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How far has the historical, social and cultural development of America shaped the plays of major American playwrights of the 20th century

In the last decades of the 19th century American theatre had been largely given over to melodramas and lavish spectacle. Towards the end of the 19th century and in the first two decades of the 20th, America became a ‘melting pot’ of nationalities and cultures. Between 1900 and 1915, 14.5 million immigrants from southern and central Europe poured into the United States. These immigrants, anxious to hold onto their national culture and language, were entertained at neighbourhood theatres in big cities such as New York and Chicago. Audiences enjoyed sentimental dramas about the ‘old country’, or about the problems of holding onto traditional mores and lifestyles in this new society of America. In the film The Godfather Part II, there is a scene set in just such a theatre, an Italian-American neighbourhood theatre in the Little Italy area of New York. The audience are watching a melodrama representing the problems of different generations of Italian-Americans adapting to the new society.In European drama, in the latter part of the 19th century, there had emerged major playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strinberg, Anton Chekhov and Bernard Shaw, who were intent on representing life in their plays in a more realistic style. Realism in the theatre emerged from a desire to reject excessive theatrical artificiality. It represented everyday reality in a style that would seem familiar to the audiences that came to see these new plays. The dramatic language was meant to be close to everyday speech, the situations and settings akin to the kind of social problems and millieus familiar to contemporary audiences. Realism had an influence on the American stage in this period, but mainly in terms of elaborately realistic sets. Several years would pass, however, before the influence of the new realism meant that American drama could handle more mature themes and develop more sophisticated dramatic treatment.Hardly any of the American plays produced between 1900 and 1915 are revived or read nowadays. At the time, however, there were large audiences for romantic melodramas with lavish but realistic settings. Meanwhile, the new entertainment medium of the cinema was beginning to challenge the supremacy of the theatre. Soon, films would provide much more elaborate spectacle, lavish settings and ‘reality’ than the theatre could compete with, even though until the invention of the film soundtrack in 1927, movies were ‘silent’.1915-41:the first authentic voices in the American theatreIn 1915, American drama found its artistic feet with the founding of the three new theatrical groups, the most influential of which were the Provincetown Players. The importance of these groups was that they produced the plays of European dramatists, including Ibsen and Chekhov, and that they nurtured American playwrights, giving them the opportunity to write without the commercial pressures of Broadway. ‘Broadway’ is a generic term generally used to denote mainstream, New York commercial theatre. Most Broadway plays and ‘shows’ (musicals, light comedies and theatrical spectacles) are produced by theatrical entrepreneurs for profit and are not subsidised by public funding.The historical, social and cultural contextBy 1915, Europe was in the middle of the First World War and America was debating whether it should stay neutral. Eventually, President Wilson persuaded the American Congress to declare war on Germany. America’s participation in the war and the important role it played in finalising the Treaty of Versailles that shaped post-war Europe marked its emergence as a major world power.In the 1920s, new assembly-line manufacturing methods produced American goods at cheap prices for mass consumption. The American economy was going through a boom time, yet recent immigrants and black Americans, especially in the Southern States, often lived in appalling poverty. American corporations such as Ford and General Motors distrusted trade unions and refused them recognition in the workplace. There was a general ‘Red scare’ hysteria, and anarchists and communists became the target of witch-hunts, which culminated in the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case. In 1921 these two recent immigrants, alleged to be anarchists, were found guilty of murder on the flimsiest of evidence and were executed six years later.The 1920s became known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’. It was the Jazz Age, the era of the ‘flapper’ (young women who flouted conventions), mass spectator sports and the growth of the influence of the mass media, including tabloid newspapers and radio. Yet, there was widespread intolerance and racial violence, especially in the South. Fundamentalist Christian sects thrived in the Bible belt of the mid-West and the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution was even banned in some states. The Prohibition of Alcohol Act (1919) had banned the sale of alcohol, which only resulted in the growth of illegal bars known as ‘speakeasies’ and the domination of organised crime over illegal drinking.Then, in 1929, the bubble of prosperity burst and the Wall Street Crash brought economic chaos to America and the world. Unemployment rates zoomed upwards, numerous banks failed, the value of most company shares decreased with alarmingly and many companies collapsed. For the next twelve years, until America entered the Second World War, the country was battling against this ‘Depression’. The ‘American Dream’ of ever-increasing prosperity, the freedom to pursue personal goals allied to a close community ethos, the pursuit of happiness, love and the closeness of family ties, seemed to be just that: a dream.In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt and a Democratic administration were elected on the promise of delivering a ‘New Deal’, which would get America back to work and prosperity. The government invested in a system of public works and gave loans and grants to help business get back on its feet. Initiatives such as cash relief for the poor, the creation of jobs by building houses, roads, bridges and public buildings, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (to aid farming communities across seven states) were attempts to turn the economic tide, but by 1938, there were still 11 million people unemployed.Meanwhile in Europe, fascism had taken root in Germany and Italy: Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had come to power in Germany in 1933, and Mussolini’s fascists had imposed a totalitarian regime in Italy.In September 1939, the Second World War started in Europe. Two years later, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, America joined the war on the side of Britain and its allies. America was now on a war economy and its people went back to work.Modernism and expressionism in the artsDuring this period of great upheaval, most American artists viewed American society with growing disenchantment, which led to their alienation from the prevailing values of materialism and conformity. Writers such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Dos Passos became spokesmen for the ‘lost generation’, a term used to describe those who had been disoriented by their experience of the First World War and who felt ill at ease in the midst of what they saw as the grossness and callousness of the post-war world, with its emphasis on production and the acquisition of wealth.Modernism as a movement in the arts had had an impact in Europe from the 1880s on. Modernism grew out of this increasing alienation of artists from mainstream society with its ever-increasing regimentation, socialisation, urbanisation and consumerism. One of the essential characteristics of modernism was opposition to these materialistic and authoritarian aspects of modern society. Modernism seemed to advocate escape from the encroachments of a mass society that required its citizens to conform to a rigid work ethic. Not all modernists were on the left of the political divide, however. Some, for example, the poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, were politically conservative. American drama would produce several major figures during this period, some of whom would be dubbed ‘modernist’ and who would reflect in their plays the turmoil of these years. Dramatists would deal with new subject matter and themes, experiment with form and language, apply innovative theatrical techniques, break away from the straitjacket imposed by realism and create ‘expressionist’ drama.Expressionism was a movement in painting at the beginning of the 20th century in which artists, rather than attempting to create a version of ‘reality’, created a highly personal vision of the world that included distorted images symbolising inner psychological states. Expressionism also influenced the other arts and had a particularly strong influence on German and Scandinavian theatre.Major dramatists:Eugene O’ Neill, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, William Saroyan1941-60: drama of turmoil and uncertaintyThe historical, social and cultural contextAmerica emerged from the Second World War as the richest and most powerful nation in the world. The economic problems of the Depression had largely been solved by the war economy and, over the next fifteen years, many – but by no means all – American citizens would enjoy a substantial rise in their living standards. However, along with victory and this new affluence, came several legacies from the war:* Weapons of mass destruction had been use for the first time when America dropped nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945.* The Cold War with the Communist Eastern bloc countries began. A Third World War seemed possible against the other ‘superpower’, the Soviet Union.* The Cold War brought widespread paranoia about internal ‘Red’ subversion. The House Un-American Activities Committee started investigating Communist infiltration into American life, and writers came under particularly close scrutiny.To many Americans in the post-war years, it seemed that the ideals and policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal were under attack from an extreme right-wing conservatism.It was in this era of great American power and wealth, but also widespread fear, paranoia and the rumblings of rebellion, that Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams would establish themselves as the leading dramatists of their time. Through their plays, both would respond – albeit in very different – to the confusions and turmoil of post-war American society.Arthur Miller (1915- )Arthur Miller was born in New York to Jewish immigrant parents. In the depression years of the 1930s, he aligned himself with radical politics because he felt the economic system was failing millions of ordinary citizens. His origins and his experience of the Depression were very important influences in shaping his writing. In some ways, Miller resembles Clifford Odets: both are identified as radical, left-wing dramatists, although Odets was much more politically active than Miller.Miller’s early success was in a genre of play classed as social drama. In this genre, some aspect of contemporary society, an ‘issue’ or ‘social problem’, is represented on stage. This exposure of some corruption in the social fabric confronts the characters with moral dilemmas, which provide the basis for the dramatic conflict. A tightly structured plot leads to a climax in which the conflict is shown to be essentially between the ambitions and desires of the individual and the need to have society act in a just and caring manner towards all of its members.In Europe at the end of the 19th century, the most important exponent of the ‘social issue’ play had been Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright. Ibsen’s plays included A Doll’s House, which dealt with the oppression of women, and An Enemy of the People, which dealt with civic and political corruption. Arthur Miller has often been likened to Ibsen, especially in the plays produced early in his career. Indeed, in his first attempt to represent on the stage the sical issues of everyday life, using language that approximates to everyday speech and against settings that reproduce the ‘real’ settings in which these ‘people’ would have lived. In his later plays, such as Death of a Salesman, he would mix realistic setting and speech with expressionist techniques, using various theatrical devices to move away from a style of strict realism.Death of a Salesman (1949)Miller’s most famous play develops his recurring theme of the past impinging on the present and how it affects the members of a particular family. Willy Loman is the salesman of the title, who lives the life of a salesman with his whole being. As one of the characters says, ‘He’s the man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine’. Willy’s dreams are based on the acquisition of wealth. He is what some observers at this time were calling an ‘ organisation man’, an employee whose life was more or less totally dependent on the company he worked for.Miller’s stage directions for the play describe an expressionist set – a ‘shell-like’ and transparent Loman family home with no walls. When the action is set in the present, the characters behave as though they are in rooms with walls; when the action is set in the past, they walk through the empty space into another space on the stage. Whereas All My Sons had been essentially realist in its structure and language, Salesman uses an ‘everyday’ setting transformed by such theatrical means as sets, lighting, sound effects, music props and the use of stage space to evoke past and present time. For example, here are some stage directions from Act 1 of the play:Uncle Ben, carrying a valise and an umbrella, enters the forestage from around the right corner of the house … He enters exactly as Willy speaks. Ben’s music is heard. Ben looks around at everything.In this play, Miller seems to be handling ideas connected with the ‘American Dream’: the freedom of the individual, the pursuit of happiness, wealth, popularity, personal achievement and the sense of being part of a close community. However, in a society that seems only to value people for what they can deliver in terms of profit, Willy’s dreams are shown to be self-deluding. Many American writers of this era were concerned at the increasing emphasis on materialism and consumerism at the expense of developing a just and more equal society. Willy’s wife, Linda, says of him: ‘He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid’. Miller’s humanist values shine through the thematic content. Salesman has been called ‘a tragedy of the little man’.A feminist view of the play, however, might well be that it is a very male-dominated world that Miller represents with the concerns of Linda, the wife, portrayed only in relation to Willy and the sons, but otherwise sidelined. However, that may be imposing a contemporary reading on a play that was written in the 1940s when the issue of feminism would have been less to the fore than it is nowadays. Very few people in 1949 would have questioned how the wife’s concerns were represented in the play. Fifty years and more later, the play can be seen in the light of half a century of feminist advance and the dramatic function of the wife figure re-evaluated. The issue of whether American drama has consistently failed to represent women and their experience of American life adequately is open to debate.

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