I am not a great writer as any regular reader of this site can attest, however I do enjoy certain types of writing such as poetry from time to time (and not just whilst bored at work). One of the few times I have ever had to bother with extended writing though was at school and university where the universal opinion of my essays seemed to be nice arguments shame about the structure.
Now in Maths essays are rather thin on the ground, but the other half of my degree; Drama, saw me writing on various diverse topics that I generally knew little about and so I would apply my patented 2 day essay plan where I read the books from the library and write the essay the next day. For some reason despite various formats of hard drives since then some of my essays are still in existence, like this on I did for a module on American Drama:
Men, Failure and The American Dream in American Theatre
‘There’s some hidden, deep rooted thing in the Anglo male American that has to being a man… This sense of failure runs very deep.’ - Shepard
People want to succeed in their lives and the American Dream is a term applied to the aims many people have. Based originally in the idea of the undeveloped west and the rapid expansion of America, the American Dream is a fabrication of myths and ideologies that can be best summed up in the phrase “Anyone can achieve anything if they try hard enough.” American theatre however often concerns itself with those who do not achieve and those who are failures in at least some sense of the American Dream. The American Dream is a set of ideals and as such changes over time dependent upon the society of the time. Once it was the Dream of conquering the wild frontier of the as yet unclaimed lands of the west and of a new life. Now however the measures of success according to the American Dream are narrower and based in materialism with the acquisition of power, money and influence being the most common measures of success.
This adaptation of the American Dream is one that has meant that although many can still dream it, fewer can achieve it because of the greater competition involved. To have power and influence they must be over something or someone, thereby meaning that ultimately that someone always has power over you and so the dream cannot truly be fulfilled. The failure of the American Dream as it becomes more exclusive has prompted Mamet to comment “the people it has sustained – the white males – are going nuts” (Savran, 134) It is significant that David Mamet notes that it is the white males who have been sustained by it as like many societies at the beginning of the 20th Century the dominant power group were white males but at it’s close women and ethnic groups have become more powerful. This has encroached upon the role of the White Anglo Saxon Male once they were in control and now that control is under threat from other groups. The role of the American man is no longer as clearly defined as it once was.
This is represented in various ways throughout the theatre of America in the 20th Century. David Mamet and Arthur Miller in their plays often reflect upon the corruption of the American Dream by capitalism but is also shown more subtly in plays such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The failure of the characters is often apparent and any gains that are seemingly made are transient in the long run. For example in Glengary Glen Ross a sale is seemingly made, but we then find out that the deal is worthless. This is in contrast to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the failure is more subtle in nature. Here we have a we have a couple who are married but are unsatisfied with elements of their lives, George despite being married to the daughter of the president of the college has failed to make the most of his connections and Martha suggests that he isn’t a ‘real’ man.
Martha: So, anyway, I married the S.O.B and I had it all planned out. … He was the groom… he was going to be groomed. He’d take over some day… first, he’d take over the History Department and then, when Daddy retired, he’d take over the college… you know? That’s the way it was supposed to be.
(To George)You getting angry, baby? Hunh? (Now back) That’s the way it was supposed to be. Very simple. And Daddy seemed to think it was a pretty good idea, too. For a while. Until he watched for a couple of years! (To George again) You getting angrier? (Now back) Until he watched for a couple of years and started thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all… that maybe Georgie-boy didn’t have the stuff… that he didn’t have it in him!
George: (Still with his back to them) Stop it, Martha.
Martha: (Viciously triumphant) The hell I will! You see, George didn’t have much… push… he wasn’t particularly… aggressive. In fact he was a sort of a …(Spits the word at George’s back)… a FLOP! A great… big… fat… flop!
Martha’s attack on George’s manhood starts with how he had been chosen to be groomed but then failed to fulfil his promise, she then calls potency into question calling him ‘Georgie-boy’ and saying he lacked the ‘stuff’ and the aggression to make it. Her final comment however is directed at a more personal potency than just personal power and ties to hit at something that most men would be angry at having called into question. This a technique used by Mamet in Glengary Glen Ross where masculinity is supreme and the biggest insults are those that imply that the insulted is a child or a woman. The emphasis of the insults is on the ‘unmanliness’ of the victim. Being seen to be a man is important, Levene when appealing for leads says put a ‘proven man’ on the job and later when he and Roma criticise their Boss for ruining a deal they concentrate on demeaning him by emphasising their masculinity over his. (Berkowitz, 193)
In previous eras roles were more defined however with the advent of equal rights movements the supremacy of the white male has come under attack. The two examples above are but two of many which highlight the questioning of what it is to be a white male in the latter half of the twentieth century. The idea of the male as the breadwinner and head of the family is still prevalent, but in these modern times is no longer as accurate. It is this new definition of what it is to be a white male in America that is still developing as the new role has not yet had the time to fully mature and be understood by society. Ideals and stereotypes only change slowly and often lag behind the changes present in society and it is this gap that scares the American male, as they do not know where it will wind up.
Another aspect of the American Dream as portrayed in the theatre is that you are not a success, unless you are a complete success at everything. Examples are rife and include:
- In Glengary Glen Ross the lead salesman gets a Cadillac, second place gets a set of steak knives and anything else gets you fired. The inference being here that only being the ‘top dog’ gets any reward, being good is simply not enough you have to be the best. The competition puts lives and livelihoods on the line. (Roudane, 178)
- In Death of A Salesman, Willy Loman aspires to be like Dave Singleman. A salesman who was so popular that when he dies, “hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral” and is missed after he dies. (Miller, 180) His lack of success as measured against Dave Singleman popularity is one of the feelings responsible for him committing suicide. He decides that his death will leave him more successful than his life as the insurance money will pay off the mortgage on the house and allow Biff to start up in business. This way although he feels he may not have been a success he can help his son to become one in his stead, a transference of his fear of failure. (Scanlan, 136)
- In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Brick once a promising sports star and showed great promise in his field. His career was cut short due to an injury stopping from reaching the pinnacle as a consequence he shifts to sports announcing. Here he finds that his aptitude on the pitch doesn’t translate to off of it as he describes himself as “always two or three beats behind what was going on.” (Williams, 44) This failure combined with the loss of Skip who is a symbol of that former life represents a failure of Brick’s, one which instead of picking himself up from he turns to the consolation of “Echo Creek” searching for peace in the ‘click’ that he finds from alcohol.
- And as I have already observed in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. George is attacked by Martha for his lack of success with promotion at the college and how he has fallen sort of the expectations placed in him over his career and family life. But Nick is also shown to have a fear of failure in his preparedness to do what ever it takes to achieve success. He is carefully balanced on a myth that he has created for himself of his own success to satisfy his ego and protect him. (Bigsby, 130)
It is the belief “that if they have not grasped the bounty that the American Dream insists is just lying there, they must not be good enough.” that motivates the characters to do what they do. They strive to avoid the realisation that if the American Dream is open to all as it claims, then the failure is in the individual and therefore in them not the system. (Berkowitz, 80) This is symptomatic of the material aspects of the American Dream, the characters each have success in some small measure, but not in the ways they want. George and Willy Loman both are creative individuals and find expression through writing or manual work respectively. Willy Loman and Brick both come from families where people care for and love them. Despite the successes the characters do have in their lives they consider them insignificant when held up next to the dollar and glory, all because the American Dream doesn’t allow any other measure of success and it is this measure of success the character’s fail in.
Brick has failed at the dream of being an American Football hero, indeed during Cat on a Hot Tin Roof his broken ankle is a physical reminder of his failure as he broke it the night before jumping hurdles. Early on in the play we are told that it was the first hurdle that he fell at. (Williams, 4) Later when a child asks about his jumping hurdles his reply is that people like “to do what they used to do, even after they’ve stopped being able to do it…” (Williams, 29) This reflects Brick’s attitude to failure, he is resigned at least in part to it. He draws comfort from the level he is at instead of trying to rise up and risk failure. He quit the job of sports announcing instead of persevering at it, his dream was of success in sport and now denied that he chooses not to dream and just wants the world to pass him by and views it with a certain cynicism. In the original ending when Maggie expresses her love for Brick he replies, “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was true?” He cannot accept that Maggie may actually love him, as to do that would mean that he would have to accept that events won’t let him be and so he would have to engage in them and risk failure, as Maggie observes “Now that you have lost the game, not lost but just quit playing” (Williams, 9)
The alternate ending is similar in tone as at the end of this version he expresses admiration for Maggie’s determination not to lie down and lets events pass her by. She has a dream of what she wants to achieve again inspired by fear as in her own words, he still isn’t accepting a dream of him own however, he is merely co-operating with her ambitions. Her ambitions are also based in fear however as she seeks the plantation as security for her old age as she believes that “you can’t be old without it [money]” (Williams, 25) and her fear of never being accepted by Brick and this is why she keeps herself in trim. (Williams, 21)
This illustrates that the fear of failure is not only a motivating factor for American men alone, however it originated with them as the major proponents of the American Dream and has spread to others as they have chosen to try and live the dream. American theatre is a predominantly male experience and the plays I have commented on reflect this. Maggie shows quite a masculine stance and is somewhat of an anomaly in some respects in Death of a Salesman Linda is quite a contrast. Here Linda is concerned for her husband and encourages her husband to take it easy and take a job in New York. Willy however is convinced that “They don’t need me in New York. I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England” (Miller, 132) Linda although sidelined in many ways represents one of the successes of Willy Loman she loves him and is concerned for him.
Instead he concerns himself with glory and money as a measure for assessing his success. He does recognise to some extent the hollowness of that success with lines such as “Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it and there is no one to live in it.” (Miller 133) In the same way his comment about not being needed in New York is a truth that he recognises, however doesn’t acknowledge that he is not needed clinging to the idea that he is ‘The New England’ man. When Biff suggests that they don’t belong in the “nuthouse of a city” that they live and should be “mixing cement on some open plain” or practising carpentry because of the freedom it entails. Skills in which Willy does find some pleasure he dismisses the idea by saying, “Even your Grandfather was better than a carpenter.” This contradicts his early comment to Charley of “A man who can handle tools is not a man.”(Miller, 154) His ideals of manhood are anachronistic for the time he lives in and subsequently he is in conflict, he cannot achieve success as society defines it. He doesn’t pursue that whereas the success he craves is unachievable, as society will not give it to him. He is just a faceless salesman, a drone for the company he represents.
His acceptance of salesman’s life is absolute, he aspires to be Dave Singleman but doesn’t realise that the idea of ‘Dave Singleman’ is one that is one out of date. He wants to be liked but the personality is being drained out of his business as his old faithful customers die off not to be replaced and the ultimate example of the scene where he asks Howard to give him a job at the office. He tries to remind Howard of the ties that he feels exist between them, how he was consulted on the name of Howard and how he held him in his arms as a child. Howard refutes this bond saying “business is business” and “I can’t take blood from a stone” (Miller, 180-1) boiling it down to figures and balance sheets. When Willy is fired he tries to deny it and says he’ll go to Boston tomorrow denying the reality that he isn’t wanted or needed. Howard responds by suggesting that Willy’s sons should support him, an option Loman is unprepared to accept. He equates doing that with being ‘a cripple.’ He is the head of his house and believes that as such he should be the one supporting it. To do otherwise is a sign of weakness and failure something he cannot to bear to admit that he is guilty of, as is apparent in his retreat into fantasy and illusion throughout the piece.
Business is based on exploitation, profits are made in dealings by taking advantage of gaps in pricing or the mistakes of others and Loman is too moral for this model of business. His case is similar to that of Aaronow in Glengary Glen Ross, here Aaronow recognises the corruptness of the system. He is concerned by lack of success and asks the question is “his inability to succeed in the society in which he’s placed a defect- that is, is he manly or sharp enough?” and is it a good thing that his conscience bothers him. On one hand it limits his success, yet on the other society teaches that scruples are a good thing to have. A salesman cannot afford to have scruples if he wishes to truly be successful in the cut-throat world of business, unlike Loman he recognises that he is “incapable either of grasping those things I should or doing these things I’ve grasped” commenting finally at the end of the play. “Oh, God, I hate this job” This is the issue that Mamet feels that engages many Americans on a daily basis the contradictions of being moralistic, yet living in a society based upon exploitation. (Roudane, 179)
It is this conflict that results in the fear that divides the psyche of the American male. Loman may not be the American ‘Everyman’ just as George, Aaronow and Brick are not average Americans but they do represent some of the concerns of American males and provide an approximation to a significant group within the population of America. The conflict runs deep. To succeed according to the American Dream in the acquisition often runs counter to the moralistic upbringing that the selfsame society raises them in. This importance placed on both “spirituality and material enterprise” (Bigsby, 200) means that it is hard to achieve a true sense of success as the more successful in one you are the less you are in the other. These combined with the ethic of you are only a success if you are a success at everything means that an Americans hold is tenuous at best. In the example of Glengary Glen Ross the salesmen directly compete with each other only one can be ‘top dog’ and as sales are made and lost relationships change radically. Their success as salesmen is based on misleading the customer and tempting them to buy. Roma’s seduction of James Lingk establishing a rapport with him at first not seeming to sell anything but then in seemingly confiding in to Lingk so as to gain his confidence and make the sale as Berkowitz comments:
Roma disguises his pitch so well that we think he is just rambling aimlessly to a stranger until ‘You get befuddled by a middle-class morality’ leads somehow to ‘I do those things that seem correct to me today’ and thence somehow to ‘This piece of land. Listen to what I am going to tell you now.’ (Berkowitz, 193)
Roma works by letting him apparently letting him on a secret that allows him to exploit the system, he appeals to Lingk’s greed and the desire to get rich quick that is present within him. The little man exploiting a hole in the system, Roma also encourages Lingk by mentioning the names of other influential people involved with the project, the idea that by doing the same things as successful people he can also become successful too. Only the presence of Lingk’s wife in the background sours the deal as she forces Lingk to abandon the deal.
Roma instead of gracefully accepting defeat and cancelling the deal refuses to have the deal end in a failure and does his utmost to trick Lingk into staying with the deal. He plays with the idea of how long three days is and enlists Levene to pretend to be an important person that he is dealing with in order to impress the idea of success upon Lingk. This ploy almost works and it would have except for the intervention of Williamson; the office manager emerging from his office who shatters the illusion by telling Lingk the truth. This moral action causes Roma and Levene to attack him for his unprofessionalism in a stream of invective as he has resulted in a failure for them, he lost them the deal through his actions. They comment on his manliness calling him a child, a woman and a homosexual all things that are the antithesis of what it means to be male and masculine.
They do not comment on the dishonesty of their actions for that is normal to them, instead they seek to blame someone else. Williamson did lose them the deal, but the deal should never have been made the way that it was based on Roma exploiting Lingk’s weakness and not Lingk exploiting a flaw in the system.
The quote at the beginning of this essay by Sam Shepard comments that the sense of failure in the American male is a ‘deep rooted thing… that has to do with being a man.’ It is the change in the demands placed upon men in 20th Century America, the west has been won but the ideals that won it are still present in the American psyche. The difference now is that it is not a wilderness to be tamed and overcome, it is other people. This conflicts with the image of the trustworthy, dependable image that used to be tradable on. Now more so than then, just because you deal honestly doesn’t mean the other person will deal fairly with you. Willy Loman gave years of his life to the system, but when the system decided it was finished with him those years counted for nothing. This meant that to him because of the importance he placed on such ‘contracts’ when he lost his job that he would also have had to accept that over 30 years of his life would been a failure. He found that he was expendable and not the ‘New England Man’ as he thought and rather than face that failure de decided to achieve the only success he felt he had left to him, the insurance money from his death. With that the house would be paid for and Biff could try and start up his own business and become the success Willy had wanted to be.
Aaronow is trapped between two worlds unable to make a decision, for fear it will be the wrong one. At least with where he is he believes that he although not a success he also isn’t a complete failure. This in some ways is similar to George who also has fallen short and is trapped into his existence. Both men are aware of the limits of their existence but at the same time wish to avoid dealing with it for fear of failing in their ambitions. The middle ground they occupy is safe for them and to an extent they are happy there though not content.
Brick represents a more severe version of this and when he finds himself failing in the world of sports commentating he decides to quit and turn to alcohol and become a success as being a failure. The logic being that if you aim low and don’t try to get up you cannot be deemed a failure.
All of the examples given have one thing in common, a desire to avoid being responsible for failing as a man and in some cases recognising the fact in the first place. They may choose death, alcohol or limbo in order to avoid failure as many people themselves choose to do. But the significant thing is they choose to do these things in order to avoid others and themselves recognising them as a true failure.
Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Compton Printing: Great Britain,1967
Berkowitz, Gerald M. American Drama of the Twentieth Century. Longman Publishing: New York, 1992.
Bigsy, C.W.E. Modern American Drama 1945-2000. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000.
Miller, Arthur. ‘Death of a Salesman’ Collected Plays. Arthur Miller. Cresset Press: London, 1965. (p129-222)
Roudane, Matthew C. ‘David Mamet’ Speaking on Stage. Ed. Phillip K. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman. University of Alabama Press: USA 1996. (p176-84)
Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. Theatre Communications Group: New York, 1992.
Scanlan, Tom. Family, Drama and American Dreams. Greenwood Press: Westport, 1978.
Shepard, Sam. ‘Myths, Dreams, Realities-Sam Shepard’s America’ New York Times, 29th January 1984.
Williams, Tennessee. ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ Five Plays. Tennessee Williams. Secker and Warburg: London, 1976. (p1-123)