Here are some thoughts by one of our founders.
Theatre and Destruction of Identity: Certain Major American Post-World War II Plays Share a Theme
This week, in taking a break from my play, I’d like to share some reflections, in the form of this essay. -–Bill Goodman, April 26, 2013
For some years, I’ve noticed one thing about American theatre in the latter 1940’s. It seems to me that the most important plays to be introduced at that time were A Streetcar Named Desire, The Iceman Cometh, and Death of a Salesman—and even if these three plays weren’t the most prominent of their time, they were certainly major works that are now highly recognized. All three, one way or another, focus on a loss of identity that devastates one or more characters.
The Iceman Cometh perhaps most obviously displays this theme. Interestingly, virtually all onstage characters (the only possible exceptions are the very minor characters of the police who come in at the end, who are hardly known) indulge in self-delusion about their past, present, or future. Two important offstage characters, also—Rosa Parritt and Evelyn Hickman—are also established as having “pipe dreams” that define their lives. Because the many characters are of both sexes, at least four nationalities, ages ranging from around 18 to 60, various political persuasions, and two races, one message seems clear: all humans endure by means of lying to themselves, as if our true states were unbearable. In this play, the illusions need not be particularly grand; for example, Harry Hope’s most cherished intention for the future is only to take a walk around the neighborhood to see his old friends and relatives. Ordinary as the illusions may be, however, they are central to each character, and loss of faith in these cherished beliefs is devastating.
Death of a Salesman is similar in that self-deception defines at least two characters—Willy and his younger son Happy—both like to think of themselves as fabulously successful in business when they aren’t. In this world, too, disillusionment is utterly unbearable; once Willy is dismissed from his job and his supposedly talented son Biff refuses to succeed in his father’s image, Willy’s reaction is suicide—ostensibly so that Biff can take the insurance money as capital and make it big in business—so that even at the final moment of life, the phony dream persists on some level. Yet it’s hard to believe that Willy fully believes in this supposed financial move—it seems much more plausible that he exits the world because he can’t stand himself as an ordinary man.
But in this world of Salesman, unlike the world of Iceman, self-deception isn’t universal. In fact, three fairly prominent characters (Linda, Bernard, and Charley) manage to live without imaginary self-aggrandizement; Linda even says, “Why must everybody conquer the world?”
We now turn to A Streetcar Named Desire, in which self-aggrandizement and disillusionment characterize only one person, Blanche, whose status as a respected, cultured aristocrat is destroyed. Neither Stella nor Stanley—nor anyone else besides Blanche—depends on illusion to exist. In fact, even Blanche becomes unrealistic about her self only late in the play, as her situation becomes hopeless. After making up a story about millionaire Shep Huntleigh inviting her to join him, she comes to believe it.
The three plays show significant differences in portraying the consequences of disillusionment. In Iceman, nearly all characters survive by returning to their illusions, though one—Hickey—is too smart to fall for his pipe dream anymore, and is willing to die, even prefers to do so. Larry is the only one capable of bearing disappointing self-knowledge; he becomes miserable and hopeless, but survives. O’Neill thus implies that illusions regarding one’s self are necessary.
Blanche, also, ultimately finds life bearable only with the help of illusions; the doctor from the mental hospital, sent to take her there, becomes a kindly gentleman unexpectedly helping her in some vague way.
Salesman is quite different because, even though Willy can’t survive his dissolution, Biff does, and is even better off for it. After rejecting the family myth of superiority and discarding the family creed that success in the business world is all-important, he becomes free to do as he pleases and to have a fulfilled life. Miller, then, recognizes the possibility of self-knowledge as a positive force.
One might well ask why these three plays, all concerned with loss of identity and self-delusion, all emerging in the post-war forties, became so important. A case can be made that national identity, at that time and in the following decades, was in turmoil. With the heroic war over, many veterans had difficulty re-adjusting. The prosperity of the fifties was accompanied by great conformity, but even at that time, considerable cynicism and subtle protest existed—for example, Patterns, a 1955 television drama and 1956 theatrical motion picture, written by Rod Serling, portrayed the cruelty of business management—and was a success. At the same time, Mad magazine continuously and blatantly ridiculed certain American values. Of course, the sixties brought more obvious questioning of traditional values and mistrust of government, business, and the older generations. And much cynicism is evident in early seventies culture. These disconcerting conflicts involving social, governmental, and cultural values may be described as national identity crises and may have made plays about identity crisis of great interest. Another conclusion we can make is that the subject of identity crisis can build a powerful drama; to cite another example from another age, The Tragedy of King Lear, by Shakespeare, is also about loss of identity.