Plays that address political issues in US society
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Published: Wed, 20 Dec 2017
Theatre academic and cultural commentator Christopher Bigsby makes the point that theatre, as opposed to, say, the novel, is essentially a public experience (2000, p. 9). Where a novel may make comment on political issues, it does do in private, in a one-to-one relationship between author and reader. A play, on the other hand, is written for the public: it is experienced live and with a live audience of others who are experiencing the same production as you are in the same moment. This, for Bigsby, is what makes theatre uniquely poised to draw parallels between the specifics of the drama on stage, and the generalities of the social and political contexts of the play’s writing, its original and its revival productions. This essay will examine this in relationship to twentieth century American politics and society. It will do this by drawing on two preeminent examples of US theatre from different generations of writing: The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. The political contexts of both plays will be considered, and thematic and textual aspects will be considered, alongside critical and wider reactions and responses to the plays, both at the time of their first presentations, and over time. Two different approaches to using drama as commentary will be introduced and explored: allegory and specific example.
The Crucible was Arthur Miller’s third major play, coming after 1947’s All My Sons and 1952’s Death of a Salesman. Miller was by then established as a major playwright, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Salesman (Pfister 2005). Miller later commented that:
the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up a new relationship between a man and men, and between men and Man. Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us know more, and not merely to spend our feelings (Miller, in Pfister 2005).
It was in The Crucible that Miller would explore these connections, by writing a play that would make allegorical comment on contemporary American politics and society.
The use of the Massachusetts witch trials as a device for theatrical comment on contemporary America was not one unique to Miller. Welland (1979, pp. 74-5) notes that three other plays had done so in the previous decade. Marion Starkey, author of 1949’s The Devil in Massachusetts, comments thusly in her introduction to her play: “[o]ne would like to hope that leaders of the modern world can in the end deal with delusion as sanely and courageously as the men of old Massachusetts dealt with theirs” (in Welland, 1979, pp. 74-5). The issue by 1952, the year prior to The Crucible’s first performance, was that of the congressional investigation into un-American activities headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy (Bigsby, 2000, p. 87-8).
The McCarthy hearings, seeking to unmask Communist sympathisers in the contexts of a United States that was wary of the world order post-1945, the fresh superpower dynamic between the States and the USSR, and the emerging superpower antipathy between those two nations, were seen by Miller – and many other liberals – as a threat to the nation (Bigsby 2000, 88). Miller said (quoted in Bigsby, 2000, p. 88) that “there was a new religiosity in the air … conscience was no longer a private matter but one of state administration. I saw men handing conscience to other men and thanking other men for the opportunity of doing so”.
The Crucible tells the story of the witch trials, focusing on the character of John Proctor.Proctor first seeks to query the burgeoning fear gripping the Salem community when the witchcraft allegations are first made, and then is drawn in as the charges widen to include his household; he is forced to defend himself and his conscience. The inquisitorial manner of the legalistic Puritans who pursue the truth behind the allegations soon becomes overtaken by a zeal to find all who are accused guilty by whatever means possible. Welland (1979, p. 84-5) states the experience of watching the play “is to be overwhelmed by the simple impotence of honest common sense against fanaticism that is getting out of control”, and provides a reminder that “sheer goodness … is just not enough to counter such deviousness”. The language of the powerful overwhelms: it “establish[es] the grammar of human relationships, who determine the vocabulary in which the social debate is conducted” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 90). Proctor in the play – and by extension those in the 1950s theatre audience who are subject to McCarthyite inquisition, or who have sympathies with them – finds himself caught in their rhetoric and in their discourse, and is entrapped in their language.
Though to some extent The Crucible is indelibly linked to the contexts of its writing and first performance, it has proved to “not be limited to its time” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 93). The play is frequently revived and is given fresh vitality and currency by its allegoric nature: a play of the 1950s set in that time and which approached the McCarthy-led hearings head-on might well have less of the universality of Miller’s piece, which has since been staged and restaged widely, from the 2014 London Old Vic revival to “a successful production in the 1980s in the Peoples Republic of China” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 93).
Whereas Arthur Miller tackled a specific political reality in the context of the Cold War, in his 1983 play Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet examined something more nebulous, though still a political reality of its time: that of capitalism and of corporate greed in the Reagan era. Ronald Reagan was US president from 1980 to 1988 and in many ways the American counterpart of the UK’s Margaret Thatcher (prime minister from 1979 to 1991) in pursuing a free market-oriented and commercial-focused agenda within a wider brief of opposing what turned out to be the latter day of the Cold War (Kopkind, 2004). Both administrations promised to “to implement parallel monetarist, free market, and incentive-based economic policies” (Cooper, 2013).
For Bigsby (2000, p. 213) Glengarry Glen Ross is, like earlier Mamet stage productions, is “a play ‘set deeply in the milieu of capitalism’, an idea which [Mamet] suggests has exhausted itself”. The play concerns a group of real-estate salesmen led by Richard “Ricky” Roma, and their office manager Williamson; they are locked together in conflict for sales and for the security of their jobs. The play takes place over an evening and the following morning, in a Chinese restaurant near their offices, and the following day in the office. Central to the plot of the play are sales leads: the current leads are weak and sales are suffering, but the new leads will only be given out to proven sellers. The rest of the sales force will be dismissed.
Bigsby (2000, p. 219) sees this set-up as “a neat paradigm of a competitive capitalist society”. As only the successful are prioritised by the keeping of their jobs and the access to the new leads, then success is seen to lead to success: the rest must fall by the wayside. So pressure is applied to succeed; this leads to sharp practice and to criminality in order to secure that competitive edge. In the play this is illustrated by the theft of the leads, and the conversations the salesmen have where the leads’ potential is discussed. Failing salesman Shelley Levene pleads, with mounting hysteria, about his need to sell; he is desperate for access to the new leads, which Williamson is unwilling to give. Salesmen Aaronow and Moss discuss the potential theft of the leads; Moss works to sell the concept of stealing them to Aaronow. Third is a conversation between two men who, we come to learn, are Roma and a client, James Lingk. Roma works to seduce Lingk into making a buy by appealing to both their manufactured friendship and to Lingk’ss masculinity. Each of these conversations is marked by power relationships; these are all unequal exchanges.
The second act focuses on the aftermath of the theft. Levene is ecstatic because of a much-needed commission sale overnight; Roma likewise has sold to Lingk, but becomes distressed when Williamson undoes his work; Aaronow and Moss react with confusion and frustration respectively when accused of the crime and when called in for police questioning. It is revealed that we have been misdirected: Levene is the one who’s been manipulated by Moss into taking and selling the leads to a competitor. Furthermore, Levene has been outwitted and outmanoeuvred again, this time by the people he made the sale to overnight, as they are revealed to be cranks with no money.
The second act relationships mirror those of the first act; the same characters are involved in the exchanges, but their positions are altered by shifts in power. Levene glories at fist in his power over Williamson, Moss has his crime unpicked, Roma finds the limits of his seductive sales technique.
Mamet’s salesmen are desperate men, forever living on their wits – on their ability to use and to manipulate language to own ends. Bigsby (2000, p. 221) notes that each relationship they have or enter in is a negotiation: human interaction becomes capitalist in this context. A competitive edge is always sought. Furthermore, the possibility of duplicity or betrayal is always possible, not least because these characters are all trying to do that to others. Their whole society is predicated on social engineering and on corruption of language towards venal ends; to that extent, they and their society are corrupt also. Bigsby (2000, p. 222) sees that if Mamet’s characters “pervert language, distort values and divert profound psychological needs into temporary social objectives, this is no more than do those who direct national policy or construct the fantasies of commercial and political life”. The link between the specifics of the drama on stage and its correlation to the national and cultural dynamic of Reagan’s America are clearly drawn here.
Nightingale (in Bigsby, 2004, p. 102) sees Glengarry Glen Ross as “a play virtually unequalled in the quantitative and qualitative evidence it provides for moral dismay and grim social re¬‚ection”. For Nightingale (in Bigsby, 2004, p. 96), the play is not solely an expose and a rebuttal of business ethics but also of “an America that, as Mamet has said, is ‘a very violent society full of a lot of hate: you can’t put a band-aid on a suppurating wound'”. This is drama as a political critique: an examination of the ethics of a worldview (that of Reaganism) through the filter of a contemporary case study intended to be seen as emblematic of a greater, and similarly problematic, whole.
This essay has sought to outline and examine the ways in which American theatre in the twentieth century has been applied to wider political conversations. Miller’s The Crucible takes a seventeenth century cause celebre and a foundational story of pre-Constitution America and draws parallels between Puritan religious hysteria and anti-Communist searches as spearheaded by the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities under Joseph McCarthy. This is drama as allegory, and as such, not only were contemporary audiences able to make that link for themselves – the play has demonstrated over time that its messages have resonance for other times and geographies, even though that link to the 1950s remains dominant. David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross takes another approach: that of didactic example. Reagan’s 1980s are held to account through a case study of capitalism in action. Mamet’s salesmen are in turns aggressive, hectoring, pleading, desperate, seductive, criminal , manipulative, and self-serving. The society in which they operate, and the political system that not merely sustains but which actively supports this; is thus critiqued. Murphy (2006, pp 411-29) sketches the ways in which American theatre developed through the twentieth century. From being almost wholly mass entertainment and spectacle-based with little original writing to a theatre that was able to, as Murphy (2006, p. 429) puts it, “confront audiences with the issues of the day”, the century has seen the American stage become a mechanism by which US playwrights might hold the country’s politics to account.
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