Broken Worlds

Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire


Key Staff

Teacher (higher level English or IB/AP)

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Creative Thinking: Communication and Collaboration


At first glance, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire do not seem to have anything in common. Close scrutiny, however, reveals several provocative parallels. This lesson provides a variety of options for conducting comparative analysis between the plays.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Gain increasing awareness of how societal issues can be the centerpiece for themes and forms of drama
  • Further probe specific ways philosophical and psychological theories shape themes and forms of drama
  • Explicate and appreciate the power of visual and auditory expressionistic elements to help shape set design, narrative, characterization, and theme in the building of dramatic scripts
  • Exercise skills of explication
  • Craft essays of critical analysis and creative writing scripts
  • Recognize elements that build artistic tension in dramatic scripts
  • Expand skills of comparative analysis
  • Participate in special projects
  • Experience growth in the writing process, oral skills, skills of research, contextual analysis and collaboration
  • Compare and value the work of two of America’s most gifted and valued playwrights

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Discovery Learning
  • Experiential Learning
  • Research
  • Reflection

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • VCR
  • DVD Player
  • Speakers
Technology Notes

Audio equipment for tapes/CD's

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with O’Neill and William’s work using these sources:

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Students should be aware of who O’Neill and Williams were and the types of plays they wrote.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Tell students that you will be comparing two classic pieces of American Theater; Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Assign the class to read both plays as homework. (Note: See the related ARTSEDGE lessons Uncivil Civilization in The Hairy Ape and Exploring A Streetcar Named Desire for suggestions on teaching each play.)

2. Have students read the biographical information handouts of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, all three are located within the Resource Carousel.

3. After both plays have been read, ask the students whether they see any commonalities between the plays. Brainstorm a list of similarities on the board (or students can do this in small groups).

4. Assign students the following project: In a thoughtfully constructed short essay (teachers can decide on specific guidelines that fit the goal of their class), develop a comparative analysis of how each play is structured around the concept of "belonging." Consider, for instance:

  • The perception each of the protagonists has about what he or she "belongs" to.
  • The major societal forces that have contributed to the erosion of these "anchors" of "belonging."
  • How each of the two plays is structurally designed in a pattern of encounters that gradually strip away the initial "self image" of each protagonist to expose to the audience the glare of "truth" and the consequence of the destruction of the protagonists’ "pipe dream" of "belonging."

Build Knowledge

Note: All students can do all of these essays, or teachers can assign different essays to different students and have them share/peer critique one another’s work. Essay topics can also be used as class discussion questions and vice versa.

1. Tell students that Arthur Miller, in his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” argues that the modern "tragic hero" has "nobility" and that this "nobility" builds "optimism" about the human condition. Have them develop an essay in which you take a position about whether or not you perceive Yank, in The Hairy Ape, and Blanche, in A Streetcar Named Desire, to be "tragic heroes" in accordance with Miller’s definition. Draw specifics from each text to support your position.

2. Have students explore some of the “ape/jungle” images in both plays. In Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Hairy Ape, Mildred calls Yank a "filthy beast" which Yank perceives as an "ape" image; in Tennessee Williams‘ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche makes a passionate declaration that Stanley is an "animal", "not quite to the stage of humanity yet" and notes that on "poker night", the "party of apes" comes out. Expressionistic "jungle" images are threaded throughout both plays.

In a free response essay, have students explore some ideas that explain the dramatists’ use of "ape/jungle" images. Draw evidence from the plays to clarify your position. For instance, is the mindset behind the images one that argues that "civilization" is evolutionary "progress" built on refined manners, "proper" behavior and dress, certain attitudes toward sex, etc.? Is evolutionary "progress" defined in terms of technological discoveries and material wealth?


1. Explain Carl Jung’s notion of the Modern Man. He argues the position that Modern Man, under the stress of modern life, deprived of the spiritual connections of the past and unable to forge true spiritual connections in a world where the "Dynamo" and materialism prevail as "gods" and communication with others is lost, will be gradually stripped of "civilization," evolving backwards into "savagery."

Have students discuss this question in groups: Do the plays support Jung’s theory?

2. Have students develop an essay in which they explore Jung’s theory as it comes through one of the following aspects of Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and/or O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape:

  • Williams’ characterization of Stanley Kowalski. Does Stanley represent the "new man" of the Modern world? Explain your position with specifics from the text.
  • What do you think is the main contributing factor in the "destruction" of Yank? Rethinking the entire play is important in handling this question, but consider giving Paddy’s long speech in Scene I and the development in Scene V special attention.
  • Compare the two playwrights’ views of the "primitive". For instance, do both view aspects of the "primitive" as negative? What, in your perception of each play, do the playwrights, through different levels of nuance, support as true values of being "civilized"?

3. Explain that a central tension in both The Hairy Ape and A Streetcar Named Desire grows out of the "insult" of a female character referring to a male character as a "beast," an ape-like" animal." In fact, both plays can be perceived, at one level, as "revenge" plays; a main thread of development in each play is the drive of the male character to get "revenge" on the female who had "insulted" him.

A complexity relating to this basic pattern of "insult" and "revenge"—one that adds much dramatic force to both plays—is the nature of each of the females who initiated the "insult". Both Mildred and Blanche project, at surface level, the "civilized" trappings of material wealth and "breeding". Both perceive themselves to be "superior" to the "savage” males. Both lament the loss of the past, but from different perspectives. But both are described by the playwrights as being "self-conscious" and "nervous".

4. Have students discuss the following questions: What has modern life done to Mildred and Blanche? What do they value that they think justifies their use of "ape" images in reacting to the two males? How does each author portray, through dialogue and expressionistic devices, that modern life has “stripped” Mildred and Blanche in some way?


1. Ask students to focus on one of the following school references: a classroom wall clock, the “passing bell” that signals the end of a class, a row of lockers, a crowded hall, the cafeteria at lunch time, the auditorium stage, football, soccer, lacrosse, or basketball practice, a room filled with students taking a difficult exam.

While focusing on one of these references, students should:

  • Objectively describe, in written prose, close detail of the object, place, or situation they have selected.
  • Then describe the same object, place, or situation in expressionistic terms (distorted lines, bold colors, exaggerated elements, heightened and/or “interpretative” sounds; music). Encourage students to build in both visual and aural expressionistic effects.
  • Develop a brief dramatic script using the object, place, or situation as the central framework of action. Integrate visual and aural expressionistic devices into the script to help structure, characterize, enhance setting, and/or highlight action.
  • Share the scripts and select one or two to be developed for performance, including the staging of the expressionistic devices.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 1: Script writing through improvising, writing, and refining scripts based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 2: Acting by developing, communicating, and sustaining characters in improvisations and informal or formal productions

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Language Arts Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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