Dramatic conflicts arise when dominant individuals or groups regard themselves as the norm against which others are to be measured. With reference to specific scenes from at least two plays you have studied, discuss the significance of such conflicts and how they are explored.
Both Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, illustrate a shift in social norms to the current post-war, industrialized, patriarchy-dominated 1950s America; while in Streetcar, the norm transforms from the Old, Southern aristocracy to the working-class achieving the American Dream, in Salesman, Miller illustrates a shift in what the American Dream represents and how it can be achieved, from Willy’s ‘well-liked’ philosophy to a capitalist-driven mindset. Because of both protagonists’ inability to adapt to this norm, dramatic conflicts between other characters arise; in Streetcar, Blanche’s incongruity to the new world drives her clash with Stanley, the main antagonist, while in Salesman, Willy’s stubborn belief in the merits of being ‘well-liked’ instead of working hard creates conflict with Howard. The discordance between past and current cultures, evident in the antagonistic relationships, is central to the dramatic conflicts in both plays; the protagonists’ inability to adapt to the dominant paradigm shift is their ultimate downfall.
In Streetcar, Williams immediately establishes Blanche’s incongruity with her surroundings (and thus New America) in the opening, foreshadowing possible conflicts that would arise from this. Both Blanche’s origin – ‘Belle Reve’, which translates to a beautiful dream in French, and destination – ‘Elysian Fields’, a place for the dead in Greek mythology, suggest that the Aristocratic South she represents is no longer the norm. It is evident in the stage directions that ‘her appearance is incongruous to the surroundings’ – she wears showy, white clothes, which is contrasted against the ‘atmosphere of decay’ of New Orleans. Though Williams’ use of “white” connotes purity, the showy nature of the clothes suggests this may merely be a veneer. Because showy items are also fragile and white is prone to dirt, Williams implies this façade of innocence will be broken at some point of the play, hinting at possible dramatic conflict. Blanche is introduced to be in ‘shocked disbelief’ (through the stage directions) at the conditions Stella lives in, suggesting a culture shock. Her hysterical attitude towards these, emphasized by the stage direction ‘sat stiffly’, accentuate her discomfort and her incongruity with these conditions. It is only after she furtively ‘tosses down’ a glass of whisky that she starts to relax in this new environment, as alcohol is used to forget. The use of tossing back, a fast-paced action, suggests she is addicted, while her furtive manner implies that she wishes to keep this addiction hidden. Yet her choice to escape from the harsh reality by furtively drinking rather than adjusting to the conditions foreshadows future conflict – she cannot escape this reality forever. It is evident that Blanche’s disparity with and inability to adapt to her surroundings, which represent post-war America, will contribute to dramatic conflict through interactions with Stanley, the embodiment of the new social norm.
Similarly, the opening of Miller’s Salesman also illustrates Willy’s incompatibility with the capitalist environment, hinting at conflicts later on in the play. The house is initially described to be ‘surrounded at all sides’ by ‘towering, angular shapes.’ Miller illustrates an ominous image of tall buildings, which represent the capitalist world, looming over the small house, suffocating the Lomans. The use of “angular” accentuates this ominous image – it is unfriendly. This implies that the house and its residents are incongruous to the setting, and may be replaced soon by another building – the Lomans don’t coexist with the New America. This is further developed by Willy’s claim that they were boxed in by ‘bricks and windows, windows and bricks,’ which also generates a trapped feeling, further emphasized by the repetition and use of “bricks”, which has connotations of (). Through the inferiority and suffocating atmosphere surrounding the Lomans’ home, Miller hints that this discordance with the capitalist world may cause conflict throughout the play and become Willy’s ultimate downfall. Moreover, the stage directions also state that ‘an air of dream clings to the place.’ Miller generates a fantasy-like atmosphere to the Lomans’ home, implying that it may not be long-lasting, foreshadowing Willy’s end. Lastly, the opening scene also establishes Willy’s mental state. When he arrives home, through Miller’s use of stage directions and dialogue, it is immediately evident that Linda is overly concerned for Willy – she ‘treads carefully, delicately’ and talks with ‘some trepidation.’ This is juxtaposed against Willy’s repeated, vehement denial of any occurrences, exasperatedly claiming ‘nothing happened.’ This exchange – Linda’s gentleness and worry contrasted with Willy’s denials — generates unease within the audience and creates conflict between the couple as Miller hints at Willy’s mental state. Lastly, Miller reveals the root of Linda’s worries as she asks ‘you didn’t smash the car did you?’ By referencing the car, aside from accentuating Willy’s instability, Miller employs Chekov’s gun and foreshadows Willy’s eventual suicide. Through Willy’s disparity with his surroundings, which represent capitalist America, and the opening lines, which provide a glimpse at his mental state, Miller implies that these will contribute to dramatic conflict.
Furthermore, Blanche’s conflicts with Stanley in Streetcar, which exemplify Stanley’s aggression, highlight the current social norm’s dominance over the old culture, thus leading to Blanche’s downfall. The discordance between cultures is evident in Stanley’s poker night. When Blanche enters and tells the men ‘please don’t get up’, Stanley counters with ‘nobody’s going to get up.’ Stanley’s rude, brusque reply illustrates his annoyance at Blanche’s expectations highlighting the contrast in ideals between Blanche and Stanley and generating dramatic tension and conflict. Moreover, Williams’ depiction of Stanley’s vehement disapproval of Blanche using the radio during their poker night despite the other men enjoying it creates conflict. After Blanche turns the radio on the second time, rather than switching it off again, Stanley shouts then ‘tosses the radio out of the window.’ Through his forceful, brute, rash behavior, implied by ‘tosses out the window’ Stanley exhibits his superiority, excessively reacting when Blanche challenges his authority: by destroying the radio, Stanley ensures it cannot be played again. Aside from creating dramatic conflict and tension, this action allows Stanley to assert his dominance over Blanche. Moreover, through Miller’s choice of romantic music playing on the radio, throwing it away may also represent Stanley’s hatred for the Aristocratic South and the old society’s death, despite Blanche attempting to revive it. Lastly, these conflicts culminate in the rape scene where Stanley ultimately dominates. ‘We’ve had this date from the beginning’ illustrates the inevitability of Stanley dominating Blanche, and thus the New America overpowering the Old. This is further emphasized by Blanche’s helplessness when Stanley ‘grabs her wrist’ as she hits him with the broken bottle. ‘Grabbing’ is a violent action that renders her attempt to defend herself useless. Also, Blanche’s reliance on a broken bottle contrasted with Stanley’s grabbing highlights the disparity in strength between Blanche and Stanley. Moreover, the reference to Stanley as ‘tiger, tiger’ further accentuates his physical, brute strength – tigers are powerful animals. Blanche’s naïve belief that she can shape the harsh reality to meet her fantasies and relive the Aristocratic society is dissolved. The result of the conflicts is represented by the tearing down of Blanche’s paper lantern, used to dim the light (a symbol of truth), in the last scene, signifying the prevalence of the new social norm against the old South she represents; her inability to adjust to the new society is her downfall.
Moreover, Willy’s interaction Howard, which highlights his discordance with the social norm, contributes to dramatic conflict. When Willy initially enters his office, rather than starting with Willy’s reasons for entering, Howard shows off his ‘wire recorder’ and his children’s recordings. The contrast between the advanced ‘wire recorder’ and Willy’s suitcase highlight the change in social norms; it is evident that Willy has been left behind. Willy’s obsequiousness is clearly illustrated as he urges Howard on and excessively fawns over it: ‘that is lifelike, isn’t it?’, ‘you’re very good!’. Miller suggests that Willy is using his sycophantic nature and ‘well-liked’ philosophy to soften Howard before asking to be relocated to New York. His failure to do so (even losing his job) represents the lack of success of this ‘well-liked’ belief Willy so stubbornly clings onto. This is also evident with the juxtaposition between Willy repeating “your father” 6 times throughout his interaction with Howard, reminding him of the length of his service, and Howard referring to Willy as “kid” 6 times, despite Willy’s obvious seniority (in terms of age). Howard’s patronizing, which creates conflict, highlights the rise of the capitalist society and Willy’s inability to adapt to it, leading to his firing; loyalties and being “well-liked”, which Willy clings upon, no longer matter with Howard as the new boss. Howard’s condescension is further evident in stage directions and dialogue: Miller illustrates him to be ‘barely interested’, he repeats ‘I got to see some people’ as if Willy wasn’t worth his time, claims that ‘business is business’, and leaves his office as Willy tries to beg for his job. Howard’s uncaring attitude, coupled with his matter-of-fact tone, depicts Willy’s failures as a salesman and his inability to command respect in this new social norm, leading to his downfall and generating conflict between the two. Throughout the argument, the audience pities Willy and resents Howard, but Willy’s failure – losing his job – is inevitable due to his failure to adjust to the capitalist norm.
In conclusion, the protagonists’ stubbornness to cling onto the past social norm – while in Streetcar it is the Aristocratic South, in Salesman it is the ‘well-liked’ philosophy – and their inability to adapt to the present social norm fuels the dramatic conflict of the play as they struggle with the dominant groups, ultimately leading to their downfall.
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