The American Dream in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
The American Dream in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is one of his most famous works, which addresses the conflicts arising within one family while at the same time exploring a broader issue concerning the national values of American Dream. From a broader perspective, the play explores the American dream from the viewpoint of a family. The belief in the materialistic American dream costs the family their father, who commits suicide, believing that his son will receive the insurance benefit and start a business to prosper. This theme is partly reaffirmed in The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. This play explores family conflict over an heirloom and definition of one’s legacy identity. In addition to reaffirming the American dream in Death of a Salesman, The Piano Lesson also opposes its values where one of the characters is opposed to material values.
The two plays are set in two different historical times. The Piano Lesson, set in an earlier historical context, is written few decades after its setting while Death of a Salesman was written during its historical time. Miller explores the American historical time after world war. It is set in 1949 when people were had a blind faith in the American dream that advocated material prosperity as the main quest in life over other values. After the second World War, united states was faced by an intense and contradictory domestic tension (Miller 34). The war had apparently created an unexpected confidence, security and prosperity in united states. Most of the Americans did not conform to the usual social stratification. Rather, majority believed in the ideology that a booming prosperous and conservative middle-class suburban life was the best.
At this time, capitalist success was seen as the basis for social identity while other values came later. Majority of Americans centered their lives on material possessions such as cars, television and home appliances for approval from friends and neighbors. In this play, Miller portrays this belief by showing how Willy is determined to continue pursuing his dreams of prosperity even at an old age with a degenerating mental status. He is unhappy with his son Biff because he is yet to make anything out of himself especially if he when not making any money. “When did I lose my temper? I simply asked him if he was making any money. is that criticism?” (Miller 10).
Wilson on the other hand explores a different historical setting from Miller. However, the difference is only a decade, considering The Piano Lesson is set in 1936, during a time of great depression after the first world war. During this time, Americans faced an economic hardship that affected all people and industries. Majority of people were working to earn a decent living. Not many worried about prosperity at the time. However, the theme of American dream remained, considering people still sought to gain more wealth. This is depicted in the play where Boy Willie seeks to sell the infamous piano to buy the land in which his ancestors worked on as slaves.
The piano is a legacy of the Charles family, to which Boy Willie and Berniece belong. It is incarcerated in the piano, which is a record of the family’s history during slavery. The play is centered around two main questions, which are, ‘what one does with his or her legacy,’ and ‘how one can best put it to use’. According to the American dream values, one would sell such a legacy for material gain. In this case, the play affirms the American dream when Boy Willie does not care for family legacy as much as he cares for material gain. Conversely, his sister Berniece cares for her family legacy and is ready to defend the piano. She is not interested in trading her family identity for material gain. She only makes use of it when the ghost of Sutter appears by playing to call her ancestors to chase away the intruding spirit.
The two plays represent different races and class. While Miller explores the white race in middle-class, Wilson looks at the black race that has suffered in the hands of white man as slaves and their struggle to find justice and make a better living. Miller explores the middle class of America after the second world war when people had a newfound confidence and belief in prosperity. This play shows a family in the middle class. This is evidence by the fact that Willy owns a vehicle, which was seen as a proof of prosperity at that time. In addition, he worked as a salesman in a company, where he earned income until he was fired, just before he committed suicide.
Unlike the middle-class family in explored by Miller, Wilson explores the difficulties that African Americans faced in coming to terms with their history. Majority of African Americans during this time lived impoverished lives, without land and steady sources of income. Many fell in the arms of law even for minor mistakes. In addition to lack of steady incomes, majority lived in their experiences and failed to move on with life. This is depicted in Berniece who hold a lot of sentimental value to the piano. She does not want to let it go. By keeping the piano, it remains a constant reminder of her family’s agony during the slavery. Keeping the piano does not help the family to move one. Rather, it stops Berniece from moving on with life. On the other hand, Boy Willie is wiling to move one by making a better value of the piano. By selling it, he will be able to buy the land in which their ancestors suffered during slavery and make a better living and future.
Another difference that is evident between the two races is that white are able to secure white color jobs in companies while African Americans do not get such jobs easily. Majority of them are farm boys. Securing white color jobs for African Americans at the time was quite hard, especially considering that majority were not as educated as the white people were. This made it possible for the white people to chase the American dream especially after the world war when the economy of united states was booming.
While Miller shows that white people lived in middle-class but still considered themselves as not fully successful, African Americans were living in poverty. The family of Willy the salesman lives in the middle-class, and seeks to become better. Willy lives reminiscing about the past, especially on missed opportunities that could have made him rich instead of facing the reality. He is comparable to Berniece who reminisces about the past of her family, which blinds her from moving forward (Lowry 1). She remains stagnant considering she will not let it go while she does not play it and cannot tell its history to her daughter for fear of waking the spirits. Boy Willie even says, “If you say to me, Boy Willie, I’m using the piano. I give out lessons on it that help me make my rent or whatever. . . I’d go on and say, well, Berniece using the piano. She building on it,” to mean he would not think of selling it (Wilson 51). However, she is making no use of the piano. Conversely, her brother would be happy to tell its history with pride and use it to buy land and avenge his ancestors by purchasing the land in which they anguished (Lowry 1).
As evidenced, the historical backgrounds of the two works play a crucial role in shaping the theme and portraying how the American dream affected people. The major theme explored by Miller is the American Dream, which Wilson only confirms, although not with much details. However, the fact that Miller wrote before Wilson does confirm the dream. This acts to prove that the dream existed during this time. However, it shows that not everybody was in a position to achieve it.
Wilson re-writes the American dream by showing the determination in Boy Willie to succeed in life and eliminate barriers to success for African Americans. The belief in prosperity as what defines a man is evident when Boy Willie considers selling off the piano that held their history together in order to buy land, which would make a future for the family. The American dreams define hard work as the key to success. The American dream seeks to allow all people to participate in realizing their goals out of their own handwork. This has been evidenced well by Miller.
Conversely, Wilson re-writes the American dream by portraying how the African Americans suffered during their slavery as the white man sought economic prosperity. The Africans Americans had to work so hard with poor pay and in some instances without any payment. This exploitation of the African Americans depicts the American dream that drives people to undertake any measures just to gain economic success.
Hard work is portrayed by Wilson when he describes how Boy Willie and Lymon got all the way from Sunflower with a truck full of watermelons to sell. Despite the truck breaking down three times and having to walk five miles to get water in the third break down, the two men were determined to sell their watermelons. This displays the determination of succeeding in life through hard work. In contrast, Willy in the Death of a Salesman views the American dream differently. To him, it is about being liked by people that contributes to success. This is quite wrong and finally, he lives in his dreams and fails to embrace the reality.
The American Dream is the main theme explored by Miller, who portrays how people misinterpret its values. Its historical context depicts an era in which people sought identity through economic prosperity. People bought goods to keep up with the neighbors and get approval. Wilson on the other hand explores this theme through showing the interest of Boy Willie to forget the past and move on with life by selling the family piano to buy land. In addition, his hard work demonstrates the spirit for excelling in life.
Lowry Alicia. Analysis of “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson. yahoo.com, June 22, 2010. Web. October 30, 2013.
Miller Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York, N.Y: Dramatists Play Service, 1998. Print.
Wilson August. The Piano Lesson. New York, N.Y: Plume, 1990. Print.
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