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Playwrights, unlike the authors of novels and other forms of literature, employ the use of production elements and stage designs in the development of their works. These additional aspects present within the creation of theatre grant playwrights with the opportunity to support and develop the various themes and ideas of a work through supplemental stimuli, be it visual or auditory. Props are an aspect of set design that are used by actors during performances to replicate and materialize certain elements of reality on stage. As a result, the effectiveness of the play and the subsequent impact on the audience is defined through the use and value given to a character’s props. Both Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman incorporate the use of various theatrical properties to enrich and enhance the development of characters and create tension, emotion, and atmosphere in a performance.
In Master Harold and the Boys, Fugard includes meaningful props such as: comic books and a bottle of whiskey to define characters and establish their developments throughout the play. Due to the fact that this play takes place within one setting for the entirety of the performance, many of the props incorporated into the script remain in use by the characters, or in full view of the audience, at all times, such as the comic books. Fugard’s use of the comic books within the play symbolizes the nature of Hally’s father, thus giving the audience clear insight into his personality and characteristics. The implications of the comic books in this case indicate that Hally’s father is quite simple-minded and is amused by childish entities, further suggesting that feeble-minded men, similar to Hally’s father, are the one’s in power. Thus, through the incorporation of the comics books to define a secondary character in play, Fugard in turn illustrates his contempt for the proponents of apartheid. The significance of the comic books as a prop is arguably one of the most effective in the play, as it serves to establish the characterization of a character who never even appears on stage. The whiskey bottle, similar to the comic books in that it is affiliated with Hally’s father as well, is another example of a prop that establishes the development of character, but in this case within Hally himself. Unlike the comic books, this prop is only utilized within one specific scene on stage, which makes its significance critical to the relationship between Hally and his father because it appears after Hally is notified of his father’s return home. The eventual smashing of this bottle, as well as the bottle itself, becomes a symbol of Hally’s dislike towards his father. However, the anger expressed in this case is more symbolic of Hally’s inability to deal with his situation, rather than a hatred for his father. This expression of anger also introduces the theme of displacement, one that is observed within Hally’s character development in numerous other instances throughout the play.
In Death of a Salesman, Miller’s inclusion of both the football and the gas tubing define the characters associated with them on stage and define the meaning behind these characters’ developments. The football is a prop regularly used within scenes of the past and is associated not only with Biff, but with his relationship with his father Willy as well. The football characterizes Biff as the physically sound and athletic child that he once was in the past, which serves as a contrast to the harsh reality of his current unsuccessful situation in the present. The football has been the one aspect of Biff’s life that gave him power and prowess, further enforcing the distorted view of reality and the American dream that Willy so strongly encourages. Thus, by incorporating the use of an American football on stage, Miller physically simulates the aspect of Biff’s life that has defined him as an individual and the development of his character. Likewise, the use of the rubber hose, or gas tubing, is this play serves to establish character definitions, this time in regards to Willy. The rubber hose symbolizes Willy’s attempts at suicide, all of which are as a result of his inability to provide for his family. The paradoxical aspect of this situation is the fact that the gas tubing is a component of an element of basic necessity integral to the Loman family’s survival: warmth. Thus, Willy’s inability to provide the money to pay for such essential aspects of a home are the driving forces behind his attempted suicide in the first place. As a result, the gas hose acts as a constant reminder to the spectator of Willy’s desperation and agony as a character. Miller’s use of props within Death of a Salesman add to character definition and illustrate their developments throughout, and at certain points, in the play.
In Master Harold and the Boys, Fugard once again uses theatrical properties to enhance the effectiveness of the play, this time through the creation of tension, emotion, and atmosphere. All four of these components are essential elements involved in determining a play’s effective impact on audience. These moments are highly influenced by aspects of stage design, especially props. Tension within this play is created through the use of the telephone, through which Hally only ever speaks to his mother. By incorporating the use of this prop, Fugard is allowing the audience to hear only Hally’s reactions to what his mother is saying, rather than her actual words. All of the audience’s ideas about what she says are entirely speculative and based upon Hally’s side of the conversation, thus, an element of tension and the unknown is created within each of the scenes in which the telephone is used. Furthermore, like the comic books on the counter, the telephone remains in full view of the audience throughout the entire play. This once again generates an elements of tension and apprehension within the audience, who can see the phone in full view, but are completely unaware of when it will ring next. Emotion in the play is created not only through what the characters on stage are feeling, but through the feelings evoked in the audience as well. Fugard exhibits both of these instances in the play with the inclusion of the kite. Although there is discrepancy as to whether or not an actual kite is used as a prop within the physical performing of this play, its existence as an important symbol in the play is as effective regardless of the director’s choice to incorporate it into a memory scene or not. The kite symbolizes hope, hope for a better future, specifically a future in which exists racial equality and togetherness. When it is revealed to Hally the true reason Sam left him alone on the bench during the kite flying scene of Hally’s childhood an emotional shift occurs in Hally, as well as the evocation of empathetic and saddened emotions directed towards Sam in the audience. Lastly, atmosphere in this play is created through the inclusion of Hally’s textbooks or school books. Like the comic books and telephone, these props are present on stage throughout the entire play. They represent the formal education received by Hally and the fact that Sam cannot decipher them symbolizes the government’s attempt to keep black South African’s out of the informed population. This prop thus contributes greatly to the theme of apartheid ever present throughout the novel, further effectively expressing the negative and disapproving tone of the playwright. Hence, Fugard’s negative political opinions towards this system of institutionalized racial segregation are illustrated.
In Death of a Salesman, Miller utilizes props to create tension, emotion, and atmosphere as well. The use of stockings in the play creates both tension and emotion, however these separate moments happen at different instances in the play. Firstly, the stockings create tension when Willy is so quick to snap at his wife Linda for attempting to mend them as they serve as a reminder of his guilt and infidelity in the past. The tension is created in the fact that the audience are not revealed this until later in the play in a scene which is equally as responsible for the creation of emotion in the work. When Biff arrives at Willy’s hotel in a scene of the past, he is shocked by the fact that his father has been sleeping with a woman and cheating on Linda. During this scene the woman asks of Willy for the stocking he promised her, thus enforcing the already established symbol of guilt. The emotion in this case is felt both by Biff and the audience, where Biff breaks down and sobs, further evoking feelings of pity and sympathy for the young boy. This marks an incredible turning point in Biff and Willy’s character relationship, specifically in the way in which Biff views his father. The inclusion of the stockings as a prop are essential to enhancing the motifs and ideas present with this scene and others in which they’re addressed or included. Lastly, atmosphere is created in this play as a result of Miller’s prop choices as well. Moods of hope and positivity are generated at every mention and inclusion of diamonds in the script, most commonly present in the scenes in which Willy’s brother Ben appears. The diamonds as props symbolize tangible fortune and therefore success in Willy’s eyes. However, at the same time, these precious jewels represent Willy’s failure as a salesman due to his inability to have ever acquired any. Furthermore, they also represent the ability to pass one’s earnings or possessions on to their child, another component of success Willy has failed to achieve. Thus, during their presence on stage Willy speaks of promise and hope that good things and success are to come, but the harsh reality is that they serve as a constant reminder of his failures in the past. Hence, an atmosphere of false hope, on stage and within the audience, is created at their every mention.
In both Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boy’s and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the playwrights utilize specific and purposeful incorporation of props on stage in order to define certain characters and establish elements of tension, emotion, and atmosphere. In Master Harold and the Boys this is achieved through the use of a plethora of props, including: the comic books, the telephone, the whiskey bottle, and Hally’s school books. Furthermore, a similar effect is achieved through Miller’s incorporation of the football, the rubber gas hose, the stockings, and diamonds in Death of a Salesman. All of these props served to enhance and improve upon the development of symbols, themes, and important concepts in both plays, ultimately enhancing their effectiveness as works of meaning.
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