Loss of American Dream in Context: Death of a Salesman and Paradise Lost
by Luciana B. Veit
In this paper I seek to identify and evaluate the ways the loss of the American dream is questioned in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost. The two first sections of the portfolio discuss the themes and the way both writers chose to express themselves in theatrical form and style. To conclude I will be aiming to draw comparisons between Miller and Odets and attempt to find similarities between them.
Since the Declaration of Independence of the United States asserts that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a birth right, what happens to the lives of those who have their dreams deferred, their happiness denied?
Influences on Arthur Miller’s Work
Arthur Miller was born in New York in 1915 and his family, Jewish immigrants from Austria, “were fairly well-off”, according to Bigsby, at least until the Big Crash of 1929 when his father, who owned a garment factory, lost everything. Miller had his ‘paradise lost’ and was forced to face reality and work different jobs to pay for his studies. As Miller insisted, the Depression “was only incidentally a matter of money. Rather it was a moral catastrophe.” He realized that financial crisis lead people to change behaviour.
Death of a Salesman was written in 1949 when, according to Berkowitz, the Republic of Ireland was founded, Communist Revolution took place in China and NATO Treaty was signed. It was also post WWII time and America was finally recovering from the Crash of 1929, despite of the fear of relapse and the threat that communist Soviet Union posed, the so-called ‘Red Scare’.
If Bigsby is correct, the time depicted in Death of a Salesman was a “period of conspicuous consumption” what can be mirrored in the huge value that the Lomans placed on goods. Having a salesman as a main character, Miller could mirror the capitalist values of society.
Not only his family or the era influenced Miller. In an interview Miller stated: “Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who is never influenced is never of any use.” Ibsen, Odets and Williams had all a share of impact upon Miller. In relation to Death of a Salesman, Miller stated without shame:
With A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams had printed a license to speak at full throat, and it helped strengthen me as I turned to Willy Loman…I had known all along that this play could not be encompassed by conventional realism, and for one integral reason: in Willy, the past was as alive as what was happening at the moment.
Themes within Death of a Salesman
Willy Loman tricked himself into believing that might be some truth in the dream, but when reality stroke – “WILLY: … I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance…” – he decided to work around his dream because otherwise the feeling that his whole life was wasted would have been unbearable.
He believed in the dream so badly, that the sold the idea of it during his whole life, his recipe of success: Be attractive and well liked, have good connections and work hard. Willy struggled to find someone to blame because despite his recipe, he was not succeeding, neither was his son.
According to Bigsby, “Death of a Salesman placed the whole questions of American values at the centre of his attention.” In Loman’s understanding, happiness was measured only by money and popularity and less by human values and this mirrors what Miller once said:
For we believe that a good thing, be it art or toothpaste, proves its goodness by its public acceptance.
A blend of his interpretation of the American dream, pride (and shame at the same time) were to blame for Willy’s downfall, but not Capitalism alone, since Charley is a good example that a system alone cannot break a man. In Introduction to the Collected Plays Miller explains:
The most decent man in Death of a Salesman is a capitalist (Charley) whose aims are not different from Willy Loman’s. The great difference between them is that Charley is not a fanatic.
When Willy says, “WILLY: Oh, Ben, how do we get back to all the great times?”, he is searching for the moment when things started going wrong. Nostalgia, the image of successful Ben and the hope on Biff is what makes Willy keep on living, but when Biff breaks free from his chains, he collapses. After all, this play is not only about the loss of the American dream, but also about a relationship between father and son.
Because of his sons’ athletic good looks and Biff’s sportive achievements Willy had always had high hopes for them, especially Biff. Even the mother believed the same: “LINDA: Biff, his life is in your hands!” With such great expectations of him, Biff could not handle the stress, especially after he discovered that Willy was cheating on his mother. After years of little jobs here and there, plus a failed business proposition to an old acquaintance (Oliver), he finally understands that Willy always over-rated him: “BIFF: I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody.” Billy failed to understand that Willy did what he did because he believed in what he was ‘selling’ and because he truly loved him and wanted him to achieve happiness – a natural thing for a father.
When Biff wants to leave for good, Willy refuses to shake his hand because he is hurt that his son let go of him, of his ideals, of the life he had always imaged for him. Willy refused to accept that there were a variety of American dreams. Cullen outlines: “The problem with pursuing dreams … is that not everyone sees them in quite the same ways.” For Willy popularity and money were synonymous with happiness, but for Biff it was the great outdoors, masculine manual labour plus spiritual liberation.
The moral dilemma in the play is that a simple man, Willy, is so desperate to leave a mark, to escape from his futile existence, that he sees in his death the means for finally achieving the American dream and proving his love to his family. That is why is he is joyful when approaching his end, because he will finally achieve what he had always dreamed of: financial security for the Lomans and even a certain level of heroism. Because of his death the family was free.
Playwright’s Technique In Context
In order to highlight the dream mood within a realistic world Miller worked with two styles in the play: Realism and Expressionism. Realism was used to make the audience see themselves in a believable world. Miller once stated: “Until the audience can identify itself with the people and the situations presented on the stage, it cannot be convinced of anything at all”, so Realism was a necessity to get audiences where Miller wanted them to go. Expressionism, however, was applied to enable the dream mood when the past is embedded in the present, making time co-exist. Blending both styles switches moods, like being awake and sleepy.
Miller used music, light and other stage-tricks (like tree-leaves appearing and disappearing, plus imaginary walls) to help create an atmosphere and reinforce Expressionism. In fact, music is a very strong element in the play, not only setting the mood and introducing characters and situations (Ben or the Laughing Woman), but sometimes being the language itself. The following stage direction is an excellent example:
Suddenly music, faint and high, stops him. It rises in intensity, almost to an unbearable scream… As the car speeds off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound, which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello string.
Music here acts like a voice in Willy’s head driving him to a violent death.
Strong symbolism is also visible in the play. The stockings represent Willy’s guilt towards Linda and Biff because of the Laughing Woman. Diamonds represent success. The outdoors is a symbol of the wish for a better life. That is why Willy plants seeds before committing suicide on the same night. He plants, so that his family can harvest.
The significance of space is huge: “WILLY: The way the boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks. The loss of personal space signifies the loss of the dream. Bigsby interprets: “Willy has lost the space which he needs for his dreams to assume any reality.” When Willy blends past with present, he sees enough space outdoors; but the present is made of suffocating apartment blocks.
In terms of structure, Miller relied on mixing up time. When Willy feels nostalgic he blurs time without noticing it. His memories are no flashbacks but a co-existing reality, an artifice that helps him understand what went wrong to make sense of it in the present, besides making him feel less lonely. In Miller’s words, “the Salesman image was absorbed with the concept that nothing in life comes ‘next’ but that everything exists together and at the same time within us… Consequently, he is working on two logics, which often collide.” The effect of exploding time has a dream quality, which is essential in understanding a play about the destruction of dreams.
Regarding language, when Willy is unaware of his blurring reality, audience and other characters understand it through speech. Loman doesn’t realize how incoherent he can be. In the next example, Linda, without noticing, agrees to Willy’s plan to kill himself:
LINDA: I think it’s the only way, Willy. (She means that Biff is leaving)
WILLY: Sure, it’s the best thing. (He means suicide)
BEN: Best thing! (Confirms what Willy is thinking).
WILLY: The only way.
Turning to genre, Miller presents many elements of tragedy (fight for happiness, family quarrels, death), despite Willy being a common man. In an essay, Miller states: “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” So, the Salesman’s tragedy might not entirely relate to the definition in Aristotle’s Poetics, but Willy’s struggle to pursuit happiness in his terms is tragic.
According to Bigsby, when the play opened in 1949 it “ran for 742 performances and won all the major prizes.” This is one of the most successful and produced plays of all times and the fact that it is quintessentially American does not make its appeal less international, having been produced even in China with Miller himself directing the play.
Influences on Clifford Odets’ Work
Clifford Odets was born in Philadelphia in 1906 to Jewish immigrant parents. His family was firstly poor (and ashamed of their past, according to Maren Robinson), but after moving to New York the Odets seemed to have reached their American dream when the father became a successful printer. Tom Vitale claims that Clifford must have felt a strong behavioural change in his family once they became prosperous, and this helped to shape his future writing when he would question the change of human values through material gain (or loss). Clifford even noticed the change in himself, when after moving to Hollywood for money he felt he was “prostituting himself”.
Because of his family background Odets felt mostly at home writing about middle class families in an urban environment. He could easily describe “ the collapse of personal space, the closing off of social possibilities, the erosion of familial cohesion and the betrayal of moral values” (Bigsby) and this description suits Paradise Lost.
The play is a product of the Depression because of all symptoms and social ‘diseases’ that the time had caused. Written in 1935 it shows the aftermath of the worst calamity in American history, a crisis so big that touched the lives of everyone – rich or poor – killing millions of dreams. When Paradise Lost was written, “America’s long run as a land of opportunity and the birthplace of mankind’s future was over” – as described by Kelly Knauer. Dark times ruled when the fear of tomorrow became the worst enemy.
Uncertainties were also felt in the theatre, when according to American Drama between the Wars, “by mid-thirties … motion picture now sang and talked, radio comedy and drama kept audiences at home.” A radical move was in order and Odets had just the “biting anger”, as describe by Bigsby, that audiences needed.
Odets learned about Stanislavsky and the Method during his acting time with the Group Theatre and this background would make his plays more realistic because of the psychological approach to character. The Group also enabled Odets to support a number of radical causes linked directly or indirectly to the Communist Party (Bigsby). Here, some clear enraged examples in Paradise Lost sound as if Odets was on stage himself:
PIKE: This is about the richest city in the world. A person starves to death in it every other day … Maybe we ought to take the government over in our own hands and make it something different.
(A call for action, similar to Waiting for Lefty! Pike is the most political character in the play)
PIKE: … You call me a Red and I’ll break your goddam neck!
(Having a different political opinion doesn’t make him traitor)
In American Dramatists Odets is described as “a poet of the decaying middle class with revolutionary yearnings and convictions.” Having said that, Odets wrote what he lived. He died in 1963.
Themes within Paradise Lost
The Gordons used to be a healthy middle-class family, but when the crisis hit certain measures had to be taken and certain plans had to be changed such as marriage, business modus operandi or desperate bank transactions. The common factor among all characters is the depression of spirit. Pike’s line illustrates: “PIKE: No one talks about the depression of the modern man’s spirit, of his inability to live a full and human live.” So, this might be the true theme of the play. Despite the crisis Leo, Pearl’s fiancé and even the street dweller, Paul, chose to live with honour while still heavily criticizing what the American dream stood for. A dialogue between Paul and Leo illustrates the point:
PAUL: … The slight difference in our social standing is you got a whole pair of pants. Also you still believe all this book stuff – (Picks up book, reads cover) Emerson … democracy, equality …
LEO: Emerson was a great man. He promised men they would walk the earth like gods.
PAUL: Then he was a goddam liar! … All over millions dreaming of democracy and liberty which don’t exist. … This kind of dream paralyses the will – confuses the mind. … I had my house in these United States. Like you. Did you have a business?
PAUL: Like me. You had a sorta little paradise here. Now you lost the paradise…
A paradise lost is not only about how much money one looses, but also about the loss of all the other things that money can’t buy. It all leads to betrayal: Sam betraying Leo by stealing his company money. Kewpie and Libby betraying Ben in sexual terms. Gus betraying Libby by telling Ben indirectly about her affair with Kewpie. May, the ‘Fire Man’, betraying the insurance companies. Leo betraying Pearl in relation to selling her piano. And Julie betraying Clara for not telling her he knows about his terminal condition. In short, it is about the loss of some values. The crisis served as an excuse for the change of behaviour because, as Howard Zinn evaluates, “many Americans began to change their thinking in those days of crisis and rebellion.”
Even President Roosevelt urged citizens to do something that haven’t tried before to combat the crisis. But those were ambiguous words. In a time when criminals such Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Pretty Boy and John Dillinger were seen as superstars, as in Knauer’s book, criminal undertakings gained a new appeal among people trying their best to survive.
BEN: Kewpie … says he’s got some good work for me … good money.
LEO: Something … legitimate?
BEN: Who cares?
This passage of the play above shows clearly that in 1935 some people hardly cared how the money came in, as long as it did. Leo Gordon was confronted with an offer to trick the insurance company about a ‘planted’ fire. This could put their business back on track. Clara pushed Leo to accept the offer because the survival of the family was at stake, but Leo decided to preserve his dignity, rejecting it. Putting the family on the street because of dignity is a big dilemma.
Kewpie, the character with all the criminal connections, is the winner of the play with more money and happier than everybody else. He explains:
KEWPIE: … I done something to help myself. You don’t! Well, take a lesson from little Kewpie – if you don’t like the Constitution, make it over!
What Kewpie was saying is that to undertake illegal acts in times of crisis is not that bad at all, when the ones winning are good people. The bad comes for the good.
Playwright’s Technique in Context
Odets wrote Paradise Lost mostly within the Realistic style. The characters’ believable living room, theme and slang language contributed for it.
Symbolism is also a major feature. It starts with the title, which refers to John Milton’s epic and biblical poem of the same name. Both stories are about fall from grace. In the opening of Act III Odets has Clara reading from the Bible to make a parallel to Milton’s poem, implying that in times of crisis (financial), death (Ben is dead) or disease (Julie) people strengthen their faith or find new religion.
Another symbolic aspect is Gus’ stamp collection and Pearl’s piano, two objects whose value cannot be measured with money due to the sentimental quality attached to the owners. Yet, they are sold because money is needed. Music, as well as the stamp collection, was an escape from harsh reality but sooner or later Gus and Pearl would have to face it.
Gordon’s evicted furniture is not allowed to stay in the street because authorities wish to cover up reality. So, although reality must be faced, it has to be covered up, too. The way Odets describes the set in Act III is real enough in terms of loss: “The same room, but stripped bare.” No words are necessary to show that months have passed and that the financial situation became worse.
The piano plays a large role in the play because Pearl’s music – her feelings – becomes the feelings of the people around her. It sets the mood for the characters in the play and also for audiences. Example is in the end of Act III when all hope seems to have died, “Pearl passes into a furious section of the sonata as the curtain slowly falls”. Furious is the mood, not sad.
The structure of the play is based less on plot and more on characterization. Despite Ben’s death in Act II and Leo’s regain of hope in Act III, there is no “emotional pitch” as described in American Drama between the Wars. In context, this could mean that life has no climax.
Odets gave most of his characters similar importance. Even Pearl, who speaks little, has a strong presence through her music. All characters are memorable and worthy of sympathy; even Kewpie who, despite his criminal background and betrayal, helps a woman and her child survive.
Another remarkable quality in Odets’ work is the language that makes his characters come alive. Maren Robinson sees Odets’s language not as jargon picked from the street, but as properly analysed. Her view implies that Odets followed the Method and got into the head of his characters, and this immersion included essentially the way they spoke.
Paradise Lost closed in February 1936 after just 73 performances. Directed by Harold Clurman, it was not well received by public and critics. Odets took it personally: “Paradise Lost, poorly received as a practical theatre work, remains my favourite play. … I must be permitted to say that our modern audiences, critics included, still must have their plays … cut to fit the mouth.” In other words, Odets blamed audiences for not ‘getting’ the play and for their lack of excitement towards experimental new work.
By reading Paradise Lost the first stage direction struck me: “Time: the present.” A story based on a specific moment of US history could hardly be re-lived in present time without appearing to be a period-play, but once one understands that the play is not about the financial Depression but about the depression of spirit, it becomes suitable for today’s audiences, too. Paradise Lost is not about lost goods and property; it is about lost dreams.
Miller and Odets were models of the American dream, trailblazers, Jewish and political with leftist inclinations. They have both testified for the House Committee of Un-American Activities but while Miller refused to name anyone, Odets did not hesitate with the finger pointing.
Today Miller is more famous (among ‘non-theatre folks’) than Odets. Has this fact anything to do with Miller’s brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe? I believe that Miller had just more ‘super hits’ than Odets. Although Odets was responsible for the Group Theatre’s success during a decade, after its end, Odets might have ignored what the masses were looking for. Miller might have done the same, but being lucky enough to meet exactly the demands of the wider public.
Fact is that both writers have x-rayed the American society, touching their nerves and making them ask questions about their dreams and environment. The domestic experience in Death of a Salesman and Paradise Lost was the mirror of the society and their characters acknowledged that dreams differ. To achieve happiness one must re-tailor the dream once in a while. Willy Loman did it by achieving his dream with his death; he changed the process. The Gordons understood that either they adapt or they die.
Having explored the themes in Paradise Lost and Death of a Salesman I come to the conclusion that the American dream is not necessarily a lie, but that it can be badly interpreted. When the founding fathers stated in the Declaration of Independence that happiness was a birthright they meant it good, just like any mother and father would expect their children to succeed in life, telling them that if they worked hard success could come. It was not a guarantee, but those who do nothing achieve nothing. Kimberly Amadeo – among others – is too extreme when she states that the “American dream is a lie”. It isn’t. It is just badly interpreted. There are ways around the dream even in a society where people are stamped for what they have and not for who they are.
Examining the plays closely I could establish that there are similarities in what it is believed to be the secret of success. In Paradise Lost Gus says about Ben: “GUS: Don’t worry. He’s got the right connections”. Just like Loman, he believes that physical attractiveness and sportive glory guarantee financial success through connections. Another similarity was found in Pike’s line about Leo refusing ‘dirty’ money from Kewpie that actually belonged to Ben: “PIKE: He gave it to you, Citizen! Don’t be impractical about hard cash.” The reason why Leo wouldn’t keep Kewpie’s money is pride. Loman was proud, too, by telling lies about Biff’s glory in the West and by refusing job offers from Charlie, yet still accepting his money in a supposed ‘loan’.
One last similarity before I conclude this paper would be the titles, which both suggest downfall and tragedy: Paradise Lost and Death of a Salesman. Audiences imagine what to expect by the titles. What they cannot imagine is that besides the murky mood of loss, there is still hope. The American dream survived the crisis and that is what audiences needed to hear. They, according to Berkowitz, needed “consolation and reassurance.” Despite Willy’s death, his family ended up better off, and for the Gordons, their troubles did not kill their spirit: “LEO: No! There is more life than this! … The world is beautiful. No fruit tree wears a lock and a key.” They reached the bottom, but now they could only rise again.
Luciana B. Veit