Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How Many Years Would it Take to Turn Hally into Pozzo/Sam into Lucky?

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”… and the boys, the master-slave relationship is a cornerstone on which the plays’ central themes are built. In Godot, Pozzo, the master, and Lucky, the slave, are framed as the master and his slave in the twilight of their time together. However, in Master Harold,  Hally, the master, and Sam, the servant/slave, will probably have many more years together after the events of the play. Due to his penchant for academic procrastination and internal frustration, Hally will probably stick around his parents’ tea shop with Sam for the foreseeable future. Thus, I’m asking the question: how many years would it take to turn Hally and Sam into Pozzo and Lucky? Let’s look at some classic Pozzo quotes and how Hally and Sam’s situation exhibits some similar traits to those expressed in the quotes.

POZZO:  “Why he doesn't make himself comfortable? Let's try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn't want to. There's reasoning for you. And why doesn't he want to? … He wants to impress me, so that I'll keep him”

This quote focuses on the rights of subordinates—more specifically their lack of rights. In Master Harold, we see inklings that Hally doesn’t think Sam has the same rights as he does. Regarding education, Hally’s supercilious tone toward Sam when discussing his studies leads us to believe that Hally doesn’t think Sam is entitled to an education. Moreover, Hally sees himself as benevolent and generous by giving Sam the gift (which he is apparently not entitled to in South African society) of education. If this mindset were to solidify and compound over many decades, Hally would definitely say what Pozzo said here.

POZZO: “Compared to him I look like a young man, no?” 

This quote is significant because it highlights the age disparity between master and slave: the slave is considerably older than the slave. In Master Harold, Hally is twenty-five or so years Sams’s junior, yet the imbalances in their relationship would warrant the master making derision-filled remarks like this one. Pozzo insults Lucky here by commenting on his shoddy appearance, the exact opposite of elder respect. When Hally does disrespectful things like spitting in Sam’s face, it is easy to see how that behavior could continue and grow into the constant abuse that Pozzo throws at Lucky.

POZZO: “(sobbing). He used to be so kind . . . so helpful . . . and entertaining . . . my good angel . . . and now . . . he's killing me.”

Here, Pozzo reminisces about the good times and kind moments shared between him and Lucky. This mirrors Sam’s countless kindnesses towards Hally when he was young (most apparent when he carried Hally’s drunk father home and made a kite to cheer Hally up). This quote also signals a change in that relationship—things now aren’t pleasant like they were before. In Master Harold, Hally and Sam may have already reached this turning point. After the play’s final confrontation between the two, it may be impossible to revive a semblance of kindness between Hally and Sam. Their good times might already be over, leading Hally to say things similar to this quote.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Subtle vs. Overt: The Way Larger Themes are Discussed in Master Harold & Death of a Salesman

Racial inequality in South Africa and Optimism in America--two incredibly complex ideas are discussed in "Master Harold"... and the boys and Death of a Salesman, respectively. However, the way in which these ideas are discussed in characters' conversation topics is significant.

In "Master Harold"... and the boys, racial inequality is rarely overtly touched upon; instead the characters talk about everything from kites to the geopolitics of ballroom dancing. Only through subtext and intelligent inference can audiences understand Athol Fugard's views on racial inequality and the comments he's making on Apartheid in South Africa. This subtly is intentional. First off, if Fugard would have simply created a character that bursts in and screams "DOWN WITH APARTHEID," then the tone of his play would completely change. The charming, witty interactions between Sam and Hally are hallmarks of the show (they also help build up something to contrast with the play's heartbreaking ending). However, the memory of those interactions would be marred if this overt outburst occurred, and the mood of the play would shift from pleasantly prosaic to alarmingly disturbed. Fugard uses this everyday, commonplace feel of the interactions between Sam and Hally to make a statement about how entrenched the ideas of Apartheid were in South Africans, white and black. Even without being overtly mentioned, the class system implemented by Apartheid can be seen in the way the much younger Hally interacts with the more mature Sam; Sam is subservient to Hally, but overtly mentioning the hypocrisy of this relationship would be taboo, so it can only be seen through subtext. When Hally's mercurial mood shifts after a call from his mother or mention of his father, he reacts by disrespecting his "boys." The way Sam and Willie brush off this disrespect as just a normal occurrence make a statement about how disturbingly common this Apartheid-justified social interaction is. Throughout the play, the sinisterness of Apartheid is shown through its subtle effects on everyday life, and the play would not have the same effect if this subtly was switched to overt mention.

Full of overt mention, Arthur Miller has his characters frequently mention The American Dream in Death of a Salesman to reinforce its gilded nature. Whenever Willy mentions his self-sacrifice in order to better the lives of his children, Miller makes sure to include a scene about the true nature of the children's' success (e.g. Biff and Happy living at home, Happy discussing his repeated infidelities, or Biff discussing his dissatisfaction with his lot in life). Miller uses this sequence of events (mentioning better life promised by The American Dream and then showing how it hasn't happened for the Lomans) to show how hollow the promise of an American Dream really is. Furthermore, achieving success as the quintessential salesman (what Willy is initially portrayed as) can be seen as a common product of The American Dream, but Miller spends the rest of the play showing how Willy is anything but a successful Salesman. The audience is regaled by Willy's tales/delusions of grandeur in the beginning of the play (including Willy often mentioning The American Dream and all its benefits). However Miller makes sure to show the falsehood Willy's statements by displaying the dire circumstances that his family is in.

Both authors of both plays made conscious decisions about the level of subtly with which to discuss the big ideas in their stories. Fugard wanted to make a statement about the extreme prevalence of Apartheid in South African society, by having its effects be felt without the characters even mentioning racial segregation and inequality until the end of the play. On the other hand, Miller has his characters (especially Willy) repeatedly discuss the American Dream and its message of hope and prosperity, but the actual circumstances of his characters' lives send the opposite message. Miller does this to show that the American Dream is a hollow myth. The characters of Death of a Salesman want it to be real, so they keep talking about it, even though deep down, they know it doesn't exist. Subtly is a powerful tool in drama, and both Fugard and Miller use it to reinforce the central message of their plays.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Donald Draper/Dick Whitman vs. Earnest Whitman/Jack Whitman

Two noteworthy time periods, 1890’s England and 1960’s America, are portrayed in two great works: The Importance of Being Earnest and Mad Men. Creators Oscar Wilde and Matthew Weiner have both created central characters that live double lives to expose the hypocrisies of their setting, Jack Earnest and Dick Whitman, respectively. The origin of both characters’ facades both involve self-betterment—Don was created to escape the Korean War and the doldrums of Midwestern farm living, and Earnest was created as an excuse to escape the country.

Both characters’ alter egos also interfere with their respective romantic lives. Don’s wife divorces him when she learns of his past as Dick Whitman, and Jack’s pseudonym of Earnest served as the principal reason for Gwendolyn’s attraction to him. In addition, the creators of Mad Men use Don’s false identity to exaggerate some of the more ridiculous aspects of 1960’s America. In the world of Madison Avenue (where Mad Men got its name) success is predicated upon clever fabrication of advertising campaigns and product slogan, but the TV show takes this admiration of fabrication to another level with the identity of Don Draper. Often, Dick/Don’s adept fabrication skills from his second identity allow him to excel at his work; his society rewards his dishonesty. This quality is usually undeserving of reward in modern times, so Mad Men uses this concept to hold a mirror up to that society and point out its hypocrisies.

70 years earlier in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack’s complacent attitude toward his critical lie to his soon-to-be spouse showed how little regard he (and by extension his society) has for the truth. A similar lie in the same setting, Algy’s lack of concern toward his penchant for “Bunbrying” show his society’s preference for sacrificing the emotion of others for personal gain.

The plot device of a fabricated identity is useful for creating an engaging plot and deeply developed characters. However, both Oscar Wilde and Matthew Weiner use this plot device to point out the hypocrisies and fallacies within their respective societies.   

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Heaney Memes

In "Punishment," Heaney uses the mistreated body of a woman preserved in a bog to compare to British sympathizers that were tarred and feathered by the IRA as punishment for their disloyalty. Heaney was an Irish "Derry Boy" from the start, yet this poem shows he has some reservations about how his side treats dissenters.

Throughout poems like "Follower" and "Digging" Heaney uses lots of sexually evocative language when describing situations that are not usually so sexualized. Specifically, many of the encounters with his father are ripe with double entendre, which is a little disquieting for readers.

This one solely focuses on Heaney's fixation with bodies preserved in bogs. With other poems such as "Digging" and "Follower" that already focus on the past, the bog provided a real life situation through which Heaney is able to talk more about the past.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Dear Toni Morrison

Dear Toni Morrison,

Your 2008 novel, A Mercy, offers a pleasingly unprecedented view of 17th century America, but it does this while suffering a schizoid break in terms of narrative structure. Yes, your choice to have half the novel written in the voice of Florens, a semi-literate adolescent slave girl, certainly gives your work a unique aspect. However, this choice suffers from poor implementation. The decision to intersperse Florens’s chapters throughout the story instead of collating them together one-after-another ruptured your novel’s otherwise pleasant flow and gave A Mercy an insurmountable barrier to entry.

Whether it’s television, cinema, art, theatre, or literature, all forms of media’s first few moments have to work to hook their audience into the story. Hooks can come in the form of action, intrigue, drama, suspense, or even empathy, but your average reader will not be hooked by a hapless hodge-podge of incoherent statements conveying a cloudy chain of events. Moreover, these stupefying sentences feature a veritable smorgasbord of terms that would baffle anyone without a perfect lexicon of colonial-era historical elements. Your two principal aspects of unfamiliarity, Florens’s imperfect English and the labyrinth time-period terms, are the two cornerstones of A Mercy’s massive barrier to entry. What reason would a prospective reader (who isn’t a seventeenth century history savant) have to continue reading your book when its first dozen pages are littered with these two cardinal literary sins? Florens’s perspective is valuable; it’s just not being used effectively when placed in the beginning of the novel.

Worse than that, Florens’s already-disjointed narrative is further obscured by your decision to break up her story into non-contiguous chapters. The medium of literature has certain limitations, and one of those limitations is conveying a constantly changing narration perspective. It’s not like this is a movie where you are able to cut to different characters rapidly to signify perspective change. In literature, it is asking too much of readers to repeatedly re-imagine the world of A Mercy from a different character’s point of view after every chapter.

However, your novel is at its strongest when it brings readers to learn new things about and empathize with A Mercy’s initially unapproachable characters—as it does at the end of many non-Florens chapters. I suggest that you play to this strength by leaving all the Florens chapters until the end of the novel. That way, readers have a lower barrier to entry when learning about the rags-to-riches merchant Jacob Vaark or the dutiful Native American slave Lena. Since the readers will be immersed by the engaging character arcs of these non-Florens characters, you can have them learn some time-period terms and conventions without them being too put-off. While all this love for the characters and knowledge of the time period built up from the non-Florens chapters, you can then use Florens’s concatenated story at the end of the novel to deliver A Mercy’s core themes of family, love, and individuality more effectively.


A soon-to-be fan

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lady Macbeth: an Example of Shakespeare’s Feminism or Sexism?

There is no doubt the mind of the collective literary consensus that sexism is prevalent in Shakespeare’s plays. In works such as The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice, sexist societies limit the opportunities of many female characters. The most common trope that displays this, non-consensual marriage, robs these women of choice and forces them, quite literally, to submit to a man. Sexist societies and gender roles are clearly prevalent in Shakespeare’s works, but the eclectic variety of ideas represented in the Bard’s plays is what makes his works so noteworthy.

Another one out of Shakespeare’s motley mix of ideas is feminism—well not actual feminism, as these plays are a couple hundred years before the official feminist movement. However, many of His works contain women that are empowered and influential, hallmarks of the feminist movement. For simplicity’s sake Shakespeare’s brand of female empowerment will be
 referred to as feminism form here on out. Any time one mentions Shakespeare and feminism in the same sentence, the first character that comes to mind is Lady Macbeth.

Previous analysts have lauded Lady Macbeth as a feminist icon in literature because of how she positions herself as the mind behind the Macbeth family’s machinations and doesn’t let her husband control her. In fact, she often plants ideas in his head about how to fulfill their (or really her) ambition. Here’s what she has to say to her husband about his pre-murder timidity

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage?
(Act 1 S 7)

She openly taunts her husband and calls his potential actions cowardly, something not many wives of the time could get away with. The relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in the beginnings of the play is usually the cornerstone of the feminist argument.

However, what if the Bard starts off the play with his leading lady in such a position of power only to give her more room to fall?

Arguably, both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are put through the same hardship: coping with killing those in the way of their political ambition.  What if Shakespeare was actually making a point about the difference between men and women when he had his two characters react differently to the same situation. Setting up a controlled experiment of sorts, Shakespeare placed two relatively equivalent characters, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, in a crucible to display the difference of reactions between men and women. From this perspective, it can be said that Shakespeare’s true comment on gender inequality came in the form of Lady Macbeth reaching a nadir of neuroses while Macbeth turned into a resolute, cutthroat leader. In other words, women spiral out of control while men thrive after a guilt-producing decision. To show how truly far Lady Macbeth fell, here are some of her last words before she inevitable kills herself.

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so
pale.--I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he
cannot come out on's grave.
To bed, to bed! there's knocking at the gate:
come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's
done cannot be undone.--To bed, to bed, to bed!
 (Act 1 Scene 5).
Whereas the beginning of Macbeth’s final act shows the extent to which Lady Macbeth has fallen, the final scene displays how differently confident and bold Macbeth has become with the following quote.

The cry is still 'They come:' our castle's strength
Will laugh a siege to scorn: here let them lie
Till famine and the ague eat them up:
(Act 5 S 5)

What is a more telling comment on a women’s abilities, the fact that the society around her robs her of choice, or that she herself could not bear a burden that a man in a similar situation could? Lady Macbeth was not put at any outstanding disadvantage, nor was she the target of any discrimination or prejudice. Instead of having to face claims about her gender’s supposed inferiority, she herself demonstrates it by descending into suicide while her male counterpart does not. If only Lady Macbeth’s milk had been replaced with gall, then she may have had the unfeminine fortitude to not crumble into a toothless, delusional hag. When examined this way, Shakespeare offers a nuanced, biting comment on the true nature of female inferiority with the juxtaposed character arcs and climaxes of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.