Treatment of escapism in A Street car named desire by Tennessee Williams and Death Of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Treatment of escapism in “A Street car named desire” by Tennessee Williams and “Death Of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller
The two plays “A Street Car Named Desire” and “The Death of a Salesman” show the extreme desperation wrought in the lives of the protagonists-Blanche Dubois and Willy Loman. The playwrights give the audience an insight into the social and cultural background of their work so as to have a better understanding behind the tragedy of these characters. Blanche and Willy Loman are characters that are stuck up with their fantasies and imaginations, and as a result they escape the harsh realities of life. Blanche tries to hide her past, thinking that there exists an “Elysian Fields” (paradise where she can regain her joy) her in New Orleans. She lives in dreams and illusions, and tries her utmost to erase her past. But she forgets that she is not a part of the new America, and hence the more she pretends to be safer the more she is endangering herself. She loses her balance of mind and ends up in a lunatic asylum.
Willy Loman is never able to confront his failure as a Salesman, and lives in the American dream. He tries to cover his failure through a number of show off, and harbors false hopes for his sons. Realizing that he is a broke, and that his sons are not tailor made to become salesmen, he commits suicide. Thus the two characters have been portrayed by the playwrights as escapists, who are willing to compromise more with their consciences than reconcile to the realities of lives. They escape not knowing that the more they are running to their fantasy worlds the more they are drowning themselves in the bog of reality. Desire and imagination lead them to death whether literal or metaphorical. The dramatists are successful in showing that such a tragic ending is the only solution to characters that are escapists.
The American dramatists “Tennessee Williams” and “Arthur Miller” deal with the theme of escapism in their respective plays. Escapism is not an uncommon theme in the American plays of the 19th century. American drama during this era often showed the hopelessness of characters that could not live up to their hopes and expectations. But more than dealing with the theme of escapism I have chosen these American plays to analyze how playwrights’ treatment of this theme is different in each play. I feel that this research question is very significant, as it will help me understand the characters that tend to be escapists in their particular circumstances. This assignment will also bring forth the social and cultural atmosphere prevailing in America at that time. I will try to show that the characters of Blanche Dubois and Willy Loman are no ordinary characters; they have a lot of heroic element despite the odds swaying their destinies. Is it not heroic that until the denouement of the play they have hopes? They depart physically or metaphorically from the stage optimistically, lost in their illusions, never once caring for their sufferings on body and soul.
The characters-Blanche and Loman, although flawed, have substance that makes them unforgettable character heroes of the American Stage. In order to analyze the question how they take subterfuge of escapism, this essay will explore the settings, structure, symbols, characters and theatrical devices as used by the two dramatists. In order to better understand the difference in their treatment to the theme of escapism I will make use of the autobiographical accounts of the dramatists, and try to relate them to the tragedies of their protagonists. The stage directions are also of a great help while understanding what goes in the mind of the protagonists at the final hour.
A thorough study of the life of “Tennessee Williams” reveals a number of incidents that appear to have been cast in his masterpiece “A Streetcar Named Desire.” His life during the Second World War is a contrast between the opposites. He has to shift from Mississippi to New Orleans, the south, far removed from the grandeur of the Mississippi. There can be drawn a parallel between his journey and Blanche’s journey to New Orleans. His homosexuality makes him an outlier in The American society, and he takes refuge in New Orleans, where alcoholism, prostitution and homosexuality are condoned. Blanche’s life is destroyed by the suicide of her homosexual husband, and subsequently by her misdemeanors, and therefore she too has to migrate to the New Orleans American society. The “prefrontal lobotomy on Rose1” can be equated with Blanche’s journey from sanity to insanity, and her psychological breakdown. To sum up all these incidents and events make Williams an escapist, a fugitive and an alcoholic, a trait soon to be witnessed in his play “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the character of Blanche.
- Miller too weaves the autobiographical elements in “Death of a Salesman”, and conjectures the character of Willy Loman after his first hand experience. Like Tennessee, he too had to migrate to Brooklyn, struggling under Great Depression, when his father’s business plunged during the Wall Street Crash. Poverty, Depression and post World War scenario influenced Miller to write a play on the everyday and vulnerable people. “Death of a Salesman” is a reminder of Miller’s “riches to ragged childhood”. In the words of his sister Joan, “Arthur carries scars from that time. It doesn't take a great observer to notice that. It is a memory, in his nerves, and in his muscles, that he just can't get rid of2.”
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“Death of a Salesman” is a tragedy of a common man, a tragedy somewhat removed from Aristotelian notions wherein the protagonist is essentially from a noble and elevated background. In his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” Miller says, “today few tragedies are written due to the lack of heroes among us. Approach to the tragedy as being suitable for kings only is archaic, and that the common man can also be a subject of the tragedy3.” Miller’s experience with the harsh realities of life made him write other plays as well such as “All My Sons”, “The Crucible”, “A View From the Bridge”, and “After the Fall”, all of which revolve around the theme of “fragility of human relationships—especially between fathers and sons4.”
Miller creates the character of Willy Loman after his uncle Newman5, a man who always compared his son, Buddy, with Miller. Newman never accepted the fact that his son was a failure, and had always lived in the illusion that Buddy was doing very well. We can see a parallel between Newman’s elusive approach to his son and Willy’s to his son Biff when he finds that Charley’s son, Bernard has become a Supreme Court advocate. Just as Newman stuck to his illusions, favoring pride over the truth, Willy stuck to his lies and illusions about his sons. The legend of Newman helps Miller write the tragedy of a common man, who cannot see the reality, and as a result must escape in a dream world. Newman and Willy are characters that cannot cope with realities when their “capitalist belief that if you work hard enough you can be a success in America6” is reduced to ashes.
The setting of the play “A Street Car Named Desire” is vital to what fate has in store for Blanche. Blanche, who grew up on a plantation called Belle Reve, is out of sorts when she faces the crude people living on the Elysian Fields. For her this place is uncivilized, as is natural for a “Southern Belle.” The contrast between Belle Reve and the Kowalski apartment shows the audience the wide split between illusion and reality. It is here in New Orleans that people of mixed races thrive in poor and clumsy lodgings. It is obvious that the one time owner of Belle Reve cannot cope up with the harsh realities of life. Moreover, the action takes place on the first floor of a two-bedroom apartment, a place without any privacy. This male dominated place is stinking and rotting in the eyes of Blanche, and she cannot put up with the way the men treat their wives. Thus the settings are important in that whatever hopes and prejudice Blanche had on her mind before coming here are shattered. Since she cannot accommodate herself in this new culture and society, she loses herself in illusions and imaginations.
Williams uses a number of symbols and motifs to show how Blanche takes respite in escaping from reality. The very title of the play serves as a device of foreshadowing to the audience. She tells Eunice, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields7”. This quote shows the vulnerable condition of Blanche, and her faith in the words of the strangers. We don’t know who “they” is but we can understand that Blanche is out of sorts, and full of desire, and she clings to hope like a dying man. Blanche is full of desire to love and to be loved, and it is for this reason she boards the trains “desire” and “cemeteries.” “Elysian Fields” refers to the abode of the dead in Greek mythology. Thus through the title alone the audience can see that Blanche’s journey to New Orleans will be nothing but her metaphorical death. Her family plantation Belle Reve means “beautiful dreams” and it appears many times in the play how she clings to her dreams and illusions. Her name means “white woods” a reference to purity and innocence. She maintains and stresses her purity through her dresses before everyone. She uses “white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat8” but Williams compares her to a moth, a short-lived creature that dies when exposed to light. The moth like Blanche keeps herself distant from light, and she uses “Chinese lanterns” to hide her age and appearance. She hates light and says “And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare9”. By avoiding light She wants to escape the reality that she is middle aged woman, past her prime, and that truth cannot be hidden. Eventually Mitch becomes suspicious and tears the lantern off to have a look at her in light. This sight is too much for Blanche, and for the first time the audience sees her hatred of the reality of life, “I don’t want realism…I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on10. She sings “it's only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea11”, which again shows how she believes that life can be led by the lovers in their imagined reality. When Blanche claims, “After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion12” it can be seen that her life is diametrically opposite to reality. Blanche resorts to bathing repeatedly in an effort to cleanse herself of her promiscuous past. She claims that baths soothe her nerves but as she cannot erase her past from her mind her bathing is never done. “In the bathroom the water goes on loud; little breathless cries and peals of laughter are heard as if a child were frolicking in the rub13.” These words show the audience that Blanch loses herself in her childlike innocence while taking hot baths. In order to further delude herself she has to resort to drinking. “Suddenly she notices something in a half-opened closet. She springs up and crosses to it, and removes a whiskey bottle. She pours a half tumbler of whiskey and tosses it down. She carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink.14” Since drinking is not allowed for homely women, Blanche has to resort to lying and deceits also, “No, I, rarely touch it15.” But rather than helping her forget her past, alcohol removes her from the path of sanity.
Miller too employs a volley of symbols and motifs in “Death of a Salesman” to depict the journey of Willy Loman’s escapism into a dream world. For Willy, woods and jungles refer to a world of success. Although he could not take the initiative of entering the woods with his Brother Ben, he often explores this forest through his imagination. After he is fired from his job, the land parts under his feet and he cries, “The woods are burnin16.” Burning refers to the end of his dream as well as his clinging hopes that he can realize the American Dream by becoming a famous salesman. When he hears Ben proclaiming that “the jungle is dark but full of diamonds16”, Willy is influenced to change this dark into light by committing suicide. Again the diamonds found by Ben in the jungle are a symbol of success for Willy. Although a complete failure, Willy still sees the hopes in the diamonds and plans to “fetch a diamond17” for Biff by committing suicide. He is not aware of the fact the insurance company may forfeit his claim on the insurance money in the event of discovering that his death was a suicide. But he is preoccupied with his imagination and says, “I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand18”.
The settings of Brooklyn resemble a forest of concrete highly populated by people from all walks of life. Willy’s apartment lies in a congested place where there is no sunshine. But lost in his illusions he hankers for a garden in order to create a better and healthy life for his family. He is utterly disappointed “The grass don't grow anymore, you can't raise a carrot in the back yard19.” Miller uses the garden as a motif, and Willy tries his utmost to sow the seeds in the garden of his imagination, never for a moment realizing that there is not a blade of grass in the concrete of Brooklyn Willy is taken on a flight of his imagination toward his past whenever he sees Linda mending her stockings. The stocking reminds him of his sexual liaison with a woman, and of his happy times when he could afford to give stockings to his mistress. Willy is surrounded by other symbols that remind him of his status, and also the fact that how much engrossed he had become in acquiring the American Dream. He has all the brands in his house, “Chevrolet, Simonize, Hastings, Studebaker20.” The name of the Chevvy makes his heart swell with pride, as it is “the greatest car ever built21” Equating the brands with success is a folly not only of the salesman but also of a common man. The hosepipe hidden by Willy is the immediate symbol of the end of his American Dream, and his ardent wish to commit suicide. But even in this symbol, Willy has elusive hopes; he thinks that with this benevolent gesture his will make his family rich.
The stage directions in “ A Streetcar Named Desire” switch from light to dark and vice versa indicating that Blanche tries to run away from her present, and takes refuge in her past. The dark shows her desire to lose herself in ignorance. Williams uses a Blue Piano in the background, and he uses its music to show the emotional state of Blanche. She is lonely and broken, and wants to catch a straw like a dying man. The music is played when she recounts the loss of Belle Reve and the deaths of her family members through “epic fornications.22” The music is again at its loudest when she kisses the paperboy. May be she sees her young husband “Alan Gray” in the boy, a fact which again shows that she cannot be separated from her past, and that she is not willing to take any lessons from it. Blanche has a deep interest in the young boys; a fact that indicates her desire to make up for her dead husband. Williams makes use of the “Varsouviana Polka23” to further show her falling condition. When she loses herself in the contemplation of Shep Huntleigh, “The Varsouviana is filtered into weird distortion, accompanied by the cries and noises of the jungle24.” Varsouviana swings her back to the time of her husband’s death, and it is only with the sound of a gunshot that her reverie is broken. Thus Polka helps the audience realize the intensity with which she is tied to her illusions forgetting the stark reality of life.
Like Tennessee, Miller’s stage directions are also the flagship of his success. He employs impeccable theatrical devices to make the audience realize the transition of Willy from the present to the past. Through flashbacks, time switches and memories, Miller depicts a detailed picture of Willy’s last twenty-four years following the Greek unity of twenty-four hours in a drama. Like the Stanley’s house in New Orleans, the Lomans’ house too looks like a skeleton of a house, whose walls are transparent. The characters walk through the walls to indicate the past and through the doors to indicate the present. “Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall on the forestage25.” Miller makes specific use of lighting to show Willy’s descent into the past. The lighting is warm and soft when Willy transcends into the past but harsh and bright when he is transported into the present. Lighting is very helpful for the audience to realize Willy’s oscillation between the present and the past. At the end of the play all the apartment buildings surrounding the Lomans’ house “rise into sharp focus26” thereby signifying that Willy does not have to travel anymore to his past either through the flashback or his memories.
Similar to the Varsouviana Polka, Miller employs the music of the flute to show Willy’s infatuation with the past. The music of the flute reminds Willy of his father who made and sold the flutes. “A melody is heard, played upon by a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon27.” Willy constantly hears the flute although sometimes he is not aware of it. The music of the flute is used by Miller as a motif to show that the memory of Willy’s father haunts Willy. The music transports him to the past, and he wonders why he cant become as crafty a salesman as a flute player his father was. By the time he comes home, the flute fades away. The flute is the last thing in the requiem, and keeps on playing until the curtain falls. The flute indicates that Willy has perhaps become not only the part of dust but also a part of his past.
Tennessee shows that Blanche is so blinded to reality that she does not understand what it is to be happily married. She does not understand that Stanley and Stella make a happy couple, and that nobody can pull them apart. But for an educated woman like Blanche, sex cannot be the basis of a married life, and hence she tries to disintegrate them. She dislikes Stanley and declares, "He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There's even something -sub-human-something not quite to the stage of humanity yet!28” She calls Stanley a brute, an ape and a “Polack” and asks Stella to come over to her. In the deep recesses of her mind she is still the Southern Belle who can shelter her sister in Belle Reve. The clash between Blanche and Stanley is a clash between realism and fantasy. Stanley the realist cannot tolerate her tearing his domestic happiness, and under the effect of alcohol and Blanche’s provocation he rapes her. It is to Blanche’s dismay that when she tells the reality to Stella and Eunice, they turn a deaf ear to her. Thus reality does not go hand in hand with Blanche. She is happy in her illusions, and at the time she is sent to the lunatic asylum, she again loses herself in her imaginations. As she leaves, she says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers29.” Thus she escapes reality even during her mental breakdown.
A Streetcar Named desire ends with Blanche’s insanity but the audience feels that this insanity is what can make Blanches sane. She is not a product of reality; she is a part and parcel of her illusions, and may be she will live happily in her madness. The character of Blanche is that of a strong woman who prefers to live in her illusions rather than face the harsh realties of the cruel patriarchal society. After the death of her husband and her family members, she is lonely and desperate. But She tries to resurrect herself in every possible way rather than surrender or lead the role of a passive woman in the society. She tries to overcome the lack of Alan’s love by surrendering herself to “intimacies with strangers30.” In a world where a lonely woman is nothing but a commodity, she craves for recognition. “Men don’t – don’t even admit your existence unless they are making love to you. And you’ve got to have your existence admitted by someone, if you’re going to have someone’s protection31.” It is the tragedy of her life that the more she craves for protection the more she becomes vulnerable. She is not the “Tarantula that brought her victims to32.” She is a simple, strong but frustrated woman who is entrapped in a vicious web by the patriarchal society. Her madness is her metaphorical death, and may be her exemplary salvation from the brutal world of New Orleans. Williams uses dramatic irony when Blanche says of Stanley “The first time I laid eyes on him I thought to myself, that man is my executioner33!” and to some extent this execution will help Blanche lead a happy life lost in her illusions in the mental asylum. Thus the escapist Blanche gets the better of a realist Blanche in Williams’ play, and it is the beginning of a new end for her. She will live once again in her illusions happily aided by a stark madness.
If the patriarchal society is the root cause of Blanche’s tragic fate, Willy Loman is victimized by the capitalist system of America. Willy is not only a salesman; he is a metaphor for the failure of American Dream. He fails as a seller but who does not? Miller once said during an interview, “We are all salesman, meaning that we are all trying to impress others so that we can be popular (or “well-liked,” as Willy says)34.” Having failed in achieving his dreams, he is left with ruminating his past when he had been a successful man. Fantasizing and reminiscing give him momentary respite, but he has to face the realities also. He is ashamed of his misdemeanors. His high expectations of his sons, infidelity with his wife, his inability to pay the bills, begging Charley for every expense make him aware of his flawed character, and he finds the reality too cruel to cope with. Gradually he loses balance of mind, suffers a psychological breakdown, and contemplates suicide as the last resort.
Miller describes Willy as “literally at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present35”, a condition Tennessee presents in the character of Blanche. Both the characters are haunted by the past, and escaping into the past again and again makes them aloof, chary and indifferent to reality. The dramatists have used various literary devices to show the theme of escapism in their respective works. The protagonists are tragic figures that have to take the subterfuge of escapism under the different social, cultural and economic conditions prevailing in America. Blanche suffers from illusions as her hideous past haunts her while Willy escapes down the memory way to regale his past. If Blanche takes to sex, alcohol, baths and Chinese lanterns, Willy dreams of diamonds, gardens, stockings and the childhood of his sons. Both the characters Blanche and Willy are tragic in that they become a victim of their own flaws, a fact that makes them misfit in the American society. They are trapped so viciously in the intricate webs of their lives that they have to physically or metaphorically die in order to exonerate themselves from the gossamer of realities.
The two dramatists deal with the theme of escapism, and no doubt show that Blanche and Willy are reduced to a tragic fate by the forces of society. Both are haunted by their past, and they want a perfect dream world, a fairy island for them to exist somewhere. The dramatists write of the American society of the post world war era, and show how war, modernism and capitalism can harm the lives of ordinary people. Although the main theme of the dramatists, and the writing style is the same yet they deal with their themes differently, with a different purpose on their minds. When it comes to their writing style we find that “Death of a Salesman” has very less to do with “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Miller writes the play in a more expressionistic manner, and invents a new style that helps him deal with the theme of escapism in a unique manner. It is a play where there is no transition. Miller says, “There is a direct thrust of the story from the first minute, each scene is cut at its earliest moment, and succeeding scenes begin at the latest possible moment.36” The way Miller writes and directs the scenes helps the audience understand the delusions and memories of the protagonist Willy in a more sympathetic manner.
Blanche is an individual who suffers on account of the social influences on households; Willy is a universal man, who represents everyman and dreams of success and fame. Blanche symbolizes the disappearance of Old America while Willy symbolizes the disappearance of American Dream. Blanche meets with her tragic ending as she is at war with a patriarchal society represented by Stanley, a symbol of New America, but Willy is at war with himself. There is no antagonist in “Death of a Salesman”; hence it is the inner conflict that leads Willy to such desperation. In the Aristotelian canons of tragedy, it is Tennessee who reaches the mark closely, as besides the tragic flaw of Blanche the audience sees Stanley as the personification of evil.
The plays are realistic in nature but with a degree of variation which helps the dramatists to mold their characters as perfect escapists. If Tennessee calls his work “a tragedy with the classic aim of producing a catharsis of pity and terror37", Miller calls his work as “a tragedy of the common man.” They are escapists, no doubt, but they are tragic heroes in that they do not lose hopes until the very end. For Blanche, there is Shep Huntleigh while for Willy there is a hope “Ben, that funeral will be massive! They'll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire38!” Having realized that they are not part of the Darwinian society of America, Blanche and Willy escape to their dream worlds in their fantasies, leaving the readers sympathize with the root cause of their sufferings-the American socio, cultural and political conditions after World war II.