To what extent can the plays you have studied be seen to have, directly or indirectly, a social or political purpose? Refer to two or three plays, exploring how they achieve their purpose.


‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘The Crucible’, by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller respectively, are dramatic spectacles crafted by their playwrights through the employment of dramatic and linguistic devices to reveal, to varying extents, political and social messages. While Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ is indeed a fundamentally politically motivated play, social messages can also be indirectly deduced, albeit to a lesser extent. In contrast, Williams’ ‘Streetcar’ has a primarily social message though this message is not as central to the play as Miller’s political message is to his.


Miller’s intricate character construction in ‘The Crucible’ allows him to achieve his political purpose of divulging the vindictive and morally corrupt nature of the McCarthy Communist trials in the 1950s. Through the employment of characters living in his politically allegorical representation of the 1950s Communist situation, the Salem witch hunt of 1692, a 1950s American audience is urged to transfer realisations they may make about the witch hunt to their present situation. Miller’s most essential tool in this provoking this realisation is his common man and modern tragic hero, John Proctor, ‘a farmer in his middle thirties’. From this character description itself, it is evident that Proctor is representative of the common man as his occupation is chosen to be one that would associate him with the bourgeois and thus a character that, Miller hopes, the audience can identify with and emulate. This is most evident when Miller’s unidentified narrator, who perhaps also contributes in adding a sense of political realism to the play as he presents historical and political facts, proclaims that the hysteria and ‘coming madness’ was something ‘a John Proctor would rebel against’. Miller’s choice of diction here is crucial as his use of the indefinite article ‘a’ implies that Proctor is his archetypal common man that anyone can imitate. Proctor’s integrity and struggle to preserve his ‘goodness’ from the corruptive forces of a morally diseased society is both dramatically powerful and highly effective at exposing Miller’s political message; as he ‘[tears the (confession) and crumples it]’, Miller uses the dramatic intensity of this moment to glorify his status as hero that the audience would aspire towards and yearn to emulate. The paper is symbolically significant of the oppressive monolithic Court, both that in Salem, and by allegorical extension, in 1950s America, and thus its destruction embodies the passionate fight of the common man against political hegemony. Furthermore, Miller also gifts Proctor with a tragic ending with elevated dramatic tension as ‘[The final drumroll crashes, then heightens violently...and the drums rattle like bones in the morning air.]’. Proctor’s martyr-like death ironically, and therefore tragically, embodies the victory of his ‘goodness’ and his embracing of death rather than an empty life void of his values epitomises his heroic nature. Therefore, through such construction of Proctor’s character, Miller creates his political hero and thus delineates his political message.


However, one may argue that while ‘The Crucible’ may have been politically motivated to some extent, Miller was, to larger extent, fundamentally attempting to make a literary point by challenging the traditional conventions of Greek tragedies. Miller’s concept of a hero differs from traditional Greek tragedies in that he believed that the hero did not have to have a supreme status, such as that of a King, to encounter the kind of dramatic conflict necessary in giving birth to a tragic hero. Indeed, through ‘The Crucible’ he presented his version of a modern Greek tragedy in which the hero, John Proctor, was a common man and was capable of being twisted and torn by overwhelming forces of society in such a manner that eventually led to his seemingly inevitable death. However, it can also be argued that Miller’s choice for his tragic hero to be a representative for the common man is politically motivated in itself. Communism is deeply rooted in the idea of struggle of the common man and thus, one may argue, that his literary point contributes to his larger political point as a Communist.


Similarly, in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Williams crafts his protagonists to reveal, though not a political, but a social message. Stanley Kowalski embodies the burgeoning working classes from the outset of the play itself as revealed most obviously by Williams’ choice of costume for him, when he enters ‘[roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes]’. His colloquial language and Williams’ choice of diction for his stage directions as he ‘[bellow(s)]’ to Stella, calling her ‘Baby!’ divulge his bustling energy and primitiveness, and thus also that of the working class that he is a stage representative for. In fact, Williams’ choice of name for Stanley Kowalski itself is significant as the harsh consonants and auditory effect of his name creates an impression of roughness and forcefulness. In direct contrast, Blanche Dubois is employed by Williams to represent the aristocratic upper class, as is also evident by Williams’ choice of a sophisticated costume for her as she enters dressed in ‘[a white suit with a fluffy bodice]’. Furthermore, Williams’ choice for her name is also essential to her character and thus his social message as ‘Blanche Dubois’ is derived from French which therefore denotes a sense of refinement and elegance whilst also connoting a sense of pretension. The soft vowels of ‘Dubois’ serve to accentuate this and are indeed in stark contrast to the harsh consonants in ‘Kowalski’, which may foreshadow their ultimate dramatic conflict, a ‘date (they’ve) had from the beginning’. Williams hence creates two characters that signify two overwhelming macrocosmic social forces that he perceives the modern American society to be torn between and his play thus mirrors this social conflict. Moreover, ambiguities such as the vibrantly exciting yet sub-humanly primal working classes, also echo how American society is precariously balanced between these two social forces and the danger of how a turn of events may tip this delicate balance either way. However, as Stanley physically overpowers Blanche as he rapes her, Williams does hint that the budding force of the working classes is overpowering the old traditional aristocratic values in contemporaneous American society. Williams’ uses contrasting body positions during the moments preceding the rape to heighten the dramatic intensity and the effectiveness of the social message, as Blanche ‘[moves backward through the door into the bedroom]’, cornered by Stanley, and ultimately lies ‘inert’ as Stanley picks her up and ‘[carries her to the bed]’, signifying Stanley’s absolute victory. Moreover, Blanche’s rape itself occurs off stage. While this is dramatically powerful as it allows the rape to be left to the more vivid imagination of the audience, in terms of social message, one could tentatively argue that Williams’ detachment of the rape from the audience’s present reality reflects that he believes the working classes will overtake the upper classes in the future, rather than the present.


However, one may argue that while Williams does have a social purpose for ‘Streetcar’, this purpose is limited in the extent to which it drives the plot and craft of his play. Indeed, it can be contended that themes such as the destructive nature of desire are much more potent. Most obviously, the name of the play itself refers to this theme and, on a literal level, this is indeed the streetcar Blanche takes to Elysian Fields where she faces her physical, mental and sexual destruction. This therefore serves to illuminate corruptive character of desire as a more crucial driving force than Williams’ social message in this play. Moreover, most of the characters in this play are seen to be decayed by their desires. Williams portrays Stella as constantly compromising her self-worth and dignity as she is described to be irrationally ‘blind with tenderness’ and sexual desire for Stanley only minutes after he physically abuses her. Therefore, it can be argued that Williams’ central purpose behind his assignment of two opposite extremes of social classes to his two protagonists is to simply create a dramatic force of overwhelming desire between these two polar opposites. However, simultaneously, one could alternatively argue that the destructive nature of desire itself leads to another one of Williams’ social messages; through the utilisation of characters disintegrated by their own desires, Williams exposes the decay of American society, a society in which no clear heroes (unlike in Miller’s ‘The Crucible’) exist. Therefore, instead of heroes, this play reflects a social truth by entailing characters who are simply trying to cope with the world in which they live and thus acts as a social mirror for Williams’ contemporaneous audience.


Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ may also be argued to have a social message conveyed through his use of motifs, though this social message is likely to be a subset of its political message. Miller represents the destruction of the individual by the oppressive social forces of homogeneity as a recurring motif throughout the play. This corruption of the individual is epitomised by Mrs. Putnam’s ‘[full of breath, shiny eyed]’ excitement, a quotation in which the caesura itself allows for a breath, with Betty’s sickness as she seems to exact a perverse pleasure from the Parris’ despaired discomfiture. Miller’s choice of diction with ‘shiny’ further reinforces this as this word aptly encapsulates Mrs. Putnam’s gleeful joy with the news. This is indicative of the oppressive society as it illuminates how living in this puritanical, severely restricted society results in strong, heated social pressures, like in a crucible, which disintegrates society into a society of vicious revenge-takers who unremittingly scrutinise one another. This is further underscored by how private conversations, such as the Proctor’s and Elizabeth’s at the beginning of the second scene, are constantly interrupted with the entrances and exits or other characters, such as Mary Warren’s entrance which is later followed by Hale’s and Danforth’s. These constant entrances and exits of characters also create a sense of chaos and therefore, tentatively, could be microcosmic representations of the social chaos extant in Salem society. Moreover, even the most socially powerful figure in the play, Danforth (employed by Miller to represent McCarthy), is seen struggling against this overwhelming social pressure as, fearing social riots he states he ‘cannot pardon these when twelve have already hung for the same crime’. This cold logic is indeed lacking in moral sensitivity and justness and Miller, through this, exhibits how, similarly, during 1950s America people had become so fixated with the need to conform to social pressures that these moral and social values were forgotten.

Additionally, this play also conveys a social message to a modern audience that was most likely not intended by Miller as it also sheds light upon the patriarchal hierarchy that existed in 1692 Salem society. This is portrayed unwittingly by Miller through his lack of development of Elizabeth, perhaps the closest representative of a stereotypical 1692 woman in Salem society, despite the potential for her own internal moral struggles to be as dramatically engaging, if not more, as Proctor’s. However, one could argue that this decision to leave Elizabeth as a two-dimensional character, was in fact a conscious decision on Miller’s part as it therefore allowed Proctor to emerge as the obvious heroic protagonist. However, the oppression of women in Salem does contribute to the general suffocating nature of Salem society and thus also does aid Miller in creating a strong parallel between this repression in 1692 and that in 1950s American society.


Williams also employs motifs in order to typify his social comment on American society. Initially, Williams’ utilisation of music is especially significant in prefiguring Blanche’s impending insanity, a literal mental collapse which mimics the metaphorical collapse of the upper class Old South social values that she represents. As the ‘varsouviana is filtered into a weird distortion, accompanied by the cries and noises of the jungle’ near the end of the play, Williams’ employment of music heightens the tension of the moment and thus adds a greater sense of drama, intimating by its magnitude the breakdown of a larger macrocosmic force, the social force of the upper class. Moreover, in the final stage direction of the play, ‘[the swelling music of the ‘blue piano’ and the muted trumpet]’ is described which again serves to exemplify how the burgeoning working classes have overpowered the upper aristocratic class as the ‘blue piano’ is a musical symbol for the intensely vibrant Stanley and blue collar working class and its swell therefore indicates its increasing vigour. Moreover, Blanche’s singing as she takes long baths in the bathroom is used ‘[contrapuntally]’ by Williams with Stanley’s speech as he announces ‘the cat’s out of the bag!’ in reference to Blanche’s promiscuous past. This is dramatically significant as the contrast between her creating a beautiful alternate reality, what ‘ought to be’, through singing in the bathroom and Stanley menacingly firing the facts of reality at Stella (and the audience), highlights the contrast between the two characters and the social forces they represent. Moreover, this contrast also creates great dramatic tension in the audience which perhaps may mirror the great social tension between these two forces in American society.


However, this question assumes that Miller and Williams do indeed achieve their purpose of conveying their respective political and social messages. One could argue that as Miller’s political message rests on the shoulders of John Proctor, a man who is perhaps assigned too dramatic and too grand a struggle to be considered ‘a common man’, Miller is not as successful in divulging his political message as Proctor’s struggle is not one a common man can emulate in his own reality. On the other hand, one might argue that the incongruity of John Proctor with the traits of the average common man is more inhibiting for Miller in making an effective dramatic point rather than in making a political point, as regardless of Proctor’s common man status, an audience is likely to still undergo a socio-political realisation about 1950s American society and the McCarthy trials.


Williams’ ‘Streetcar’ may be equally challenged in terms of the efficacy of its social message. Perhaps one could contend that his social message is lost amidst the hurricane of Blanche’s insanity, the temperamental breakdowns of musical progressions and the raging destructive desires of the characters. Furthermore, the resulting tragedy at the end of a play does not result from a realisation about the social conflict in American society, but from the forces of destruction that corner Blanche into insanity and lead Stella to return to her husband, blinding herself from the truth because she simply ‘couldn’t believe (Blanche’s) story and go on living with Stanley’.


In conclusion, Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ and Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ are both motivated politically or socially, but to different extents and crafted linguistically and dramatically to reveal their respective political and social messages. Miller’s political motivation is indispensable in comprehending ‘The Crucible’ and is indeed a driving force behind many themes and motifs in the play. Williams’ ‘Streetcar’ is indeed socially motivated, but does not rely on this motivation to the extent that Miller’s ‘Crucible’ does.