Discussing The American Ideals In The Post War Period English Literature Essay
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Throughout this essay I shall be discussing the American ideals in the post-war period. I will question whether 'American Culture is all about conforming to one single incontrovertible ideal'. Therefore, I will be concentrating on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1982). These texts are of particular interest from a theoretical point of view because the time of their writing spans a period from the end of modernism through to post-modernism. As such they offer a valuable opportunity to examine the American dream.
All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Jefferson, 2004, p48)
This 'pursuit of happiness' is now what is seen as the American dream. A result within the evolution of economical trade, the uppermost definition of America's " pursuit of happiness" is success, often rejecting the original values within the declaration, all men maybe created equal but the pursuit of happiness soon denies equality.
Miller and Mamet, present plays where equality has been denied making way for the competitive world that is "conforming to one single incontrovertible ideal"(Clark). It was Calvin Coolidge who said, "The Business of America is Business"(Coolidge, 1968, p3) highlighting America not as 'a land of opportunity" but a land of capitalism. Coolidge goes on "Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence" (Coolidge, 2007, p358). When looking at the two plays, it is easy to see how Coolidge came to this decision. An immediate evolution can be seen even within the titles. Miller's play Death of a Salesman (1940's) shows that the play is clearly about the death of a man who was a salesman. Whereas, Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross (1980's) is named after a plot of land, a product that is being sold. The man no longer exists but has been consumed by a world where selling is life. By using this as a starting point, it is easy to see how both Miller and Mamet create worlds were men are struggling to keep an existence as a result of the American culture.
As a 'Master craftsman' (Richards, 1976, p4) Miller uses incredible detail in his stage directions, by using an exploded set Miller was able to create dramatic effect. This setting can be seen as the destruction taken place in Willy's mind. This set could also be used as a 'theatrical tool' to represent the destruction of any male mind, forced upon by the world in which it is set. Furthermore, this setting also manages to retain the Aristotelian unity of time and place throughout the play, showing Loman not only as the typical 1940's family man, but also as a typical product of American culture. The majority of the action takes in Willy's family home. The Brooklyn neighbourhood, a fashionable place to be "well liked"(Miller, 1949, p2329). The first of the set of stage directions say the house is in fact "a dream rising out of reality"(p2327) reflecting the need to accomplish ones self in a world where money is the only acceptable goal, all of Willy's achievements can be see within the house. What is more, this unity of time and place is also a tool that can be carried along the years to 'Glengarry' with one difference, the family home has disappeared, the need to accomplish success is no longer to be "well liked"(2329), money is no longer an acceptable goal, but the only goal, this is the point where 'America is business'.
Benedict Nightingale described the Mamet's characters within Glengarry as
Willy Loman at work in the 1980s just as vulnerable but even more driven, even more compromised and distorted by the pressures of commerce and the harshness of society (Nightingale, p89)
The " willy loman at work in the 80's" could also represent the exploded mind of Willy existence; an un-natural existence where everything Willy once knew has now changed, the world that was changing is now reality in Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet disregards everything that was once natural the garden, the family, the neighbours. Instead the new nature is that of human nature that has been developed to close and "always be closing"(Mamet, 1982). The men are only in two places, either the office or the restaurant by taking away the family scenes. Mamet has created a play beyond Loman, an existence where there isn't a real life or a proper existence, but an exploded mind, a mind full of expletives words, empty words that don't quite connect. This disintegration of language from the 1940's Death of a Salesman to the 1980's Glengarry Glen Ross is so well presented that it was referred to by the actors of the 1992 film adaptation as "Death of a Fuckin' Salesman"(Harris, 2008), not even the language has been completed, it has only deteriorated to the point that the Salesman has to highlight his power by being that "Fuckin Salesman". The characters themselves rarely complete a sentence, never mind completing it without profanity. They never complete a deal and the play does not complete itself.
Figure one (to the left), shows a poster for a Death of Salesman; it can be assumed that the image is Willy. The image could connote the idea that Willy is no longer in the spot light; he is not the successful salesman. The character has his back turned, and is a shadow of a man.
Willy is a man standing still in the shadows of a world constantly moving and so he continues using his own method, powers of persuasion, talk. Willy's personal representations of the American Dream are his brother Ben and the salesman Dave Singleman, and he views the success of these two men as something to aim for, he does not accept that these symbols of success are also past. As Willy looks to Dave Singleman for success, "what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four . . . and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?"(Miller, 1949, p2361) His admiration of Singleman's prolonged success illustrates his obsession with being well liked. He fathoms having people "remember" and "love" him as the ultimate satisfaction, because such warmth from business contacts would validate him in a way that his family's love does not. However, Willy Ignores, the fact that he was a 'single' man still working at age eighty-four. Levene looks to Willy Loman as a Single-man figure, using similar tactics. Levene uses invention and improvise, he is the performative salesman, and like Willy he believes he can be successful in the future because he was successful in the past. When he performs the story of his successful sale with the Nyborgs, we actually hear Levine being referred to, as the "Machine" (Mamet, 1982) up to now he has been a failure; Levine believes he can sell like he could when he was still "hot."(Mamet,1982) This is Levene fatal flaw, just like Willy, he has a tendency to believe what he wants to believe.
There is no growth or resolution by any of the characters. "It's contacts Charley, I got important contacts!"(Miller, 1949, p2344) says Willy. "Give me the leads!"(Mamet, 1982) Says Levene. Willy dies the death of a salesman; Shelly says, "I was born for a salesman" Mamet, 1982, yet suffers the same fate as Willy. Levene is no longer conforming to the incontrovertible ideal but being murdered by it, the symbolic death of Levine 'the machine' forces him to look back into the past like Loman, he depends of the glory of the past, but in this fast moving world the past doesn't exist. Levine has to try to cling on to identity talks to the end like Loman "I... I â€¦" (Mamet, 1982). The only resolution that appears is death, in Death of a Salesman it is the physical death of Willy, and in 'Glengarry', it is the ending of words, the ending of selling. Due to constant striving towards the American dream everyone seems unhappy in someway, they have not reached the incontrovertible ideal that acts as some sort of substantial completion.
As well as the American Dream, both the plays show the characters performing to another incontrovertible ideal, and that is masculinity. "A man IS his job and you are fucked at yours" (Mamet, 1982) Willy was his job, when his job was taken away from him, he ceased to exist. In Miller's essay Tragedy of the Common Man, Miller identifies the tragic flaw of all common men as "inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status."(Miller, 1949, p1) Willy defines himself as a salesman, and feels that he must succeed in the business world to define himself as an accomplished man. Mamet believes that the idea that Willy perceives as being successful is the ideal that makes up the masculine identity. Mamet describes 'Glengarry' as a "gang comedy about men, work, and unbridled competition" (Kane, 1992, p. 256) merging the idea that masculinity is capitalism, work is money, money is success, success is masculine. Mamet's view shows a primitive connection to masculinity, it is a "gang" of "unbridled competition" a pack like resemblance and Willy's "inherent unwillingness to remain passive"(Miller) means he steps out of place within "the gang" and therefore cast aside, the same can be said for Levene.
Both plays represent the idea that all men are cogs in a working machine controlled by a higher power suggesting there are not only a 'gang' at work but also a whole pack of wolves. As Shakespeare once claimed "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" (Shakespeare, 2001,p417). In 'Glengarry' the players are the salesmen playing in the world of Mitch & Murray, the world of capitalism has become so powerful that there is no access or communication with the 'boss'. This is where we can see the main difference between the two plays. In Death of a Salesman Willy is still able to communicate with his boss, Howard, not only communicate but also converse with.
A raisonneur character is one that appears to express the authors' opinions towards the subject matter. In the Death of a Salesman and 'Glengarry', the raisonneur puts forward an argument against the idea that 'American culture is all about conforming to one single incontrovertible ideal' and in someway bring some morals to the narratives.
I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be . . . when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am. (Miller, 1949)
For the first time in this capitalistic culture we see a character fighting out against the American Dream. Biff claims he is, who he is and conforming to an incontrovertible ideal would only change him. Biff is confident explaining this to his father and goes on to explain that he comfortable with the fact that he is "a dime a dozen,"(Miller, 1949) accepting this allows Biff to escape the conformist culture, and escape from his father's delusional lifestyle. Biff is now able to break away from the conventional. Biff goes on to tell his father "You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!"(Miller, 1949) Biff wants his father to know that he was successful; he was a hard working man but a victim of the American Culture. Willy cannot understand any identity that goes beyond material success and a "well liked" status, all promised by the American Dream. By taking control of his own life with his own dreams, Biff is the real success.
It is hard to find a raisonneur character in 'Glengarry' however; it can be argued that the act of stealing the leads is a revulsion against the capitalist hierarchy. Originally the reader is lead to believe that the thief is Aaronow, one of the quieter characters. In conversation, faster talkers like Moss and Roma easily overpower Aaronow. His dependence on the others is apparent as he tends repeat what other people are saying to him. Like Levene, Aaronow is not on the board and is in danger of getting fired. When the reader finds out Aaronow has not stolen the leads, he is then represented as a raisonneur rejecting the act, and therefore the dream. On the hand, Moss, who set up the robbery, fights against Levene, the true thief "Fuck the machine" (Mamet, 1982) this outburst acts as a fight against the traditional salesman.
When looking at these two plays one can see how the American culture adapts to performing to the single ideal through modernism aspect of Death of a Salesman though to the condition of postmodernism in 'Glengarry', the disappearance of history, the death of the human and possibly humanity, a circumstance of Capitalism. As the motion moves the eternal present only exists by the next sale, there is no time to stop. Theodor W. Adorno says, "In America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assets, income, position and prospects. The economic mask coincides completely with a man's inner character" (Adorno, 1999, p195) the Marx critic then goes on to explain, "Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth"(p195) product has become everything to prove yourself, produce and materials good have become an extension of ones self.
The sales office in 'Glengarry' represents a pure capitalist culture. Separating men by success, literally by a board, the top selling gets a Cadillac and to the other extreme the bottom man gets fired. In some way this environment is backward, cutting all relationships, every character must work for his own success as well as hope for or purposely intervene, into his co-workers' failure; the system is brutal and compassionless. At the play's climax, Levene questions Williamson about his motives to report him to the police, Williamson response, "Because I don't like you."(Mamet,1982) Williamson, a businessman himself, has been trained to fear and hate failure.
Similarly, J. Ronald Oakley claims that American are "consumed by desires for status, material goods, and acceptance, Americans apparently had lost the sense of individuality, thrift, hard work, and craftsmanship that had characterized the nation" (Oakley, 1960) Oakley goes on to express that this materialistic America is due to the aftermath of World War II and that it "exacerbated the ethical shift as a consumer culture blossomed and Americans became preoccupied with material goods" (Oakley). This has been Willy's fate; his failure was already set as a man at that bottom of the capitalistic hierarchy. Willy's whose world is represented in his house; it is an extension of him. Props in the play such as the 'refrigerator', 'trophy' and "table with three chairs"(Miller, 1949), have intended to show the different modern lifestyles that Willy, as a salesman has been able to keep to. The trophy represents success and how it was in reach for the Loman's and how they were close to getting the American Dream that has resulted in Willy's down fall, the main object to his fatal flaw. Miller goes as far to represent the "sense of individuality, thrift, hard work," (Oakley) which Oakley speaks of. The author describes his setting as a "Solid vault of an apartment houses around the small. Fragile-seeming home"(Miller, 1949), a dramatic devise used by Miller to show Willy's failure to be a 'success' and also creates a very enclosed feeling, the pressure Willy is experiencing, in trying to meet the demands of work, his family and in trying to achieve ultimate success. Moreover, this failure and belief is what has carried on through to the nineteen-eighties, merging both plays together into one circular narrative, as long as Americans keep 'conforming to one single incontrovertible ideal' the American dream will stay alive, and the stories of the salesman's death will be continued.
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