Modernism as depicted in the Death of a Salesman
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 œtry 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 œwhat 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. œHe 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 œdoesn’t lament the idea of [the] . . . provisionality, or incoherence of his characters’ lives; instead Mamet’s play says something along the lines of œlet’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.