A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are two play-based melodramas created in 1951 and 1966 that could be called the classic of the genre. Strongly appealing to the emotions of the viewers through visuals, music, and acting, the two films feature crisis moments in the lives of its characters that lead to the lingering feeling of loss. While the films feature similar topics, particularly, those of lies and truths, as well as the relationships between men and women, the melodramas are not completely similar. Apart from belonging to different subgenres, the films can demonstrate the evolution of melodrama genre that is be mostly seen through the transition of the topic centering from the female character to the male one as well as the increased usage of “obscene” language. The changes are socially conditioned and prove the thesis that melodrama is sensitive to the changes in its environment.
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Melodrama: Features and Development
Melodrama is a type of drama film that is characterized primarily by the pathos that is aimed at provoking an emotional response from the audience.1 To achieve this, melodrama focuses on the personal, intimate life of the characters, who are typically put under pressure (often connected to the relationships that are among the most widely used topics of melodrama). Normally the inner life is demonstrated through the “action, movement, gesture, décor, lighting, and editing”,2 and, as a result, it is not uncommon for the character to be unaware of the features that are shown to the viewer. Another important feature that allows melodrama films to increase their emotional appeal is the “quest for moral truths”3 that is usually demonstrated in the form of the conflict of stereotypical victims and heroes with stereotypical evil characters.
While undergoing the pressure caused by the battle between the good and the evil, something important tends to be lost; the stereotypical loss is that of the innocence, which, can be interpreted in different ways.4 As a result, the beginning of a melodrama is typically marked by the calmness that is substituted by the emotional turmoil, which finally gives way to another kind of calmness, but the one that is laden with the feeling of loss and related nostalgia.5 Melodrama is not homogeneous; there exist varieties from “crime melodramas” to “comedy melodramas”.6 It has also been noted that, in the 50s, the female-centered melodrama was the common, if not the only type of the genre, but in the 1980s, a male-centered type of melodrama also appeared.7
While the excessiveness of pathos in every aspect of melodrama production (the acting, the music, the dialogues) has been described as unrealistic, nowadays, the genre is not regarded as opposed to realism. Williams, for example, claims that it is the realism of a melodrama that makes it appeal to the public. For example, as the idea of the virtue changes, the melodramatic characters also change their idea of good and evil.8 As a consequence, according to Williams, melodrama is extremely sensitive to the changes in society.9
A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Both melodramas described in this paper are the typical representatives of the genre. In A Streetcar Named Desire, the moral and mental agony of Blanche DuBois puts at least three more lives (her sister Stella, her husband Stanley, and the unfortunate suitor Mitch) under the pressure and changes them most negatively. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the strange love-and-hatred-based relationship between George and Martha is also put under pressure that results in the “death” of their never-existing son. Apart from that, in the process, the relationship between Nick and Honey is also damaged, although the resolution of this problem is hinted rather than demonstrated in the film.
In other words, the characters are confronted with the terrible pressure they cannot bear, snap under it, losing something (sanity for Blanche and the illusion of the son for George and Martha) and damaging the lives of other people in the process. It can be pointed out that, for Blanche, the beginning of the story does not exactly depict calmness since she had lost her job and reputation before it; however, it is the conflict between her and Stanley that is indeed accountable for her fall. This fact is particularly visible after the infamous rape scene that adds a final touch of “evilness” to the image of Stanley, who, despite his positive features like the love for the truth, would not hesitate to beat his pregnant wife.10 11
Indeed, the conflicts between the genders are central to both films, and in both cases, the man is the “advocate” of truth, which is the other controversial issue sported by the dramas. Both Blanche and Martha are happy to indulge in the lies, or, in Blanche’s words, “magic” that “ought to be the truth”.12 The men in the films demonstrate a different attitude to this problem. While George only decides to shatter Martha’s illusion to have his revenge on her for the cheating, the straightforward Stanley seeks to disillusion Blanche and, most importantly, those around her who she had managed to deceive. The reasons for that, it appears, are in the personal enmity. The resolutions of the conflicts are stunningly different: the violent rape of Blanche cannot be even compared to Martha’s fear of losing the illusion, however sad it could be for her. Still, in this respect, it should be mentioned that the two films are most certainly belonging to different subgenres. A Streetcar Named Desire is a very dark drama while Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf contains elements of humor (for example, the fake rifle shot of George).
The visual, musical, and, especially, acting features of the films are typically melodramatic. It is particularly visible in the way the relationship between Martha and George is conveyed to the viewer through the constant verbal battling of the two characters. Their actions throughout the film cause the impression of a fighting match with the gantlet being thrown (the arrival of Nick and Honey) and the subsequent blows being dealt.13 The language used in the drama contributes to this impression: it has been noted that the usage of obscene lexis14 is quite noticeable in the film. In this play, the evilness of both (or, rather, all) the characters is difficult to prove; in fact, it is possible to emphasize to every one of them, including George despite his cruel illusion-shattering act.15
Both dramas are also adaptations of plays. It has been noted as a challenge by some reviewers (mostly due to the opportunities that a director can use but should not abuse in this respect), but Brietzke, on the other hand, points out the important advantage that the film has over the play: its wide possibilities of demonstrating facial expressions.16 Indeed, this shooting decision is most suitable for a drama and appears to be a convenient opportunity that neither of the directors dared to disregard.
Analysis and Conclusion
The similarities of the films are obvious and make it possible to regard them both as melodramas with the common aim of provoking a turmoil of emotions in the viewers. Apart from that, several topics and conflicts (in particular, their realization and resolution) may strike the viewer with their similarity. However, certain differences between the films allow making assumptions about the evolution of drama.
The language used by the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf could and probably does indicate the fact that, with time, the drama (as well as every other genre) was becoming freer and more creative in the use of literary devices as the society was becoming more accepting of this aspect of the language. At the time, as we have pointed out, it was regarded as an audacious move, which, however, was positively received. Another strictly melodramatic aspect is noticeable, though not radical, the shift of the “center” of the melodramatic pathos. Indeed, while every character of A Streetcar Named Desire adds a share to the overall drama, it cannot be denied that Blanche DuBois is the main character and the plot centers around her moral and mental decay. Similarly, her sister is also the obvious victim in the film, while the feelings of the male characters are less focused upon. The main character that could be regarded as the aggressor, the evil, in the film is male.
It is increasingly difficult to find the evil one in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. What is more important, in this film, as it has been demonstrated, the feelings of the male character are no less important than those of the female. In other words, the shift from the female-centered melodrama to the male-centered one as described by Williams and Mercer and Shingler appears to find some ground in the two films analyzed in this paper.
The rest of the differences, unfortunately, have not found the theoretic ground in this paper. The primary obstacle to using the two films as an illustration of the evolution of melodrama lies in the fact that they belong to different subgenres. Indeed, when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf can be regarded as a comedy-drama, A Streetcar Named Desire is anything but a comedy. This fact is mediating the differences in the representation and resolution of the conflicts: it appears only natural that A Streetcar Named Desire is much darker, even though they typically a melodramatic feeling of loss is characteristic of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as well. It would be too presumptuous to claim that the comedy undertones in dramas were becoming more frequent with the development of melodrama while basing such a conclusion on the analysis of two films only.
Therefore, here, it will be claimed that the primary drama evolution features illustrated by the two dramas are the language and the centrism of the films. The first change is socially conditioned while the second demonstrates a growing interest in male characters in the cinematographic environment. These two changes indicate the sensitivity of melodrama to the changes in society, be it the society as a whole or its particular part.
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Brietzke, Zander. American Drama in the Age of Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.
Mercer, John, and Martin Shingler. Melodrama. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
Kauffmann, Stanley. “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” New York Times, 1966, Web.
Crowther, Bosley. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” New York Times, 1951, Web.
Variety Staff. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Variety, 1965, Web.
Williams, Linda. “Mega-Melodrama! Vertical and Horizontal Suspensions of the “Classical..” Modern Drama 55, no. 4 (2012): 523-543. Web.
- John Mercer and Martin Shingler, Melodrama (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 12.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 15.
- Linda Williams, “Mega-Melodrama! Vertical and Horizontal Suspensions of the “Classical,” Modern Drama 55, no. 4 (2012): 523-543, doi:10.3138/md.2012-S83, 529.
- Mercer and Shingler, Melodrama, 15.
- Williams, “Mega-Melodrama!”, 529.
- Ibid., 540.
- Stanley Kauffmann, “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” New York Times, 1966, Web.
- Bosley Crowther, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” New York Times, 1951, Web.
- Zander Brietzke, American Drama in the Age of Film (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 72.
- Brietzke, American Drama, 97-98.
- Kauffmann, “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”
- Variety Staff, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Variety, 1965, Web.
- Brietzke, American Drama, 91-92.