Zeroing in on Seven Iconic Plays Essay

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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, "Did…did I…did 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 bad…Oh God," and John says, "It's all right…" and Carol continues, "I always…all my life…I 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 life…Rape you? Are you kidding me… I wouldn't touch you with a ten foot pole…you 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 time…It 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.…[continue]

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