Compare and contrast American playwrights presentation of masculinity in Death of a Salesman, Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Glass Menagerie.

Authors Avatar by johncussonshotmailcom (student)

Compare and contrast American playwright’s presentation of masculinity.

‘Death of a Salesman’, ’Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and ‘The Glass Menagerie’ are three American domestic dramas in the style of Ibsen and Strindberg that attempt to explore the idea of masculinity in America in the mid twentieth century. Masculinity in the time of the plays’ creation was defined by monetary and vocational success, physical strength and dominance, but clearly, the perception of masculinity has evolved over time. Modern society now promotes gender equality and the feminist movement of the 1960s and general improvements in women rights have served to change social perceptions of gender. This explains the differing reaction of a contemporary audience and a modern audience to the protagonists and their actions in these three plays. The major male characters in all three plays are presented as victims of society’s expectations and the ideals forced upon them as men and these expectations were hugely fashioned by the American Dream. What is very clear from all three plays is that many men in post war America were living very pressured and unhappy lives in their efforts to achieve a life that was influenced by the ideal of the American Dream in a time of the Wall Street Crash where prosperity and success seemed impossible.

Firstly, the theme of success and failure is used by all three playwrights to explore the importance of a career in society’s perception of masculinity. Through George, Albee shows success to be critical in proving masculinity to one’s self and to society. George is undermined by Martha who is disgusted by George’s failure to succeed in his career and his status as an ‘old bog’ in the history department. George’s failure to grow in his career and his entrapment as a low level professor is reflected through expressionism. The play never leaving the living room reflects George’s feelings of a constrained and claustrophobic life Moreover by referring to George as a ‘floozie’, traditionally an insult used against women Martha undermines and questions his masculinity. Martha insults and emasculates George as she is comparing him to her ultra-successful ‘daddy’ George inability to fulfil his role as ‘daddy’s heir’ destroys others’ perceptions of his masculinity particularly Martha’s perception.  George’s lack of success and submissive position in his marriage mean he fails to demonstrate society’s (which in this case is personified by Martha) traditional male qualities.

However, despite George failing to fit the traditional archetype of masculinity in both aggression and success, the idea of him being a flop is rather simplistic. George is not the complete failure that Martha views him to be. As George chooses not to fulfil Martha’s ideals regarding his masculinity and in this way he aggressively asserts his willpower over his wife and as such presents his own form of masculinity.

Moreover the ideal of success in presenting masculinity is used in ‘D of S.’ Willy’s obsession with success warps his mind-set and as Bert Cardullo states ‘he confuses materialistic success with a worthiness for love.’ This perfectly summaries how an unhealthy importance placed on being ‘well liked’ and successful leads Willy to kill himself for money in an attempt to ensure his sons’ success. Willy’s other son, Happy, is himself wedded to American capitalistic values and says over his father’s coffin that he’s going to stick to these values for his father’s sake. Similarly, Biff was so inflated with a false sense of grandeur by his father that he became kleptomaniacal; he cannot resist stealing a successful businessman’s fountain pen ‘And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be’ he does this as a niggling revenge against that man’s success and his own lack of it.

Moreover success and failure is linked into physical masculinity in the characters of Jim who during high school was a popular youngster, a successful debater and basketball star and Biff the popular football captain. Both had massive popularity due to their athletic success and in the case of Biff his success made him above the law being excused by his father of his theft of the ball as the ‘coach liked him.’ Both Biff and Jim falsely justify Willy’s belief that being well liked was the key to success as both were popular ‘I’m not popular like you were’ not understanding that they were well liked because they are successful. The plays show how masculine physicality was overvalued and both contemporary and modern audiences would see physical ability to be a positive.

Join now!

The damaging effect of the masculine gender roles is also explored through the women characters. The most shocking thing Martha does is pack away the booze: “My God, you can swill it down, can’t you.” She drinks straight, tough-guy booze, like whiskey and bourbon. She no longer favours the tastes of her youth: “brandy Alexanders, crème de cacao frappes…seven-layer liqueur things…real lady-like little drinkies.” Martha once behaved as a woman should, but no longer does and this is off-putting and unsettling to George. Bonnie Finkelstein writes that the 1962 play portrays and analyses ‘the damaging effects of traditional, stereotypical gender ...

This is a preview of the whole essay