Your last major assignment is a 900 – 1200 word essay in which you will discuss the ways in which Death of a Salesman is a modern play, according to Klages’s essay, and the ways in which David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is a postmodern answer to Arthur Miller’s play. Read the entire explanation below before starting your paper. At the end of the explanation are some parameters for the paper.
Both plays are about salesmen and the effects of unbridled capitalism on the human psyche. Miller’s take on this theme is decidedly modern.
Miller’s modernist views are clear in the plot and characters of the play, but they are also underlined in Miller’s essay about tragedy, where he defends the notion of a modern tragic hero. Tragedy is a classical concept, but Miller reworks that idea and turns it into a modern concept (not a postmodern one). One of the most important ways in which Miller’s play is modern has to do with the idea that modern writers try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do (Klages).
Clearly, in Miller’s view, the institutions of capitalism have failed to provide Willy with a meaningful life. Willy cannot buy his way into meaning, though he tries; nor can he work his way into meaning, though he tries. Not only is this failure a problem for Willy, but it is a problem for many Americans in Miller’s world. Willy represents an American Everyman. The character personifies the typical working stiff in Miller’s imagination. Willy Loman is truly a low man within the capitalist hierarchy. As such, his life has little meaning within the capitalist system.
But in writing his play, Miller attempts to give Willy’s life meaning. He attempts to provide “What other human institutions fail to do” (Klages).
Updating the classical form of tragedy, Miller attempts to do for Willy, and all men like him, what money and capitalism can’t provide meaning for his existence to the rest of the world. And thus, Willy’s story becomes a dire warning to everyone in the audience, telling them to ignore the lure of money and try to do something of value with their lives. “He never knew who he was” says Biff of his father (Miller 2391). And that is Willy’s greatest tragedy. In his attempt to achieve the capitalist dream of riches, he loses his soul.
Mamet’s play gives us an altogether different take on capitalism – different, not better. His play is decidedly postmodern. And he knows he is writing in the very long shadow of Arthur Miller, who was one of America’s greatest living playwrights at the time Mamet wrote his play (Miller has since died). Where Miller saw tragedy and sadness, Mamet sees the farcical horrors of a system that would grind up men for a Cadillac. And while Miller tries to create meaning from Willy’s tragic life, Mamet’s play makes no claims to creating meaning out of the pathetic lives of his characters. His characters live very provisional lives; in fact, the entire plot hinges of the provision of each man getting his name on the board. But Mamet’s play “doesn’t lament the idea of [the] . . . provisionality, or incoherence of his characters” lives; instead Mamet’s play says something along the lines of “Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning . . . let’s just play with nonsense” (Klages).
His playfulness is clear in the dark comedy of the play. Unlike Miller’s play, Mamet’s is very funny (one good reason to see the film is that it’s easier to get the comedy). That doesn’t stop it from presenting a very, very dark vision of humanity, but Mamet makes no claims to providing an answer to that darkness. He just examines it and holds it up to the theatrical lights for his audience to examine as well. Another way he uses playfulness is in the dialogue. He takes the way he’s heard men speaking to each other and exaggerates it. The characters are left with little besides profanity to express the rage, disappointment, fear, and horror they feel at the condition of their own lonely lives. Thus, this play is NOT modern because as sad as these characters might be, they do not give us one of the fundamental pieces of tragedy that a modern play does: In a modernist play’s attempt to provide meaning it must provide catharsis for the audience. Catharsis, that rush of feeling that comes at the end of all tragedies (whether they are classical or modern), is what makes the audience feel like they want to make better choices than Willy did after seeing the play. Both Aristotle and Miller discuss the importance of catharsis in tragedy. Mamet’s play provides no catharsis and is not tragic or modern. It is postmodern, especially in the way it offers us no answers and no meaning beyond the experience of enjoying or being repulsed by the world he creates for us in his play.
In your final paper, you are to use Miller’s essay (as opposed to his play) and Klages’s essay to discuss how one play is modern and the other postmodern.
Create an introduction that ends in a thesis (the main idea of your paper).
Create at least two body paragraphs (though there can be more). Each body paragraph should start with at topic sentence that captures the main ideas of the paragraph. The topic sentences SHOULD NOT be a statement about what happens in the play. It should state the ideas the student wishes to discuss in the paragraph. Following the topic sentence students will develop those ideas with explanation that is supported by both the essays and the play.
Use MLA citations in the paper and create a Works Cited page. Use the Owl Purdue website at https://owl.english.purdue.edu to answer your questions on MLA. Turn the final paper in by the due date.
Your paper will be graded on the following:
– Understanding of the concepts (are the concepts of modernism, postmodernism, and tragedy clear?)
– Structure (is there an introduction? a thesis? topic sentences?)
– Development (are the ideas developed with enough explanation and textual support in the form of brief quotes? Are the paragraphs clear and do they hold together?)
– Understanding of the plays (is there enough information about the plays to show real depth of understanding?)
– Use of MLA (is it correct? Is there a Works Cited page that is also in correct format?)
– Grammar and spelling
Title: An overview of Death of a Salesman
Author(s): L. M. Domina
Source: Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Work overview, Critical essay
Bookmark: Bookmark this Document
Arthur Miller’s classic American play, Death of a Salesman, exposes the relationship between gender relationships and dysfunctional family behaviors. In this play, the themes of guilt and innocence and of truth and falsehood are considered through the lens of family roles. Willy Loman, the salesman whose death culminates the play, is an anti-hero, indeed the most classic of anti-heroes. According to an article on the play in Modern World Drama, “Willy is a rounded and psychologically motivated individual” who embodies the stupidity, immorality, self-delusion, and failure of middle-class values. While his self-delusion is his primary flaw, this characteristic is not necessarily tragic since Willy neither fights against it nor attempts to turn it toward good. Dennis Welland in his book, Miller: The Playwright summarized this view, critiquing critics who believe that “Willy Loman’s sense of personal dignity was too precariously based to give him heroic stature” Although he is ordinary and his life in some ways tragic, he also chooses his fate. The article in Modern World Drama confirmed that “considerable disputation has centered on the play’s qualification as genuine tragedy, as opposed to social drama”
Although Willy is dead by the end of the play, that is, not all deaths are truly tragic. The other characters respond to Willy’s situation in the ways they do because they have different levels of access to knowledge about Willy and hence about themselves. An analysis of the relationships among these characters’ insights and their responses will reveal the nature of their flawed family structure.
According to conventional standards, Biff, the older son of Willy and Linda, is the clearest failure. Despite the fact that he had been viewed as a gifted athlete and a boy with a potentially great future, Biff has been unable as an adult to succeed or even persevere at any professional challenge. Before the play opens, he had been living out west, drifting from one low-paying cowboy job to another, experiencing neither financial nor social stability. Back in New York, he is staying with his parents but seems particularly aimless, although he does gesture toward re-establishing some business contacts. Although one could speculate that the Loman family dynamics in general have influenced Biff toward ineffectuality, as the play progresses readers understand that one specific biographical moment (and his willingness to keep this moment secret) provides the key to his puzzling failure.
Near the end of the play, Bernard, Willy’s nephew, asks Willy about this crucial incident. Although Biff had already accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia, he failed math his last semester in high school; his best option was to make the course up during summer school. Before he makes this decision, Biff visits Willy, who is in Boston on business. According to Bernard, Biff “Came back after that month and took his sneakers” Remember those sneakers with ‘University of Virginia’ printed on them? He was so proud of those, wore them every day.
And he took them down in the cellar, and burned them up in the furnace. We had a fist fight. It lasted at least half an hour. Just the two of us, punching each other down the cellar, and crying right through it. I’ve often thought of how strange it was that I knew he’d given up his life.
What happened in Boston, Willy? Willy responds defensively: “What are you trying to do, blame it on me?”
What had happened, of course, as Willy subsequently remembers and as he has probably remembered frequently during the intervening years, was that Biff had discovered Willy in the midst of an extramarital affair. In contrast to Linda, who frequently appears with stockings that need mending, this other woman receives gifts of expensive stockings from Willy. The existence of this woman (and perhaps others like her) is one factor contributing to the financial strain of the Loman family. Biff understands this instantly, and he also understands the depth of Willy’s betrayal of Linda’ and the family as a whole. The trust Biff had given Willy now seems misplaced. Indeed, according to the flashbacks within the play, the young Biff and Happy had nearly idolized Willy, so this betrayal while Biff is yet an adolescent is particularly poignant. As Biff is about to make a momentous life decision, in other words, he is confronted with duplicity from the man he had looked to as a role model. Yet Biff shares this knowledge with no one; instead this secret becomes the controlling element of his own life.
When Biff does attempt to tell the truth, not about Willy’s affair but about his own life, Willy and Happy both resist him. “Let’s hold on to the facts tonight, Pop” Biff says, indicating that “The facts” are slippery in their hands. The outright lies members of the Loman family tell, that is, come more easily because they also exaggerate some facts and minimize others. Although many of their stories may be eventually founded in truth, that truth is so covered with their euphemistic interpretations that it is barely recognizable. The stories the family has told have become nearly indistinguishable from the real circumstances of their lives. Trying to separate reality from fantasy, Biff says, “Facts about my life came back to me. Who was it, Pop? Who ever said I was a salesman with Oliver?” But Willy refuses to acknowledge the substance of the question: “Well, you were.” Biff contradicts him, as determined to acknowledge the truth as Willy is to deny it: ‘No, Dad, I was a shipping clerk. Willy still
declines to accept this fact without the gloss of embellishment: you were practically a salesman.
Later, the conversation among the three men reveals that similar embellishments continue to characterize their lives. We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house! Biff proclaims. When Happy protests that they always told the truth, Biff cites a current family lie: You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You’re one of the two assistants to the assistant, aren’t you? But Happy continues the family habit: Well, I’m practically … This inability to acknowledge the truth affects the family on many levels but most particularly in terms of their intimacy with one another and their intimate relationships with others. Biff hasn’t dated anyone seriously, and Happy is most comfortable with prostitutes. While waiting for Willy at a restaurant, Happy assures Biff that a woman at another table is on call and urges her to join them especially if she can get a friend. Although Happy is clearly a participant in this encounter, he says, Isn’t that a shame now? A beautiful girl like that? That’s why I can’t get married. There’s not a good woman in a thousand. Although Happy and Biff would probably classify their mother as a good woman, they follow their father’s example in seeking out women they won’t marry to gratify their egos and then in treating those women as disposable.
Linda eventually responds to her sons with scathing disrespect in part because of the way they respond to other women, but primarily because she assumes they chose to accompany prostitutes rather than to fulfill their dinner plans with their father. You and your lousy rotten whores! she says. Pick up this stuff, I’m not your maid any more, she continues, and then asserts, You’re a pair of animals! Linda, of course, doesn’t realize that Willy, too, whom she accuses her sons of deserting, is guilty of infidelity. Willy’s emotional stability is threatened, she believes, in part because of the way his sons respond to him. She fails to consider the possibility that Biff’s instability and the immaturity of both Biff and Happy has been affected by Willy’s model.
The most profound secret of the play, however, is of course Willy’s apparent obsession with suicide. He has been involved in several inexplicable automobile accidents, and he has perhaps planned to asphyxiate himself by attaching a rubber tube to their gas water heater. Linda has discovered this tube and has revealed her discovery to her sons, but she forbids them from addressing the subject directly with Willy, for she believes such a confrontation will make him feel ashamed. This secret is hence ironically acknowledged by everyone except the one whose secret it is Willy. When he does finally succeed in killing himself, his act can be interpreted as a culmination of secrets, secrets which are compounded through lies
because they have been created through lies. Welland suggested that Willy’s suicide results from his affair. To argue that in these days of relaxed social morals one minor marital infidelity hardly constitutes grounds for suicide is, paradoxically, to add weight to the theme in the context of this play: for Willy Loman it is enough. His affair is certainly one factor in his decision, but it is a factor because he had been found out by his son, and because others are now starting to question him. So although these secrets include his affair(s) and Biff’s knowledge of this aspect of his life, they also include his failure as a salesman and the subsequent failures of his sons.
Domina, L. M. “An overview of Death of a Salesman.” Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web. 23 Dec. 2011.
Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420002140
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