When action is onstage, it allows the audience to experience the drama with the characters and it provokes strong emotions as the audience witnesses the climax of the play and the reactions of and effects on the characters. However, if action is offstage, the audience do not see for themselves the events of the play and how the characters adjust themselves to the events, but, this does not mean that these actions are ineffective or unimportant. In fact, it is just the opposite. The Cherry Orchard’ by Anton Chekhov and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams are two plays in which the main actions occur offstage, but the impact on the audience created by them is immense. In ‘The Cherry Orchard’, the offstage actions include Madame Ranevsky’s past where she lost her husband and her son drowned as a child. Madame Ranevsky is of an upper middle class but she is in decline, she is losing her estate but she is passive and does nothing to keep it.
Her passivity leads to another action, the climax of the play which is also offstage, in which the estate is sold on auction. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, the offstage action includes the Blanche’s (protagonist) past where she lost her husband, her home, Belle Reve, the dismissal of her job and her promiscuity. Also, the rape of Blanche in scene 10, while her sister Stella is giving birth is offstage. Both the female protagonists, Mme R. and Blanche have sorrowful pasts which are only revealed to the audience through the later course of the play.
The death of Mme’s husband and son is revealed by the conversation between her two daughters in act 1: ‘It’s just six years since papa died. And only a month afterwards poor little Grisha was drowned’, this offstage action is important as it develops the audience’s empathy for this character. It also shows why she is nostalgic about her past and longs keep her estate as it is where she lived with her family, it is also the reason for the other characters’ affection towards her.
Being haunted by these painful memories triggered her fleeing to Paris: ‘It was too much for mamma; she ran away, ran without looking back. ’ The deaths also justify her irresponsible actions, why she escaped, leaving her daughters and her Orchard. She tried to forget her past by living a luxurious life with lavish spending with her lover. However, she admits that she has been ‘very sinful’ in act 2. We do not observe this life in Paris, but Mme reveals that she’s ‘always squandered money at random like a madwoman’ and ‘fell in love and went off with another man’.
Because this revelation was delayed until later on in the play, it permits the audience to sympathise for Mme more than if it was told at the beginning. It gives the audience time to know the character so that we understand her pain and the suffering she has experienced. These offstage actions make known Mme’s persona and bring the audience closer to this character, and hence, when Mme loses her Orchard later in the play, the audience identifies with her fully and is as woeful as she is.
Similarly, Blanche’s past is as sombre as Mme’s, she lost everything: her husband who had ‘struck the revolver into his mouth, and fired’, which is consuming her as she is responsible, she had told him ‘you disgust me’ because she found out that he was gay. This explains her mental instability; she hears ‘polka music’ at tense moments in the play which is a sign that her young husband is haunting her as before he committed suicide, they were dancing to polka music.
This also explains the reason why she was dismissed from her job as an English instructor; she is attracted to young men of about the same age as her husband. She had a relationship with a ‘seventeen-year-old boy’ while she was teaching and when the school found out about it, she was discharged. She cannot control her desire for young men, so much so, that in scene 5, she kisses the ‘young man’ that is collecting money for a newspaper, just before she is to meet Mitch whom she hopes to marry and settle down with.
The other actions happen offstage and the audience is not told about them until Later on in the play. This means that the audience only find out Blanche’s real persona when the other characters find out. The scene with the paper boy is onstage and allows the audience to see Blanche in action and watch how great her desire for young men is and how she switches from being a lady to an adulteress. Blanche lost her home: Belle Reve, this establishment was a high class aristocratic house where Blanche and her sister had spent their childhood.
Blanche now does not ‘have a dime’ which is what drove her into prostitution so she could have ‘one night’s shelter’ and why she is now at her sister’s home to seek refuge. Blanche was forced to ‘run for protection…from under one leaky roof to another’ where she had many relations with men in a hotel named ‘The Flamingo’. This information about the offstage action is later discovered by Stella’s crude, brutish husband: Stanley and he uses this against her to break her relationship with Mitch and to shatter her chances of marriage and happiness. The climax of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ is the sale of Mme R. s estate. This action occurs offstage and so, creates a very effective tension building Act. This is Act 3, it creates apprehension because instead of witnessing what happens to the estate and whether or not it is sold directly, the audience is left to wait and wonder how the auction will go. The news is left to the very end of this act when the audience is restless to know what happened, and so is Mme: ‘What happened…be quick, for heaven’s sake! ’ This also allows for the former serf: Lopakhin to tell Mme himself that he has bought the estate.
This is a surprising element in the play and if it were onstage, then it would not have had the same effect as the audience would have witnessed Lopakhin bidding for the estate and so, it would not have been as surprising. In the meantime, while waiting for this outcome, the audience witnesses the irony of Mme R. throwing a ball, which is on the same day as the auction. This foolish act shows Mme’s passivity and lack of action, on the day that her fate is to be decided for her; she still carelessly lavishes money, even though she may lose everything.
This typifies her inactivity and fatalistic attitude which has led to the loss of the estate and to the downfall of the upper class gentry. Throughout this ball, Mme cannot enjoy herself, she and the audience are constantly reminded of money: ‘My money’s gone! I’ve lost my money’, Cries Pishtchik, a neighbouring landowner. Mme is pensive throughout this scene; she mostly sits by herself in another room while the ball takes place. Most of the characters are enjoying their time, especially the servants, and she is distracted by what the outcome of the auction will be. The climax in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is also offstage.
This is in scene 10 where it is implied that Stanley rapes Blanche through the stage directions: ‘he picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed. ’ Stanley’s violation of Blanche ends the sexual tension between the two characters that was present throughout the play, it is the climax of their on-going fight and hostility to dominate one another, but Stanley wins as he overpowers Blanche sexually. This action is even more vulgar as it occurs at the same time that Stanley’s wife and Blanche’s sister: Stella is giving birth to Stanley’s child. Stanley’s more base, vile, disreputable, sordid side is revealed.
This is also an important act because it triggers Blanche’s descent into madness and leads to her being sent to a psychiatric institution. Actions that occur offstage are just as important as onstage actions, in the case of the two plays mentioned, they are more important as the climaxes occur offstage. The offstage actions also reveal more about the characters and their personalities and also their past experiences. These portray more of their psychological state due to events that have occurred that have triggered negative emotions such as in the case of Mme and Blanche.