The three plays in this unit are tragedies, first and foremost, but they are also good examples of non-realistic theater. Unlike the plays in Unit 1, the illusions created here are not intended to imitate real life in real time.
Hamlet of course pre-dates modern realistic theater. Shakespeare is writing a tragedy of cosmic proportions, and as in classical Greek tragedy, not only do "armies clash" because of "murder most foul," but the heavens themselves seem to reverberate. The set for Hamlet is not a living room with the 4th wall removed. The Elizabethan stage is a bare and universal space with few props. And what motivates Hamlet's famous soliloquy -- "To be or not to be"? Do people really talk to themselves out loud like that? In great poetry? Similarly, domestic "problems" are not the subject matter. Instead, Hamlet is concerned with man's epic struggle against a seemingly unjust and irrational universe. The characters in the play -- the dead at the end -- are clearly larger than in "real" life, and the action while chronological, is so immense in scope, at the end we seem to have witnessed, not one family's anguish, but the anguish of the universal soul of humankind since the beginning of time itself.
A Streetcar named Desire is realistic in many ways: 1) The action is confined to Stanley's home in the Old Quarter of New Orleans. 2)The characters are modern and recognizable, drawn with great detail and psychological complexity. 3) The action is motivated and the language real. Blanche especially must have a "real" southern accent.
But Williams fuses these realistic elements with a symbolically charged non-realitic aura of sounds and colors and lighting. What is the music Blanche hears everytime she thinks of her dead husband? Cats screech, mirrors shatter and trains bellow -- not coincidentally -- but to heighten and intensify the action on stage. And how is one to regard Blanche at the very end? Ordinary human being or as one who has attained tragic "stature"?
Salesman, like Streetcar, is realistic on many levels too. Much of the action takes place in the Loman home and Willie's dysfunctional family is familiar and "real" enough. So are the language, props and clothes.
But what about the dramatization of Willie's hallucinations on stage? In the midst of a realistic illusion, suddenly the action transposes to a different time and place and this new action takes place on the same stage with Willie's home. Is the audience simply supposed to accept that Uncle Ben suddenly appears in Willie's kitchen or that the woman from Boston is in the living room? YES. Miller purposesly breaks the illusion of complete realism in order to dramatize Willie's psychological state of mind which is one of the most important aspects of the play.
Can a psychological state be portrayed within a completely authentic realistic format?
Similarly, like Streetcar, the music and lighting underscore the action symbolically. What's interesting is the feeling people have about Willie at the end. "Poor Blanche" has at least gained our admiration, but Willie's a tough sell as a tragic hero. Is he just "a dime a dozen" schmuck, or is he admirable for still chasing his dream, however incapable he is of achieving it. The play has a realistic frame -- the last day of Willie's life -- and within that frame the UNITIES are observed.
Hamlet pre-dates realism, but Streetcar and Salesman do not. Both Williams and Miller could not fit their artistic aims into a strictly realistic format. For the most part Albee could in Woolf, and Hansberry did so completely in Raisin. All 4 are great plays, so strict adherence to realism is not a greater achievement than a blend which many contemporary plays are.
All theater is illusion. All playwrights bend and twist the traditions of the theater and the stage "space" to achieve a wide diversity of artistic ends.