Каминяр Дмитрий Генаддьевич: другие произведения.

The American Dream in Two Plays...

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   7 March 2009
   Dmitri Kaminiar
   Student #995059083
   ENG250 American literature

The American Dream in the post-WWII American drama

   When one speaks about the American Dream, one immediately thinks about the Dream - the one where everyone in America will be able to live a fulsome, colourful life with an opportunity equal to everyone else's to rise to the top. That is a good dream to have, one that is often equalled with the hope for the future, but the key word here is `dream', and the thing about dreams is that they are not quite as real as the reality that one sees when one is awake. Sadly, by the end of WWII, the Americans have forgotten about this quality of dreams, and because of that, individual members of their society began to suffer.
   This essay will talk about and compare two post-WWII American plays - A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, and show how the blurring of the American Dream and reality brought tragedy on both of them. It will compare the two works because both of them happen at the same time of American history, and because both deal with the conflict in the middle class families. It will also contrast the two based on their differences in gender politics, the feelings that their characters have for each other and over other details as well.
   In Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, the main dreamer in the play is obviously Blanche DuBois. The DuBois family estate was actually called Belle Reve, which stands for "Beautiful Dream". Blanche is a dreamer - a dreamer of romances and fairy tales, a believer in the power of belief. As Blanche says in Scene Seven of the play, "But it wouldn't be make-believe/If you believed in me!" (1201). Blanche, as the scene unfolds, does indeed want others to believe in her as she appears to be - a chaste Southern belle, as opposed to what she is: a sexually and mentally disturbed woman, who does not quite fit into the real life of the post-WWII period in New Orleans. This shows especially vividly in her speech - while the other characters tend to speak in short, to-the-point, sentences, Blanche tends to ramble on, partially trying to overwhelm her interlocutors with her speech, and partially trying to make sense of her own mental processes, which are simply as jumbled as her speech. Blanche is an outsider on the Elysian Fields, and her lack of belief in the American Dream is part of it.
   Blanche's opponent in the play is Stanley Kowalski, and it is he who can be considered the representative of the American Dream in the play. A descendant of immigrants from Poland, he considers himself to be "a one-hundred-per-cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it" (1206). On the surface, it appears as if America could be proud of Stanley as well: he is a decorated war hero, a solid worker, and a caring father and husband:
   ...Hey, what is it, Stel? [He crosses to her.]
   Stella [quietly] Take me to the hospital.
   [He is immediately with her now, supporting her with his arm, murmuring indistinguishably as they go outside.]
   (A Streetcar Named Desire, pg 1207)
   Unfortunately, this tenderness of Stanley's comes to the fore only part of the time, with the reverse side being his cruelty: he does attack Stella from time to time, as he did in Scene Two (pg.1181-2), and his eventual treatment of Blanche is barbaric and inhumanly cruel. In the long run Stanley comes out as a man prone to senseless acts of violence - like throwing his radio out of the window, a man who is governed by instincts and passions rather than brains, a man fond of drinking and of the opposite sex (at least in the person of Stella). Stanley Kowalski may be an embodiment of the American Dream, but the author of the play, being a realist, did not have any personal illusions about both the better and worse qualities of this new social American phenomenon, and showed them to their fullest in the character of Stanley. The catch here is that Blanche, despite all her posturing and pretensions, behaves very much in the same way - following her instincts, having an equally large fondness for drinking and the opposite sex (the latter especially pointedly demonstrated in Scene Five, when Blanche tries to seduce the young man who collects money for the newspaper). Finally, Blanche also has a force of character or bravery potentially equal to Stanley:    ...STANLEY jumps up and, crossing to the radio, turns it off. He stops short at the sight of BLANCHE in the chair. She returns his look without flinching. Then he sits again at the poker table. (A Streetcar Named Desire, pg. 1179).
   Another example is their treatment of Stella: she is essentially caught in the middle of the domination struggle between her husband and sister, who keep telling her what to do, leaving her only with trying her best to please both of them at the same time, leaving neither happy.
   Despite such similar personalities, Blanche and Stanley differ on two key points. Blanche tries to pretend that she is someone else while Stanley never does, and secondly, Blanche has always depended on others (as she admits in the last scene), while Stanley probably never did. Consequently, Blanche is not a part of the new American Dream, but of the past, which was dominated by greater social inequality and slavery, yet Blanche is at her fondest when she talks about it. Therefore, this creates an irreconcilable difference between her and Stanley, which, given the strength of their personalities, can only end in violence, as neither will give in voluntarily. In the end, Stanley destroys Blanche, but the victory has its cost - his friendship with Mitch is damaged: "You ... you ... you... Brag ... brag... bull ... bull" (1217), and as for Stella -
   STELLA: I don't know if I did the right thing.
   EUNICE: What else could you do?
   STELLA: I couldn't believe her story and go on living with Stanley.
   EUNICE: Don't ever believe it. Life has to go on. No matter what happens, you've got to keep on going.
   (The Streetcar Named Desire, pg. 1217)
   Obviously, both Eunice and Stella realize that Blanche is probably telling the truth here, but in that time, (the play was written in 1947), there was not much a woman could do to her husband, and so Stella must just bear it. However, both she and Eunice recognize that Stella's relationship with Stanley has changed for the worse, and will not get back to the pre-Blanche stage for a long while. For his part, Tennessee Williams, being the author of the play, recognized that the American Dream and its revitalizing effect on the American society was generally a good one, but not without a cost, as demonstrated by his play.
   The second play, upon which this essay focuses, Death of a Salesman, also has a conflict between the past and the present, between illusory escapism and confrontational realism. There is a twist though - the American Dream, covertly hidden back in The Streetcar Named Desire, now is more visible in the world where Willy and Biff are trying unsuccessfully to sort out their differences.
   If the American Dream has not been so "in-your-face" obvious in Miller's play, then it would have been even more similar to Williams' work. Admittedly, it takes place north, as opposed to south of the Mason-Dixie line, and Miller's focus is not on sexual politics, but on the more conventional social ones. He is talking exactly about the men's world and little more, but in most major points, the two plays are similar.
   Willy Loman is an escapist, and not unlike Blanche, he is haunted by his past, as he cannot escape his memories, nor is able or willing to confront them. He may or may not have the alcoholism problem of Blanche's, but that is not relevant - basically, Willy is not happy in the reality he finds himself in, and tries to escape into his happy place inside his mind, only to discover, sooner or later, that he cannot quite hide even there from reality. Moreover, like Blanche, this escapist approach from reality leads to Willy's destruction - and not just mental, but physical, as Willy simply dies in the end of Miller's play.
   If Willy is Blanche's counterpart, then his eldest son Biff is Stanley's, because he, by the end of the play, becomes a confrontational realist just like Stanley has always been. There is an important difference, for unlike Stanley, who wanted only to confront Blanche and fight it out with her from the beginning of Williams' play, Biff never particularly wanted to fight Willy, and in fact, even at his very confrontation, is sympathizing and empathising with the older man:
   BIFF I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I'm one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn't raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I'm not bringing home any prizes any more, and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! (Death of a Salesman, 1347)
   Far from trying to break Willy down or assault him, Biff is trying to re-forge their family bonds - but on his terms, not on Willy's. "Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" (1347) he asks Willy, without properly realizing that for Willy to admit to Biff's truth would be a crash of all of Willy's life values. Being well into his old age, and having been already fired from his job due to adherence to these values, Willy simply cannot accept Biff's revelation, but only that Biff loves him. Moreover, once he realizes this, his mind is finally made up: Willy is going sacrifice himself to prove to Biff his point for the last time:
   [...] Ben, that funeral will be massive! They'll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old-timers with the strange license plates--that boy will be thunder-struck, Ben, because he never realized--I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey--I am known, Ben, and he'll see it with his eyes once and for all. He'll see what I am, Ben! He's in for a shock, that boy! (Death of a Salesman, 1344)
   Life, of course, being what it is, does reveal to Biff and others what Willy is - at his funeral there are only his family and friends, Charley and Bernard, no mourning crowds or even large gatherings. For the sake of his dreams, for the power of his beliefs, Willy dies, unconcerned about anything else.
   So far, if it were not for the American Dream clearly overlying the play, Death of a Salesman would have been like A Streetcar Named Desire, complete with a selfish character that would rather flee into illusion than confront reality, and who is destroyed by it - for a price. However, the American Dream changes this similarity.
   As it was said above, the American Dream is the dream where everyone will be able to live a fulsome, colourful life with an opportunity equal to everyone else's to rise to the top. Unlike Blanche, whose working qualifications are dubious, Willy has always worked hard and did his best to rise to the top - yet in ethical respects, he is very similar to Blanche. However, if he is acting very much large Blanche in the other ways, how can he be a part of the American Dream?
   The answer is very disturbing to someone who assumed that the American Dream was the new way of the life, where people like Stanley can rise to the top and where all the flaws of the old world will be removed. As the example of Willy Loman can show, they are wrong - the American Dream is not a panacea for the old flaws, and in fact, it is the same old thing, where all the old flaws keep on going under new guises. This means that all those people who believed that the new, post-WWII American society will give them new opportunities to rise to the top were incorrect, they were dreamers, and they were wrong to believe in the American Dream: it was just a brand new name to the same old state of affairs that had existed before.
   In the beginning of the essay, it was promised to show how the blurring of the American Dream and reality resulted in tragedy in both plays. In the body of this essay, it attempted to do so by comparing the two plays and bringing out their main difference: Tennessee Williams genuinely assumed that the American Dream was a sign of a permanent change in the American society to the form of meritocracy, where any hard-working man, regardless of character flaws could rise to the top, Arthur Miller just as genuinely assumed that the American Dream was the same old unfair world order, albeit in new clothing. This crucial difference, disregarding the plays similarities in details social and otherwise, eventually results into different endings - one an optimistic birth and the other in death - and this difference is the main one, because it represents two social philosophies, and the one you choose is will define your outlook of life.
   Miller, Arthur. "Death of a Salesman." The Norton Anthology: American Literature, Volume 2. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. 1344, 1347
   Williams, Tennessee. "A Streetcar Named Desire." The Norton Anthology: American Literature, Volume 2. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. 1179, 1201, 1206, 1207, 1217
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