The 20th century contained a great many seminal American playwrights. Two of the most renowned writers of this century were Arthur Miller and August Wilson. In addition to their work exploring many of the same themes, these individuals shared similar backgrounds, both emerging from a lower-middle class urban lifestyle. It is perhaps this background that largely informed their preoccupations with the themes of upward mobility and the American Dream. Indeed, writer Lorrie Moore called Wilson’s play ‘Fences’ “an African-American Death of a Salesmen”. Additionally, writing on the notion of this dream in ‘Death of a Salesman’ it’s that it noted that, “the post-industrial capitalist boom was the dream that constituted hard work, success, money, and freedom” (Masinski, xiv). Even as this statement refers specifically to Miller’s work it could just as easily refer to Wilson’s. This essay examines both of these dramatic works considering the ways that their themes mirror each other, specifically through their exploration of the American Dream.
From an overarching perspective Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ and August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ explore how different characters encounter the American Dream. One of the primary considerations in these regards occurs in terms of the patriarchs of the two plays – Willy Loman and Troy. While these individuals are from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds there is a striking similarity to many of their perspectives. At the beginning of the play both characters demonstrate an almost arrogance towards the challenges of the world. Frequently, Troy is situated as challenging death. He states, “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner” (Wilson, p. 12). Troy makes this statement in the context of his broader diatribe on death as a means of placing himself as an almost mythic figure. One considers that Loman similarly situates his life in a romantic context. In one of the most crucial scenes in the play, Loman asks his boss for a raise. In a plea to convince his boss, Loman relays an anecdotal tale. He states, “what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (Miller Act II, scene ii). Just as Troy situates himself as a baseball player bravely encountering life, Loman has positioned himself as a soldier returning to cities to great acclaim. While in these texts these statements represent a crucial element of the American Dream, achieving purpose in life, as well as achieving subsistence, in both works there is also the recognition that they are accompanied with a great degree of pomp and arrogance. It is this pretense that will later come to underline many of the cynical aspects of this American Dream.
As both works advance, the earlier notions of an idealized American Dream are gradually exposed. In great part this is more pronounced in Miller’s work, yet the theme of disillusionment is clearly a central part of both texts. While Loman has earlier asked for a raise, he is rebuffed. In these regards, Miller is highlighting the disillusionment Loman experiences with the American Dream. One need only consider that despite Loman’s considerable contributions and lifetime of work he is ultimately rebuffed by an individual younger and more powerful than himself. Willy states, “Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground” (Miller 122). Additionally, it seems that Miller is highlighting that the simple pursuit of financial gain is short-sited. While this disillusionment is more pronounced in Miller’s text, Wilson also explores similar concerns. He writes, “You got to take the crookeds with the straights. That’s what Papa used to say” (Wilson, p. 25). Lyons makes this statement to Cory. He is referring to the challenges that he and Cory have specifically encountered and is directly presenting their father Troy’s take on life. In both texts there is the recognition that debilitating setbacks and disillusionment often punctures the search for the American Dream.
In articulating aspects of the American Dream, both texts also explore different gender perspectives. To an extent Miller through Linda, and Wilson through Rose, implement a traditional patriarchal view of women. Both women are largely depicted as a characteristic 1950s housewife. Still, in crucial ways these women represent the support system that holds the family together. In Wilson’s text Rose can even be viewed as the most central element of the story through her desire for Troy to build a fence. Wilson writes, “’Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you’” (Wilson, p. 36). In these regards, the fence comes to represent a metaphor for the desire to build a structure where the entire family can be together and protected. Linda expresses similar sentiments in Death of a Salesman. Regarding the family’s song Biff Linda states, “I don’t know. I think he’s still lost, Willy. I think he’s very lost” (Miller, pg. 10), in response to a conversation about their son Biff. This statement demonstrates her primary concern with the family and bringing the ‘lost’ child under this familial protection, just as Rose wants the fence to do with her family. This parallel between the two women is seen in other contexts as well. For instance Linda’s relationship with Willy Loman is one of great help and support. She also encourages Loman to ask his boss for a raise and commiserates with him regarding his day.
Another consideration is how the matriarchs handle their husbands’ physical and mental demise. In both instances the family patriarchs – Loman and Troy – have died. As Cory returns he initially refuses to attend his own father’s funeral out of his rejection of his father’s earlier arguments. As a response to this Rose informs Cory that not attending the funeral does not demonstrate that he is a man. One witnesses a similar occurrence in Death of a Salesman as Linda takes a protective role in regards to Loman. After Loman becomes mentally unbalanced Linda presents strong support and insight into his condition. She states, “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper… But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog” (Miller, pg. 32). In both situations the women – Linda with Loman and Rose with Troy — demonstrate a strong recognition of the social and cultural milieu, as well as functions as a moral center to the play.
In addition to the texts’ interrelation of gender perspectives and the American Dream they both also explore the interrelation between the father and son. Within the context of ‘Fences’ this is explored in multiple lines. One of the major such considerations occurs as Troy and Cory directly disagree regarding Cory’s future. Troy emphasizes the importance of work in the grocery store, while Cory has the wish to attend college and play football. One considers that to a great part a similar conflict is witnessed between Loman and his son Biff. Just like Cory, Loman’s son Biff’s took a different route in life than his father. Biff states, “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?” (Miller, p. 20). Rather than pursuing a traditional career, as Loman has done, Biff pursued what could be argued to be a more spiritual existence. Biff’s life focused on enjoying his life in a natural and functional way, rather than the direct pursuit of money. One witnesses a similar occurrence with Cory and his desire to play football.
In further considering the texts’ exploration of the American Dream one considers their concluding elements. It seems in both instances the texts point the way forward in optimistic ways. Wilson writes, “You can’t visit the sins of the father upon the child” (Wilson, 33). This refers to Rose’s statement in taking in Troy’s illegitimate child. Conversely, at the conclusion of Miller’s it seems that Biff has reached a level of peace with himself, while Loman commits suicide. While each play may be making different statements in this quotes, one of the central linking considerations is that while the fathers are deceased their sons live on and can rectify many of the mistakes their progenitors made. Ultimately, then, both texts end with a degree of optimism.
In conclusion, this essay has examined Wilson’s ‘Fences’ and Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ in terms of the texts’ underlining similarities. Within this spectrum of investigation the research has demonstrated that writer Moore’s claim that Wilson’s play Fences is “an African-American Death of a Salesmen” has a great degree of validity. In these regards, both texts consider the challenges of survival in the United States and the inevitable challenges and disillusionment that accompanies these strivings.
- Masinski, Dervin. The American Century: Miller & Hemingway Critical Perspectives. New York: Templeton Press. 1991.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin. 2001.
- Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2008.