part of the Play is by black singers, black musicians who are creating beauty out of the loose change of oppression. Blanche’s fantasies have no such noble motives, in fact conversely they hark back to the very sort of oppression that Fugard was writing about, when rich European families (like the sort who might own a house called Belle Reve – a ‘beautiful dream’ in the Dubois fantasy) grew yet more rich on the back of slave plantation workers, or beyond that, agrarian low wage workers during the depression if the 1930s. Central to Blanche’s delusion is Mitch, himself something of a romantic, who Blanche sets up as a knight in shining armour to save her from the degradation of poverty and having to share a house with Stanley. Before her illusions about Mitch can be shattered (she doesn’t love him – he merely symbolizes something she wants), Mitch’s fantasies about Blanche’s virginal princess are themselves destroyed. She is no stranger to the gutter, and it as these realities of Blanche’s past life (lives) are revealed to both the audience and Mitch that the extent of Blanche’s mania is revealed.
Williams’ own life in which he suffered from mental illness (and later with addiction to drugs) are perhaps mirrored in Blanche’s struggle, and a career as a writer awaited him with Streetcar, his first mainstream success. Of course a writer is a weaver of stories, of lies and deceit, and perhaps a more creative response to her obvious unhappiness would have served Blanche better. Having said that, it is too simple an analysis to call Blanche the proxy of Williams (although her objectification of the sexy brutality of Stanley might be a covert signal of Williams’ own homosexuality). It is less easy to place Athol Fugard in Master Harold, because in truth he may be part Harold and part Sam, an educated expatriate black African taken to writing drama about his home country.
Both dramatists are pursuing truth, but truth can only be found by dismantling illusion; and it is certainly fair to say that there is more truth in South Africa today than there was in 1950. It is through the mechanisms of drama that the narrative can unfold and both dramatists are themselves the ultimate magicians of the piece, skilfully weaving fact and fiction, veiling and unveiling with a sleight of hand, all better to glimpse the narrow vein of truth that lies beneath the world’s many necessary and unnecessary delusions.