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344 Topics: American Playwrights - Tennessee Williams; how to become a real estate agent; thief versus burglar versus robber versus mugger; to sell someone a bill of goods; to hold up one’s end of a bargain; momentum

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 344.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 344. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Go to our website at eslpod.com. Take a look at our ESL Podcast Store, with some additional courses in business and daily English, and our ESL Podcast Blog, where you can improve your English every week in addition to listening to these podcasts.

On this Café, we’re going to start a new series, something like our series about American authors, but now we’re going to talk about “playwrights” in addition to authors. These are authors who write plays for the theater. We’ll begin today with perhaps one of the most famous American playwrights of the 20th century, Tennessee Williams. We’re also going to talk about how to become a “real estate agent,” someone who sells houses. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

This Café begins a new series; this one will be on American playwrights. Today we’re going to talk about Thomas Lanier Williams III [the third], but he’s more popularly or famously known as Tennessee Williams. Tennessee Williams was an American “playwright,” a person who writes plays that are performed in a theater. But he also wrote novels, poems, essays, and short stories.

Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in the southeastern part of the United States, in 1911. He studied “journalism,” or news reporting, at the University of Missouri, which is in the central part of the United States. As a student, Williams began entering his writing, or sending the things that he was writing, to contests to try to win money for his writing. He wrote a lot, but he wasn’t very successful until 1939, when he received a thousand dollars in a “grant,” or a scholarship, from an organization called the Rockefeller Foundation. It was for a play that Williams had written called Battle of Angels. Unfortunately, people didn’t like the play very much; the “critics,” people who write about plays and criticize them, say whether they’re good or bad for a newspaper or magazine, well, they didn’t like this play very much at all. He also wrote some plays for the Works Progress Administration, which gave money to artists and writers to give them jobs during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Finally, in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War, Williams had his first “hit,” his first big success. It was a play called The Glass Menagerie. A “menagerie” (menagerie) is sort of a strange collection of things, especially a collection of animals that are shown to other people. The play was about family relationships, and it was really about, in part, Williams’ own family – his own, what we now would call, “dysfunctional” family. A “dysfunctional (dysfunctional) family” is one where the relationships among the people are not good; they’re very uncomfortable, maybe even negative or abusive toward each other – that is, they may even hurt each other emotionally. Williams grew up in what can be described now as a dysfunctional family and those experiences served as an inspiration or a source of creativity, if you will, for his writing; not unusual for artists, I’m told.

Williams’ next play was also one that became very famous; it was called A Streetcar Named Desire. It was produced in 1947. It’s by far his most successful play; it’s the play that Williams is known for. The phrase “by far” means that, in this case, it was the play that was much more successful than any other of his plays. It earned him a lot of money, but he was worried after the play that he wouldn’t be able to duplicate or replicate his success – he wouldn’t be able to write plays as good as that later. But over the next 10 years, seven of his plays were performed on Broadway, including another of his famous plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I should probably explain those titles. A “streetcar” is basically a little train that they used to have in many cities in the United States. They still have them in San Francisco, and they’re sort of recreating them in some cities. They’re calling them something different, but basically a streetcar is a little train that runs on electricity, there are wires over the street. And, if you’ve ever seen movies or programs about San Francisco, you’ve probably seen their streetcar system. Well, this was A Streetcar Named Desire. To want something is to desire something. The other play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, most of those words you know: “cat, “hot.” “Roof” is the top of a house; “tin” is a kind of metal. So if the roof were hot, of course the cat wouldn’t want to stay on there, it would be too hot.

In the early 1950s, some of Williams’ plays were adapted for the screen – that is, they were made into movies. The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were both movies. Most people who know about Tennessee Williams and those two plays probably saw the movies, probably didn’t read the play. However, The Glass Menagerie is a play that is many times read in schools. When I was in school, I think it was probably high school, we read The Glass Menagerie in our English class.

Although Williams was very successful and his work was very popular in the 40s and 50s, he did have, like many successful artists, problems. He continued to write, but his writing – his work was not well received. That is, people didn’t like some of the things he started to write after his big hits – his big successes. Like many artists, he began to drink too much alcohol; he began to take drugs. His romantic partner, Frank Merlo, died from lung cancer, and this depressed Williams. He eventually died in New York City in 1983. He was only 71 years old, but his body, having used so many drugs and so much alcohol, apparently could not last any longer.

Williams did receive recognition for his work; he became famous. A Streetcar Named Desire won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, the highest prize for literature in the United States. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also received the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. He received many other prizes as well. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter a few years before he died in 1980.

Today, Williams is considered to be one of the “most accomplished” or best playwrights in the United States, but also, in some ways, on the world scene – that is, among other great playwrights of the 20th century. Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’ plays and the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, admired Williams’ work. He said, “Everything in life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.” Williams’ plays and short stories explored relationships and experiences in his own life and that probably accounts for, or explains or is the reason for, their continued popularity today. He wrote about problems that many people can relate to.

If you don’t have a chance to see one of Williams’ plays in a theater, you can certainly see one of the many movies that were made from his plays. A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, was one of the movies that made a young actor named Marlon Brando famous. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starred two famous American actors – actors who were to become famous later: Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. So if you have a chance to see some of these movies or, of course, read one of his plays, you’ll learn a lot about not just dysfunctional families, but also about the American South. Remember, Williams was born in what we often call the Deep South, the southeastern part of the United States. He was from Mississippi, and so many of his plays are about things that he experienced in Southern culture.

Now let’s turn to our next topic, which is selling real estate, specifically how to become a real estate agent. “Real estate” is the process of buying and selling land, homes, and buildings. For most Americans, buying or selling a home is probably one of their biggest and most important financial transactions – the most important thing they buy or sell in their lifetime, so they usually don’t do it by themselves. They work with a professional called a “real estate agent.” The agent helps them buy the house or sell the house.

Real estate agents help sellers sell their home by determining what price they should ask for. They usually advertise the property – that is, the house that is being sold, or the condominium, if they’re selling a condo, or what some people call “apartments.” Although, in the United States when you say “apartment,” you’re referring to something that is rented. If you’re selling it, it’s usually going to be called a “condo” or “condominium,” possibly a “townhouse.” Well, real estate agents will help you sell any of those. They will also help you buy a house. They try to find out what you’re looking for and then go out and find houses that will meet whatever your needs are. Of course, it has to be a house you can afford. “To afford” (afford) means to be able to pay for something; you have to have enough money.

In the United States, there are real estate agents, and then there’s something called a “real estate broker” (broker). A real estate broker does all of the things that a real estate agent does, or can do, but they have a little bit more authority, they have a little bit higher license. In order to actually sell or buy a house, you have to not just be an agent, you also either have to be a broker or work with a broker. So a lot of times, the person who is helping you buy or sell the house, the agent, is working with someone else who’s a broker, and the broker has more experience and more knowledge, and they’re the ones who actually do a lot of the legal paperwork in buying and selling houses.

To become a real estate agent in the United States, in most states – and every state has its own licensing system – but in most states you need to be a high school graduate. You do not have to go to college, though some real estate agents do. A real estate agent has to take some college courses. You don’t have to graduate, but you have to take classes usually in order to become a real estate agent, to get the government approval – the government license. Some places offer training for real estate agents. It’s not just colleges; there are other organizations that you can take classes from to become a real estate agent. I actually thought about becoming a real estate agent, uh, many years ago. And, when you look at it, in most states there are a series of classes, not usually more than three or four months worth of classes if you took them full time, that you need to study in order to take an exam.

Every state requires that real estate agents and real estate brokers be licensed. As I say, usually you have to take a certain number of classes, and then you take a written exam – a written test, and the test covers basic information about how you buy and sell a house, what the legal requirements are, and so forth. Agents then need to get a certain amount of experience if they want to become a real estate broker, which is sort of a level above a real estate agent. Every couple of years, real estate agents and brokers have to renew their license. They don’t have to take a test again, but usually they have to go to a class or perhaps a seminar on a Saturday in order to get the most recent information about changes in the laws and that sort of thing.

You must be 18 years old to be a real estate agent. You also have to, in most states, go through or undergo a background check. A “background check” is when someone investigates your history: makes sure you haven’t committed any crimes, you’re not a criminal, makes sure that there hasn’t been any problems with you in terms of the law. This is important, because of course, when you’re buying or selling a house you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, so you don’t really want someone who is a thief – someone who is a crook, we might say – someone who’s dishonest taking care of your transaction.

Here in California, the Department of Real Estate is in charge of licensing for real estate agents and brokers. To take the agent exam it costs 60 dollars, but the license costs 245 dollars, so it’s about 300 dollars to get a license. However, that does not include the price of the classes that most real estate agents take. To become a broker it’s about 500 dollars, but again, you usually have to take classes in addition to that. There are books that the State of California publishes, and you can get those books and study up for the exam with them.

Being a good real estate agent means really being a good salesperson. You need to be able to listen to people, you need to be able to negotiate, you need to be able to get a good price for your client – for the person who you are working for. And, of course, you need to know something about houses, not just the look of houses, but the way houses are constructed so you can help the people who are either selling or buying their house. But mostly it’s a sales position, and if you’re a good salesperson, well, real estate is a place where you can sell things that are very expensive.

You might wonder how the real estate agent makes money. Typically, the agent gets a commission. A “commission” is a percentage of the sale price. So if you sell a house for 100,000 dollars, the agent will get about three percent of that, about 3,000 dollars. Both the person who sells the house and the person who helps buy the house – in other words, the buyer’s agent and seller’s agent – each get around three percent. It’s variable; it could be two percent, it could be two and a half percent. Usually, at least in California, it’s about three percent. So, six percent of the price of the house goes to the agents, who help people buy and sell the house.

Now let’s answer a few of your questions.

Our first question comes from Maria (Maria) in Spain. [Jeff sings] “Maria, I once knew a girl named Maria…” Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story – but that’s not really the question. Maria’s question has to do with four words that have similar meanings: “thief,” “burglar,” “robber,” and “mugger.” Well, all of these are people who steal things from other people. There are some small differences, however.

A “thief” is someone who steals, but usually is not seen. You don’t see the person stealing, and usually no one is hurt physically by the stealing – by the theft. “Thief” is sort of a general word. A “burglar” (burglar) is specifically a thief who goes into a building secretly – it could be a house, it could be a business building – and steals things from the house or from the building. A “robber” is someone who steals – who’s a thief – but usually someone who threatens to hurt someone if they don’t give their valuables – their expensive objects to him or her. A robber can often cause violence to a person. “Mugger” (mugger) is very similar to a robber. A mugger will steal things from you in a public place; you could be on a street or in a park, and once again, there’s usually some threat of violence.

So, “thief” is the most general, and probably most commonly used word for a person who steals things. “Burglars” go into buildings, usually locked buildings, in secret in order to steal. A “robber” threatens to hurt people to make them give up their money or their valuables. Robbers usually go for large amounts of money. There are these big trucks that pick up money from businesses – from stores – and transport it to the bank. Well, if you stopped one of these trucks and took all of their money, you would be a robber; you would be stealing the money. Usually you would, of course, have a gun, and try to make sure that they didn’t go away or escape. A “mugger” is usually someone who steals from one person in a public place, as I mentioned, in a park, or in a street corner, or walking down a public street.

There’s one exception to this rule for the use of the word “robber.” If you’re going to steal money from a bank, whether you go in with a gun and threatened to kill someone, or if you go into the bank after hours – after it’s closed – and steal the money, in both cases we would probably call you a “bank robber,” not a “bank burglar.” But that’s sort of an exception.

Our next question comes from Maria (Maria), this time in Switzerland. [Jeff sings] “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” That’s from, um…what’s the name of that, uh, play? Um, Sound of Music. Thank you. Sound of Music. That’s Austria, not Switzerland, but that’s all I could come up with.

Maria wants to know the meaning of two expressions: “to be sold a bill of goods” and “to hold up (one’s) end.” “To be sold a bill of goods” is an expression meaning to trick someone, to get someone to do something or accept something that is really not good for them. For example, someone sells you a car, but the car doesn’t work and you don’t realize it. We might say you’ve been sold a bill of goods. It could be something physical that you bought; it could just be some things that you accepted as being true but turned out not to be true and ended up hurting you.

“To hold up your end of a bargain” (bargain) means to do what you say you are going to do, to do what you promise to do: “I said I would come here and help clean the house if you would help me move my furniture out of my truck. I helped you clean your house, now it’s time for you to hold up your end of the bargain.” “To hold up your end of the bargain.”

Finally, Felice (Felice) in Italy – and no, I’m sorry Felice, I don’t have a song for you. If there was a famous song with “Felice” in it you can email me and I’ll sing it in a future episode! The question has to do with the word “momentum” (momentum). “Momentum” can mean a couple of things, both of which are related. One is the amount of movement in something that is already moving. This is sort of a scientific term. A moving body gains momentum as it travels downhill; as something goes from the top of the hill to the bottom it gains momentum.

“Momentum” can also simply mean the excitement or the energy that is increasing because something is moving forward. Usually we use this word in normal conversational English not in a scientific sense, but in a more general sense to mean that things are now moving in your direction; things are going well for you. And, the idea is that because they’re going well now, they will continue to go well. You will continue to do well in whatever you’re doing. So let’s say you’re a baseball team – let’s say the Los Angeles Dodgers – and you win a game, and then you win another game, and then you win a third game. You might say, “Oh, well, they have momentum now.” They’re winning; they’re doing well; we think they’re going to do well also in the future. That’s kind of the idea of “momentum.” It’s when you start winning or things start going well for you, and that gives you more energy, makes you more excited, makes other people more excited, and helps you win in the future as well; to keep going forward, to keep doing well.

If your name is Maria – or any other name, really – and you have a question, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan – Jeff Maria McQuillan! Thanks for listening. Come back and listen to us again here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse, copyright 2012 by the Center for Educational Development.

hit – a success, usually a movie, play, book, or other creative work

* Nobody thought that song would be a hit, but it reached number one on the music charts.

menagerie – a strange collection, especially a collection of animals that are displayed or shown to the public

* We went to the circus to see a menagerie of unusual animals.

dysfunctional family – a family in which the relationships among the people are very uncomfortable and awkward, resulting in emotional or physical harm

* Karen comes from a dysfunctional family. Her father has mental problems and her mother left the family when she was only two years old.

by far – by a great amount; clearly

* Nico has been to a lot of beautiful places, but Yosemite National Park was by far his favorite place to visit.

adapted for the screen – for a book, story, play, or other piece of writing or creative work to be made into a movie

* Liam never dreamed that his book would be adapted for the screen and shown all over the world.

most accomplished – most successful; most respected, having created or achieved things that people like and admire

* All of our pianists are good, but Mori is the most accomplished pianist to graduate from this school.

to account for – to explain; to be the reason for

* How do scientists account for the strange lights in the sky at night?

real estate – the business of buying and selling of homes, land, or buildings

* The real estate prices in this area dropped after the big factory closed and people started moving to other towns.

agent – a person who acts on behalf of other people; a professional who organizes business transactions between people or groups

* Do we have an agent in Tokyo who can negotiate those contracts?

to afford – to be able to pay; to have enough money to pay

* Patrick saved his money so that he could afford to buy a house.

real estate broker – a professional who is licensed to own their own real estate (buying and selling of homes, land, and buildings) business

* We’ll need to hire a real estate broker to handle the sale of our family’s farm.

background check – an investigation into a person’s history, including a search for any criminal records to find out whether someone has broken the law

* Our school requires all new teachers to have a background check.

thief – a person who steals, usually without being seen and without threatening to hurt anyone

* The office manager suspects that there’s a thief in building, who is taking small, but valuable things out of people’s desks at night.

burglar – a person who steals by entering a building secretly and taking things away

* To keep burglars away, our store has a guard on duty 24 hours a day.

robber – a person who steals from others, threatening to hurt them in order to make them give up money or valuable (expensive) objects

* The train robbers pointed guns at everyone and told people to put their money and jewelry in the bags.

mugger – a person who steals from others in a public place, threatening to hurt them in order to make them give up money or valuable (expensive) objects

* As I was leaving the bank, a mugger pointed a knife at me and told me to give him my wallet.

to sell someone a bill of goods – to trick someone; to get someone to do or to accept something that is not good for him or her

* The insurance salesperson tried to sell my grandmother a bill of goods, telling her she should buy insurance she didn’t need.

to hold up one’s end of a bargain – to do what one says one will do; to do something one has promised to do
* After we cleaned our rooms, Mom held up her end of the bargain by taking us out for ice cream.

momentum – the speed, force, or energy created as something moves or continues moving, or from developing events

* The team’s early win helped them gain momentum to win other games.

What Insiders Know
The Multiple Listing Service

If you want to buy or sell a home in the United States, your real estate agent or broker will very likely use the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). The MLS is a “database” (a set of information held in computer format) of homes for sale that real estate professionals can “access” (see and use). Only licensed real estate professionals can “post” (place; write) a “listing” (the placement of information so others can see it) for a home on the website. This means that those who want to sell their own homes without the “aid of” (help of) a real estate professional will not be able to advertise on the MLS easily or at all.

Real estate professionals can “search” (type in words and find things that match those words) the database for homes that match the “criteria” (necessary characteristics) homebuyers want. The MLS is organized by price, location, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, and “square footage” (size by square feet) of the home and the “lot” (land) size, in addition to the “amenities” (desirable features) the home has. For instance, you may want a home with a “swimming pool” (a large cement hole for water in the yard used for swimming), a “fireplace” (where fires can safely be lit inside of the home to heat the home or for decoration), and a “parking garage” (a small building for one’s car that is off the street).

Today, a number of other websites are making MLS information available to “web-savvy” (able to use the Internet comfortably and easily) homebuyers. These websites “pull” (get) information from the MLS and allow anyone to search for homes on sale in the areas they want. This is allowing homebuyers to take a more active role in finding their perfect home and letting them become more informed about what types of homes are available at a “given” (specific) location, size, or price.