"The American Dream" disillusionment in the American theatre with special reference to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller


Master's Thesis, 2011
125 Pages, Grade: Master's Degree

Excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION:

CHAPTER ONE : “THE AMERICAN DREAM” AS PROPAGATED BY EARLY WRITERS

CHAPTER TWO: THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE AS PORTRAYED IN THE MODERN AMERICAN THEATRE..
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
- The American Dream by Edward Albee
- The Buried Child by Sam Shepard

CHAPTER THREE: THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM IN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS' THEATRE.
- The Glass Menagerie
- A Streetcar Named Desire

CHAPTER FOUR: ARTHUR MILLER'S THEATRE OF "MISFITS".
- Death of a Salesman .
- A View from the Bridge
- All My Sons

CONCLUSION:

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This dissertation could not have been written without Professor Dr. Zeinab Talaat who has not only served as my supervisor but more of a parent who guides, reforms and applauds his child's petty accomplishments. As my teacher and mentor, she has taught me more than I could ever give her credit for. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to her for her patience, indulgence and uplifting sweet smile. Her attention to details was incomparable. She shared me my wild imagination, crazy ideas and kindly allowed me to learn some of her invaluable knowledge.

I owe my deepest gratitude to my beloved husband Bishoy who stood by my side and supported me till the very end in a number of ways. I can never thank him enough for accompanying me to the States to look for sources and references at different libraries. He gave me the opportunity to do what I like, believed in me, encouraged me, allowed me enough time to work on my dissertation for long years and made me the most delicious cup of coffee to enjoy while I am studying.

Last but not least, I am indebted to my professors who have provided me extensive personal and professional guidance and taught me a great deal about both literature and life in general. Special thanks to Prof. Dr. Azza El Khouly, Prof. Dr. Essam Fattouh, Prof. Dr. Nazek Fahmy and Prof. Dr. Suzan Mashaal who inspired me and provided me with good teaching and sound advice.

Silvia A. Elias

INTRODUCTION

"The miserable have no other medicine. But only hope."

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Dreams are the only universal liars who never lose their reputation for veracity because "hope is the poor man's bread" said Gary Herbert[1] to his people. This is how the American Dream emerged and survived to be a legend that knew its way to people's hearts all over the globe. It is the dream of freedom, equality, opportunity and making fortunes; the golden chance to those who can obtain the green passport. It is what drove millions everywhere to immigrate both legally and illegally to the US in search for a better future for them and their children.

Unfortunately, one cannot make dreams come true unless he/she wakes up because in fact they are always too good to be true. Americans have realized that their dream is slipping away due to their financial crisis, deteriorating economy and growing population. However, they had to keep promoting their merchandize, entertaining their audience to maintain their superiority, leadership and grandeur. For years, American playwrights praised America's alleged welfare offered to the oppressed and the persecuted. Later, dramatists started disillusioning their audience; revealing the ugly face of reality behind the perfect dream.

In an attempt that is unique of its kind, this research traces how the American Dream (the notion that shaped a nation) was depicted in different works of art by various playwrights with special reference to two towering figures of American literature; Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Throughout my project, I was exposed to different points of view of both American and Un-American writers. Some stated their resentment directly in newspaper and television interviews while others made it clear through their characters who depict the suffering average everyday American facing reality by illusion. Modern American theatre is rich with these examples. One can only read between the lines to realize the fallacy of the dream and this has been my favourite part.

CHAPTER ONE THE AMERICAN DREAM” AS PROPAGATED BY EARLY WRITERS

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore – and then run?

(A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes[2] (1902-1967), 1951)

Four centuries ago, immigrants from all over the world fled to the shores of what came to be known later as America. The newcomers craved for something to believe in. They hoped that they would survive in the new land and fulfill their dreams. These immigrants went to America for economic opportunities, religious freedom and justice. They went with the desire to satisfy a dream they aspired and wished to realize in America. It was the American Dream.

The dream is as old as the mind of man. Earlier versions had placed it in Eden, Heaven, Atlantis or Utopia or always in some place of the imagination. Pilgrims may have not actually talked about the American Dream, but they would have understood the idea. So did the founding fathers. So did illiterate immigrants who could not speak English but intuitively expressed rhythms of the Dream with their hands and their hearts. Then the discovery of the new world gave substance to the old myth and suggested the realization of it on actual earth. America became the place where the religious prophecies of Isaiah and the Republican ideals of Plato might be realized.

The idea of "The American Dream" is rooted in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence (1776) which states that "All Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" (Cincotta 21). Though the term appeared only in 1931, the concept in itself is as early as the discovery of the New World if not long before. Throughout the years, "The American Dream" evolved and appeared in different versions according to different people not only to leaders and history makers but to common Americans who lived the dream of a better future for them and their children as well.

Long before its discovery, America had existed as a state of mind and dream for Europeans. Ever since the early days of Western civilization, people had dreamt of the Lost Paradise on Earth. With the first accounts of the New World, it was felt these dreams may come true soon. As the first navigators landed on islands swept by balmy breezes and fertile lands, not on the rocky coast of the Northern part of America, they came back to their people with different stories describing the Earthly Paradise they found; America. The idea that prevailed was the picture of a boundless and generous land, preserved from the evils of modern society of the time. It is significant that Sir Thomas More in 1516 set a precedent followed by countless imitators in locating his ideal state of Utopia in the newly discovered World. The dream of an Earthly Paradise proved that Mankind had not been condemned by some inherent vice to toil, suffering, famine, war, oppression and misery. It is Man’s faulty organization of society not Man’s nature that was responsible for his unhappiness. Suddenly, another chance, perhaps the last one of “an infant world, still quite naked and at the breast” (Spiller 194) emerged that is fit to build a new city for Man the way he has always dreamt.

Pamphlets and leaflets containing enthusiastic descriptions of the advantages offered to the immigrants were printed in English, Dutch, German and French and distributed among the would-be immigrants. Philosophers believed that Liberty in America was much more the result of conditions inherent to the soil than the product of reasoned efforts. That was the conclusion reached in 1774 by the editor of the Gazette de France, the official journal of the Court:

Those of our navigators who have studied this half of the Northern American Continent, maintain that an unborn love of liberty inherent to the soil, the sky, forest, and lakes prevents this still young country from resembling the other parts of the Universe. (Spiller 195)

The fight for independence had been won and a stable government was established. Popular imagination was fond of heroes who seem to embody all the characteristics of a people and an epoch. From the Revolution, emerged two towering figures: George Washington and Benjamin Franklin who enjoyed from the early days of the American Revolution an extraordinary popularity. They were celebrated in epic poems as symbols of what “the American Dream” stood for. Dr. Richard Price, Benjamin Franklin’s old friend, declared praising his friend’s achievements in 1785 “ Perhaps I do not go too far , when I say that, next to the introduction of Christianity among Mankind, the American Revolution may prove the most important step in the progressive course of human improvement.” (Spiller 197)

General as this admiration for America was in the days of the Revolution, it was accompanied in many quarters by reservations. Many Eighteenth and Nineteenth century travelers seemed particularly unimaginative and unromantic. They started recovering from the haunting idea of the Earthly Paradise. In 1818, Reverend John Bristed admitted that the Sun of Europe was setting, that none of the old nations could compete with a country capable of supporting ultimately a population of five hundred millions through its agriculture, commerce, industry, steam navigation, and mechanical inventions. It was not that the soil was extraordinary fertile, America was neither the Garden of Eden, nor the Valley of Tophet[3] but simply an extent of territory which could be reclaimed by inhabitants offering opportunities for the crowded populations of Europe. Obviously, the idea of the ultimate American Dream somehow reached a logical point but not for long and not for everybody. A disciple of German thought called Edgar Quinet wrote in an article published in 1831 tracing the decay and death of the religions of the Old World accompanying the decline of the Old World civilizations “A new idea of God will serge from the lakes of Florida and the peaks of the Andes: in America will begin a new religious era and will be born a new idea of God” (Spiller 214).

Such were some of the dreams to which America was giving rise during the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth as a part of a long tradition. What Alexis de Tocqueville[4] called the "charm of anticipated success" in his classic masterpiece Democracy in America (1835) seemed palpable to him not only in the 1830s but in his understanding of history for two hundred years before that. One of the most telling indications of the American Dream's evolution was a host of new words and phrases that entered the language. It was Tocqueville who invented the word "Individualism" to describe a new sort of secular striving he observed in the United States and was the first to use the term "self-interest rightly understood" as well. (Cullen 69) Another term is "self-made man" coined by Henry Clay[5]. The expression remained in the national lexicon ever since.

The "Self-made man" has always been part of the American Dream and a dominant theme in the American literature. On one hand, the American Dream relates to people’s desire in general for equality, that a person, through ambition and hard work, can achieve success, the same as his/her friends and neighbors have achieved. On the other hand, the American Dream can be very individual as well. The definition of and the ability to achieve the American Dream is often at odds with society's structure of who is deemed deserving and who has to fight for their own dream.

The Acceleration of industrial capitalism in the late nineteenth century, combined with the growing application of the Darwinian theory of " the survival of the fittest" to human affairs, popularized a notion of freedom as the right of the individual entrepreneur to make as much money as he can without interference from any organization. In this view, freedom means freedom to dominate and freedom from regulation. Equality, by contrast, is a base "leveling" instinct that restricts freedom by insisting that everyone , even those who are evidently superior, have to play by the same rules and respect the same limits. However, most "Un-Americans" (if such a term exists) believed in America's equality that is because the American Dream depends on it. Virtually, one needed to believe that there is somewhere on Planet Earth where promises and opportunities extend to everyone; that everyone is eligible if only one believes.

Harry Shaw notes that the “American Dream” term can have no clear and fixed definition since its definition is as individualistic as the heart of each man and woman because "it means whatever its user has in mind a particular time" (Shaw 12). According to Jim Cullen, there is no one American Dream. Instead, there are many American Dreams. In general, it has connotations of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in Thomas Jefferson's phrasing. One expression of this is the materialistic "rags-to-riches" motif of many nineteenth-century novels and plays. Here, a young pauper through hard work, cleverness, and honesty, rises in socio-economic status until he is a powerful and successful man. An example here would be the stories by Horatio Alger[6]. This author grew famous through his allegorical tales which were mostly based on the rags-to-riches model. He illustrated how through hard work and determination, penniless boys could make a lot of money and gain respect in America. He nearly published about one hundred books about such boys however the most famous of his books is the Ragged Dick series (1867). Unlike the Old World, the New World had no social hierarchies, so a man could be whatever he wanted, rather than merely having the option of doing what his father did. As a theme, this idea of the American Dream had become so popular in American literature. Horatio Alger stories were the epitome of the rags to riches ethos; street urchins bursting with courage and shining morality grew up to lead successful lives in intimidating urban metropolises. These stories first appeared in the post-Civil war America where the rise of industrialization was rampant. This changing face of society was sometimes overwhelming to masses of Americans still living a rural existence; industrialization could seem a monster threatening to overtake the comfortable old ways. Alger's little novels struck a chord because readers strongly believed in the possibility that they could live the good life of wealth and social success. One modern scholar has even described his work as a male Cinderella myth noting similarities with the classic fairy tale.

For some it is merely a vision of material prosperity, others focus on more abstract qualities like freedom or self-determination. It can be the dream of setting goals. It can be about social justice the way it came in Dr. Martin Luther King's speech “I have a dream” on 28th August, 1963; "In spite of difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … that all men are created equal" (http://www.usconstitution.net/dream.html). To the black leader, "The American Dream" concept is that of equality regardless of race, colour and origin.

"The American Dream" has never been defined exactly, and probably never can be. It is both too various and too vague. However, American Literature has been defined more exactly and has been outlined in courses and embodied in anthologies. Most average readers agree that it is different from English literature. "American Literature has differed from English because of the constant and omnipresent influence of the American Dream upon it." (Carpenter 3) Traditionally, American literature has been described under such categories as "romantic", " realistic", "transcendental" and " genteel" . Considering its relation to the dream, it falls into new patterns: the old words persist, but in new relations.

American literature is peppered with authors exploring what the American dream means, where it succeeds and where it falters. At the beginning, most works of art took an optimistic view of the American Dream and its successes, later, other works took their way highlighting its defects and presenting those who failed to achieve the aspired happiness. One of the early works is The New Colossus.

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she

With silent lips. 'Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

(The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus(1849-1887), 1883)

The New Colossus appears on an engraved bronze plaque at the base of The Statue of Liberty. These lines portray immigrants' emotions upon seeing the Statue of Liberty, though the poem itself was written twenty years before the arrival of the statue ; they symbolize the hopes and dreams that can come true in a new, democratic land behind the golden doors of America. The poem describes a woman, "Mother of Exiles," petitioning other lands to give her (meaning the United States) their unwanted, their "tired," their "homeless, tempest-tossed" people. By enthusiastically welcoming other nations' outcasts and wanderers, the poem gives the Statue of Liberty special symbolism for new immigrants. "Colossus" alludes to the Colossus of Rhodes, a massive statue built in antiquity to thank Helios, the sun god, for protecting Rhodes from invaders. By calling her poem "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus points out that the American statue is one welcoming foreigners rather than fighting them off. Lazarus was descended from immigrants with roots in both Spain and Eastern Europe, and she felt a deep connection to the plight of immigrants aspiring justice in her days. Yet, ironically Lazarus herself was not recognized as a respectable poet in America because of her Jewish background.

In Gone With the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell[7] who won the Pulitzer Prize for the book in 1937 , its heroine Scarlett is in America where she meets the man whom she is destined to marry. She was constantly looking for the man who can pay her debts, taxes and releases her from poverty. When war breaks out and Atlanta burns, Scarlett returns to the safety of Tara. And even though it is ravished by war, Scarlett vows in a poignant scene, that she will rebuild and restore the land, and never go hungry again. It is no mistake that our heroine first appears wearing green. Green was the color chosen for the first universal money used in America. Green represents wealth, newness and land. Even Scarlett's eyes are green, indicating that she has her eyes set on accumulating wealth. When the taxes are due on Tara, and Scarlett needs Rhett to come to her rescue, she uses Green curtains, obviously, with a touch of gold, indicative of the amount of gold all those greenbacks backed. Literally, Scarlett uses Rhett's imprisonment as an opportunity to run towards the man who is her destiny in order to restore Tara to a land of plenty. The soil of Tara is depicted as red clay. Red is the color of fertility, of blood, of lost innocence. It is the color of victory, from British soldiers' uniforms, to the stripes on the American flag. When the land of Tara is red and fertile, so too is its mistress. When the soil is blackened and its nutrients lost, Scarlett is wrapped in a shroud of black, blackballed by her community and rejected by her husband. Even when she is caught in a moment of impropriety with a married man, Scarlett dons a red dress, a symbol of her harlot actions, according to her husband, but Scarlett in a surprising move, is able to escape public scrutiny when she is embraced rather than cast out by Melanie Wilkes. As the title boasts, Scarlett's soul mate is "Gone With the Wind", having left her in the mist, Scarlett digs her heels into the land of Tara, claiming her stake, her place in this world, and reassures us all that tomorrow is another day, and another opportunity to live the American Dream and enjoy its riches.

For many, wealth was not the only facet of the American dream; another very important aspect was freedom. The freedom to be who you want to be, and live your own life. One of the most iconic images of freedom comes from Mark Twain's The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1884), when young Huck and his runaway slave friend Jim abscond on a raft down the Mississippi river. Huckleberry Finn is a boy who thinks for himself, and does the things he feels are right. He is troubled by the thought that in aiding Jim's escape he has taken 'Miss Watson's property', but ultimately he makes his decisions by following his heart. There is an innocent freedom which embodies the American dream. Another truly famous work of art that explores justice and freedom is the "Amazing Grace"

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind but now I see.

John Newton (1725-1807)

"Amazing Grace" is a Christian hymn written by English poet and clergyman John Newton (1725–1807), published in 1779. With a message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of the sins people commit and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God, the "Amazing Grace" is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world. In the United States, in specific, the "Amazing Grace" was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening[8] in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than twenty melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named "New Britain" -which is America- to which it is most frequently sung today.

The American Dream, dating back to the 16th century, consisted of three main ideas. These were that America was the land of plenty, the land of opportunity and the land of destiny. Central to all these ideas is the reference to the word "land". Originally, the Dream was used as a marketing tool to convince immigrants to set sail and step onto the shores of this new world. In return, they were promised land that would belong only to them. With hard work, they were assured, they could turn their piece of property into something profitable, and accumulate more wealth than they could imagine.

The Dream is an idea or notion that has been a far-fetched hope since the days of immigrants rushing into “The land of opportunity” as it has been called. For critics like Martin Esslin[9], the American Dream is that of good life. Jane Bonin shares Esslin's Dream of growth, of a better and happy life, and thus views America as the "New Eden; the land of hope and opportunity" (qtd. in Anderson 4). However, the term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. It seems odd that Adams was talked out of his wish to call his most popular book "The American Dream" instead of the The Epic of America. He was told no one will pay three dollars for a book about a dream. While it is not clear he actually coined the term or appropriated it from someone else, his publisher's reluctance to use it suggests it was not in widespread elsewhere. In any event, Adams invoked it over thirty times in his book and the phrase rapidly entered common parlance as a byword for what he thought his country was all about, not only in the United States but in the rest of the World. He states that

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper-classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motorcars and high wages merely but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman should be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position ( Adams 415)

Many critics have argued that this dream is in many ways a myth in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, given America's frequent discriminatory treatment of immigrants and its continuing economic trends in which an ever smaller number of wealthy people accrue an ever larger percentage of material wealth with each generation. Other events, such as the loss of the American frontier, segregation and exclusion of minorities, McCarthyism[10] in the 1950s, unpopular wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, war at Iraq and gradual ecological devastation over the last hundred years, together have inspired literary works that criticize or question the American Dream often seeing it as ultimately selfish and destructive idea on one or more levels. Examples of these writings would be Miller's Death of A Salesman and All My Sons, Ellison's Invisible Man, and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

The objective of this dissertation is to follow the decline of the American Dream into a nightmare that reaches its climax in the works of Miller, Williams, Albee, Hansberry and Shepard. In order to arrive at an interpretation of the American Dream in the twentieth century, it is essential to explore the changing nature of the concept, which dates back to the early days of theatrical performances in the United States.

One cannot ignore the role of the theatre reflecting the changing nature of concerns, in America and beyond, regarding the integrity of the American Dream. The following chapter explores how the dream turned out to be a nightmare. Three major playwrights; Lorraine Hansberry, Edward Albee and Sam Shepard picture, in their carefully chosen plays, present a number of American families who are not different from most American families nowadays. The following plays reveal people's disappointment when it comes to their prosperous supposed-to-be lives in America. All three plays share the theme of family corruption since family members find relief in denying realty, and therefore denying their true identity.

CHAPTER TWO THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE AS PORTRAYED IN THE MODERN AMERICAN THEATRE

American playwrights such as O‘Neill[11], Miller, Williams, Hansberry, Albee, Shepard and others were very much concerned with the condition of the American family and therefore the theme of family is common among all of them and is recurrent in their work. The dilemma of family is one common denominator in American drama. The tricky aspect of domestic drama is demanding much of the family, making it the focus of dreams of harmony and the chief obstacle to their realization. The twentieth-century plays chosen for analysis are all domestic plays since, according to Terry H. Anderson, family plays have "A common attitude toward the American dream" ( Anderson 1). Since domestic plays reveal characteristics and cultural aspects that are distinctly American, playwrights share an interest in presenting their characters in filial settings with the struggles and passions inherent in such a milieu. Through their domestic plays, writers present their personal vision of the American Dream and its destiny. Furthermore, their works give a revealing picture of the American way of life, American values and American beliefs. Thus, their works are suitable grounds on which one bases his/her argument concerning what the American Dream has ended up to.

This chapter discusses a number of plays which reveal people's disappointment when it comes to their prosperous supposed-to-be lives in America. From a materialistic view of the American dream, all characters in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959 ), for example, have unfulfilled dreams. These dreams mostly involve money. Although the Younger family seems alienated from white middle-class culture, they have the same materialistic dreams as the rest of American society. In the 1950s, the stereotypical American dream was to have a house with a yard, a big car, and a happy family. The Youngers also seem to want to live this dream, though their struggle to attain any semblance of it is dramatically different from the struggle a similar suburban family might encounter, because the Youngers are not a stereotypical middle-class family. Rather, they live in a world in which being middle class is also a dream.

Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago on May 19th , 1930, the youngest of four children. Her parents were well-educated successful black citizens who publicly fought discrimination against black people. When Hansberry was a child, she and her family lived in a black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. During this era, segregation[12] was still legal and widespread throughout the South. Northern states, including Hansberry’s own Illinois[13] but they were generally self-segregated along racial and economic lines. Chicago was a striking example of a city carved into strictly divided black and white neighborhoods. Hansberry’s family became one of the first to move into a white neighborhood, but Hansberry still attended a segregated public school for blacks. When neighbors struck at them with threats of violence and legal action, the Hansberrys defended themselves. Hansberry’s father successfully brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

At times, her writings—including A Raisin in the Sun — are recognizably autobiographical. She was one of the first playwrights to create realistic portraits of African-American life. Arguably, it can be the first play to portray black characters, themes, and conflicts in a natural and realistic manner. A Raisin in the Sun received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Hansberry was the youngest playwright, the fifth woman, and the only black writer at that point to win the award. She used her new fame to help bring attention to the American civil rights movement as well as African struggles for independence from colonialism. A Raisin in the Sun, first performed as the conservative 1950s slid into the radical sixties, explores both of these vital issues

A Raisin in the Sun was a revolutionary work for its time. Hansberry creates in the Younger family one of the first honest depictions of a black family on the American stage, in an age when predominantly black audiences simply did not exist. Before this play, African-American roles, usually small and shallow, largely employed ethnic stereotypes. Hansberry, however, shows an entire black family in a realistic light, one that is unflattering and far from being comedy. She uses black vernacular throughout the play and broaches important issues and conflicts, such as poverty, discrimination, and the construction of African-American racial identity.

A Raisin in the Sun explores not only the tension between white and black societies but also the strain within the black community over how to react to an oppressive white community. All of this idealism about race and gender relations boils down to a larger, timeless point; that dreams are crucial. In fact, Hansberry’s play focuses primarily on dreams driving and motivating their main characters. These dreams function in positive ways, by lifting their minds from their hard work and tough lifestyle, and in negative ways, by creating in them even more dissatisfaction with their present situations. For the most part, however, the negative ways come from placing emphasis on materialistic goals rather than on familial pride and happiness.

Lorraine Hansberry took the title of A Raisin in the Sun from a line in Langston Hughes’s famous 1951 poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.” Hughes was a prominent black poet during the 1920s, during which black artists of all kinds—musicians, poets and writers—gave innovative voices to their personal and cultural experiences. In the poem, Hughes asks whether a “dream deferred”—a dream put on hold—withers up “like a raisin in the sun.” His lines confront the racist and dehumanizing attitude prevalent in American society before the civil rights movement of the 1960s that black desires and ambitions were, at best, unimportant and should be ignored, and at worst, should be forcibly resisted. His closing rhetorical question—“Or does [a dream deferred] explode?”—is incendiary, a bold statement that the suppression of black dreams might result in an eruption. It implicitly places the blame for this possible eruption on the oppressive society that forces the dream to be deferred. Hansberry’s reference to Hughes’ poem in her play’s title highlights the importance of dreams in A Raisin in the Sun and the struggle that her characters face to realize their individual dreams, a struggle inextricably tied to the more fundamental black dream of equality in America.

A Raisin in the Sun is essentially about dreams, as the main characters struggle to deal with the oppressive circumstances that rule their lives. The title of the play is taken after Langston Hughes' poem about forgotten, deferred or put off dreams. He wonders whether those dreams shrivel up “like a raisin in the sun.” Every member of the Younger family has a separate, individual dream; Beneatha wants to become a doctor, for example, and Walter wants to have money so that he can afford things for his family. The Youngers struggle to attain these dreams throughout the play, and much of their happiness and depression is directly related to their attainment of, or failure to attain, these dreams. By the end of the play, they learn that the dream of a house is the most important dream because it unites the family.

Mama’s down payment on a house reveals her belief that to be a happy family the Youngers need to own space and property. Her dream is a perfect example of the quintessential American dream. She believes, as many did in the post World War II consumer culture, that to some degree at least, ownership can provide happiness. Therefore, although she means only to find the best for her family, she also succumbs to the powerful materialism that drives the desires of the society around her. Still, her desire is somewhat radical, because African-Americans were largely left out of depictions of the American dream during this period. Only white families populated suburban television programs and magazine advertisements. Therefore, Hansberry performs a radical act in claiming the general American dream for African-Americans.

Walter yells, “That money is made out of my father's flesh,” (Hansberry 128) reflecting his belief that money is the lifeblood of human existence. None of the Youngers feels pity for Walter, and it seems that none of their dreams will come true. Ruth and Beneatha reach a new low of depression and pessimism. Mama’s sudden sad realization that her husband’s life boils down to a stack of paper bills compels her to turn on Walter as if he had killed his father himself. This anger is uncommon for Mama, and it is significant because it demonstrates that her compassion is not born of passivity. She cares too much for the memory of her husband and for their mutual dream of buying a home. Beneatha questions her choice of becoming a doctor. She no longer believes that she can help people. Instead of feeling idealistic about demanding equality for African-Americans and freeing Africans from the French and English colonizers, she now broods about basic human misery. Never-ending human misery demoralizes her, and she no longer sees a reason to fight against it. Asagai tells Beneatha about his dream to leave America and return to Africa. He gets her excited about reform again and asks her to go home with him. Despite everybody's despair, they continue to dream just like all Americans.

One very significant quotation in the play in Act II, scene ii which Walter delivers to his son Travis as he tucks him in bed before he sleeps and dreams is You wouldn’t understand yet, son, but your daddy’s gonna make a transaction . . . a business transaction that’s going to change our lives . . . That’s how come one day when you ‘bout seventeen years old I’ll come home . . . I’ll pull the car up on the driveway . . . just a plain black Chrysler, I think, with white walls—no—black tires . . . the gardener will be clipping away at the hedges and he’ll say, “Good evening, Mr. Younger.” And I’ll say, “Hello, Jefferson, how are you this evening?” And I’ll go inside and Ruth will come downstairs and meet me at the door and we’ll kiss each other and she’ll take my arm and we’ll go up to your room to see you sitting on the floor with the catalogues of all the great schools in America around you. . . . All the great schools in the world! And—and I’ll say, all right son—it’s your seventeenth birthday, what is it you’ve decided? . . . Just tell me, what it is you want to be—and you’ll be it. . . . Whatever you want to be—Yessir! You just name it, son . . . and I hand you the world! (Hansberry 109)

Walter seems to be rehashing conversations he might have heard while he was working as a chauffeur to rich people. He envisions having a gardener. Walter wants to live a life that he has seen others enjoy and be like the people he has served. He explains his dream of the future in detail, as if it were being presented before his eyes. He paints the future vividly, even describing what sort of tires his car will have and how busy his day will be with important matters. He never speaks in the conditional mood, which entails words such as “if” and “would” and suggests uncertainty, but in the future tense, using the word “will” throughout. This use of the future tense makes his dream appear to be something that will inevitably come true but all in vain.

Blair Vaughn Anderson's The Demythicization of the American Dream: A Critical Analysis of the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Plays from 1965 to 1985 analyzes Pulitzer Prize-winning plays with the aim of finding shared attitudes towards the American Dream. Anderson's study includes a large number of plays such as plays by Albee and Shepard. Anderson concludes that the Pulitzer Prize-winning writers that he analyzes are united in demythologizing the American Dream and proving its failure. Anderson discusses plays like The American Dream and Buried Child as family plays representing the collapse of the Dream.

As noted in its preface, The American Dream (1960) by Edward Albee is an allegory of the "American Scene" gone awry, a scene typified here by a sadistic Mommy, an emasculated Daddy, and an embittered Grandma. The play imagines what is left of the American Dream in their shared household. Albee's allegory of the American Dream is certainly strange. "The American Dream" is actually personified by an allegorical character who is often referred to as the American Dream.

The Young Man who personifies The American Dream is a clean-cut, Midwestern beauty and a "type" as self-described. Though physically perfect, he remains incomplete, having lost all feeling and desire in the murder of an identical twin from whom he was separated as a child. This twin—Mommy and Daddy's first adopted son—stands against his brother as a consummate deformity. He lacks a head, spine, guts and feet of flesh. Moreover, he suffers a progressive disfigurement under Mommy's sadistic tortures, punishments specifically directed at each of his bodily excesses and infantile desires.

Edward Albee was born on March 12th , 1928, in Washington, DC. Albee battled with his stepmother throughout his childhood. She wanted to make him a respectable member of high society, while he wanted to keep company with artists, intellectuals, and homosexuals. Albee hated school. He left college at the age of twenty and moved to New York to pursue his writing career. There he met Thornton Wilder[14], who encouraged the poet and prose writer to begin writing for the stage. He held a variety of odd jobs including office boy, record salesman, and messenger for Western Union before finally hitting it big with his 1959 play, The Zoo Story. Originally produced in Berlin where it shared the bill with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, The Zoo Story told the story of a drifter who acts out his own murder with the unwitting aid of an upper-middle-class editor. Along with other early works such as The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960), The Zoo Story effectively gave birth to American absurdist drama. Albee was hailed as the leader of a new theatrical movement and labeled as the successor to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. Although he suffered through a decade of plays that refused to yield to a commercial hit in the 1980's, Albee experienced a stunning success with Three Tall Women (1994) which won him his third Pulitzer Prize as well as Best Play awards from the New York Drama Critics Circle and Outer Critics Circle. He had previously won Pulitzers for A Delicate Balance (1966) and Seascape (1975).

In addition to writing, Albee produced a number of plays and lectured at schools throughout the country. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1996. A compilation of his essays and personal anecdotes, Stretching My Mind, was published in 2005. That year Albee also received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

In the history of drama, Albee has been canonized as the primary American practitioner of what critic Martin Esslin has termed the "Theatre of the Absurd". Esslin defined the "Theatre of the Absurd" as that which … strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought." (Esslin 24 ). The Theatre of the Absurd is a designation for particular plays written by a number of primarily European playwrights in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as well as to the style of theatre which has evolved from their work. Encompassing the works of playwrights as disparate and divergent as Beckett[15], Ionesco[16] and Pinter[17], the term "absurd" refers to a dramatic movement, strongly influenced by Existentialism[18]. Absurdist plays dispense with conventional notions of character, plot, action, and setting in favor of deliberately unrealistic methods. Plays of the absurdist movement examine the absurdity of the human condition and expose the experiences of alienation, insanity and despair inherent in modernity. According to Esslin, Albee's The American Dream (1960) marks the beginning of American absurdist drama. Though the work was generally well-received, a number of critics attacked the play for its immorality, Nihilism[19] and defeatism. Their attacks implicitly suggested that a good play must be morally uplifting, inspiring, and redemptive. Albee responded passionately to his critics in a preface to the play, defending The American Dream as an examination of the American Scene.

The American Dream is all about faking appearances that may hide ugly entities or at least hiding the unknown. "Deceit" urges people to achieve satisfaction by refusing, denying and even not trying to know. The play is full of examples of this notion of the American Dream through different allegories but direct reference to the meaning is obvious in its title.

Deceitful appearances are seen when Mommy recounts her purchase of a hat the day before. She was quite happy with her new beige hat until meeting the chairwoman of her woman's club, a dreadful woman who insisted her hat was wheat. Mommy returned to the store and made a scene until given a new beige hat, which looked wheat in the store but became beige outside. Daddy remarks that it was probably the same hat and Mommy confirms his guess with a laugh. In any case, she got satisfaction (the ultimate goal) through deceit.

Another incident is when Mommy recalls that Grandma has always wrapped boxes nicely. When she was a child, left poor with the death of Grandpa, Grandma used to wrap her a lunchbox every day for school. The other children would withdraw their chicken legs and chocolate cakes from their poorly wrapped boxes, and Mommy would not have the heart to rip into hers. Nice wrapping is tempting which makes it hard to rip and reveal what is inside. Daddy guesses that it was because her box was empty. Mommy protests, saying that Grandma always filled it the night before with her own un-eaten dinner. Mommy eats all the other children's food at school because they thought her box was empty. Since that made them superior to her, they were quite generous. Boxes cover the stage most of the play. Cluttering the stage, Grandma's boxes number among its more enigmatic objects. For much of the play, Albee toys with the spectator's desire to discover the contents of the boxes. Mommy and Daddy continually compliment the boxes' wrapping but do not consider their interior. When Grandma almost reveals her boxes' purpose, however, Mommy silences her. Ultimately the audience learns that the boxes contain the haphazard list of objects—the enema bottles, the blind Pekinese, and so on—that Grandma has accumulated over the course of her life. In a play where an outwardly perfect Young Man becomes the son who provides satisfaction, it is easy to consider Mommy and Daddy's patronizing emphasis on the boxes' wrapping as indicative of their satisfaction with appearances.

[...]


[1] Gary Richard Herbert is the current governor of the U.S. state of Utah.

[2] James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the new literary art form jazz poetry. Hughes is best-known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance.

[3] believed to be a location in Jerusalem, in the Valley of Hinnom, where the Canaanites sacrificed children to the god Moloch by burning them alive. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet ("roasting place") by the Canaanites. Tophet became a synonym for hell.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859) was a French political thinker and historian best known for his Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In both of these works, he explored the effects of the rising equality of social conditions on the individual and the state in western societies. Democracy in America (1835), his major work, published after his travels in the United States, is today considered an early work of sociology and political science.

[5] Henry Clay, Sr. (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852), was a 19th-century American planter, statesman and orator who represented Kentucky in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, where he served as Speaker. He also served as Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829.

[6] Horatio Alger, Jr. (January 13, 1832 – July 18, 1899) was a prolific 19th-century American author, best known for his many formulaic juvenile novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of respectable middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty.

[7] Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell is the pen name of Peggy Marsh (November 8, 1900 – August 16, 1949). She was an American author, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for her epic novel Gone with the Wind, her only major publication. This novel is one of the most popular books of all time, selling more than 30 million copies. The film adaptation of it, released in 1939, became the highest-grossing film in the history of Hollywood, and it received ten Academy Awards.

[8] The Second Great Awakening was a Christian religious revival movement during the early 19th century in the United States, which expressed Arminian theology by which every person could be saved through revivals. It enrolled millions of new members, and led to the formation of new denominations. Many converts believed that the Awakening heralded a new millennial age. The Second Great Awakening stimulated the establishment of many reform movements designed to remedy the evils of society before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

[9] Martin Julius Esslin (6 June 1918 – 24 February 2002) was a Hungarian-born English producer and playwright dramatist, journalist, translator, critic, academic scholar and professor of drama best known for coining the term "Theatre of the Absurd" in his work of that name (1961).

[10] McCarthyism is the political action of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. The term specifically describes activities associated with the period in the United States known as the Second Red Scare, lasting roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s and characterized by heightened fears of communist influence on American institutions. Originally coined to criticize the anti-communist pursuits of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, "McCarthyism" soon took on a broader meaning, describing the excesses of similar efforts. The term is also now used more generally to describe reckless unsubstantiated accusations.

[11] Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (16 October 1888 – 27 November 1953) was an American playwright, and Nobel laureate in Literature. His poetically titled plays were among the first to introduce into American drama techniques of realism earlier associated with Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg. His plays were among the first to include speeches in American vernacular and involve characters on the fringes of society, where they struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations, but ultimately slide into disillusionment and despair.

[12] The enforced separation of whites and blacks

[13] had no official policy of segregation at that time

[14] Thornton Niven Wilder (1897-1975) is an American playwright and novelist. He received three Pulitzer Prizes, one for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and two for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and a National Book Award for his novel The Eighth Day.

[15] Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906 – 1989) is an Irish avant-garde writer, dramatist and poet, writing in English and French. Beckett is considered one of the last modernists; as an inspiration to many later writers, he is sometimes considered one of the first postmodernists. He is also considered one of the key writers of the "Theatre of the Absurd." He is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 for his writings.

[16] Eugene Ionesco (1909 -1994) is a Romanian and French playwright and dramatist, one of the foremost playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd. Beyond ridiculing the most banal situations, Ionesco's plays depict in a tangible way the solitude and insignificance of human existence.

[17] Harold Pinter (1930 – 2008) is an English playwright, screenwriter, actor, theatre director, political activist and poet. He was among the most influential British playwrights of modern times. In 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His best-known plays include The Birthday Party (1957), The Caretaker (1959), The Homecoming (1964), and Betrayal (1978), each of which he adapted to film. His screenplay adaptations of others' works include The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1970), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) and The Trial (1993).

[18] Existentialism is a term applied to the work of a number of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, generally held that the focus of philosophical thought should be to deal with the conditions of existence of the individual person and their emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts. The early 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, posthumously regarded as the father of existentialism maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his own life meaning and living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despair, absurdity, alienation, and boredom. Subsequent existential philosophers retain the emphasis on the individual, but differ, in varying degrees, on how one achieves and what constitutes a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome, and what external and internal factors are involved, including the potential consequences of the existence or non-existence of God.

[19] Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

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Details

Title
"The American Dream" disillusionment in the American theatre with special reference to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller
College
University of Alexandria  (Faculty of Arts (English Dept.))
Grade
Master's Degree
Author
Year
2011
Pages
125
Catalog Number
V283182
ISBN (eBook)
9783656825005
ISBN (Book)
9783656824992
File size
833 KB
Language
English
Notes
General Grade "Excellent" worthy to be published for the originality of the topic and its distinguished style
Tags
america, american dream, tennessee, arthur, miller, salesman, glass, disillusionment, american theatre, drama
Quote paper
Dr. Silvia Elias (Author), 2011, "The American Dream" disillusionment in the American theatre with special reference to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/283182

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