An age of optimism in life is not necessarily an age of optimism in literature; quite the reverse. It is as if writers, at any rate serious ones, were constant seekers after the worm in the bud, or dogs in the manger, or Banquo’s ghost.
The 1950s in America were an age of optimism in life. What the Chinese call the mandate of heaven seemed to have descended, and descended for good, on the United states: Not only was it pre-eminent in every field of human endeavor, the greatest economic and military power the world had yet seen, and the greatest creditor nation in history, but it was so increasingly prosperous that increasing prosperity came to be accepted as the natural order of things, at least in and for America. A perpetually rising income, a new car every year, labor-saving gadgets by the score and annual vacations in the sun were within the reach of almost everyone. It was an era of mens sana in corpore sano.
But America’s two most important playwrights of that era—and the country has since produced no playwrights more important—were resolutely and deeply pessimistic, both in their lives and in their work. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller wrote dramas of almost volcanic emotion, whose magma of despair broke through the bedrock of ambient optimism. Why should this have been, and how is the paradox to be resolved? Was it all merely a matter of personal psychology and experience, that is to say a quirk of nature and circumstance, or was there something deeper, more philosophical, about their pessimism?
The question occurred to me as I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop, where I found and started to read a copy of a late play by Williams, of which I had not previously heard, called Small Craft Warnings. First performed in 1972, the action takes place in a small bar in a coastal town between Los Angeles and San Diego. That the play is set in a region that acts as a great magnet for hedonists is surely not a coincidence. The weather for the duration of the play, however, is foggy, not clear by night and sunny by day, as migrants to southern California imagine it always to be; and the pleasures of the characters are furtive and fleeting, being soon followed by disgust or retribution.
The characters are the bar owner, Monk (he lives alone), and a small number of drifters, temporary residents of the town who become habitués of the bar while they remain in the town. Among them is Doc, an alcoholic physician who has lost his license for having operated on someone while drunk, but who, wherever he goes, carries on a clandestine practice among people who live in trailer parks, performing such services as illegal abortions and at-home deliveries. He is, as it were, wanted, dead or alive.
The presence of an educated professional among the hopeless drifters and outcasts is symbolically significant, for the lack of purpose and direction in the lives of the characters cannot then be attributed simply to the absence of opportunity, such as might plausibly (but not truthfully) explain the lack of direction in the lives of the ignorant and the unskilled. On the contrary, it was a golden age, if not of American medicine, then at least for American doctors. They were rewarded financially as never before and had not yet lost the respect of the public; they were all still oracles in white coats, and each was a Daniel come to judgment. Doc, however, finds nothing sufficiently attractive to him in the rewards that his education and training make easily available, and that in the normal course of events would be his, to divert him from the bottle and from his downward spiral from sentient life to terminal stupor. This suggests that he considers those rewards illusory or not worth the having.
One doctor does not a profession make, of course; in a profession that has hundreds of thousands of people in it, there are bound to be misfits of every kind. But Doc’s nihilism is in fact a reflection of the existential anxieties that are present in many of Williams’s (and Miller’s) plays.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), for example, Big Daddy, the owner of all he surveys, has fulfilled his ambition, indeed the American dream lies at his feet. Starting from nothing, he has become extremely rich:
I quit school at ten! I quit school at ten years old and went to work like a nigger in the fields. And I rose to be overseer of the Straw and Ochello plantation. And old Straw died and I was Ochello’s partner and the place got bigger and bigger and bigger! I did all that myself.
But his success—“ten million in cash and twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile”—has not brought him peace of mind, let alone happiness. He suspects his wife of wanting him dead so that she can take over; one son, Gooper, and his family are fawning intriguers, and the other son, Brick, is an ineffectual alcoholic unimpressed by material wealth and the whole of the American dream. “Mendacity is a system that we live in”, Brick declares. “Liquor is one way out an’ death’s another.”
The fact of death is at the heart of the mendacity that Brick believes everyone lives in and by. Big Daddy has terminal cancer of the bowel, but no one will tell him so, because they fear his reaction; he deludes himself into thinking that he has only a spastic colon. He is terrified of death because life has no meaning beyond its own continuation, death being the end of everything; indeed, he is obsessed by death. He muses on how his money allows him to buy whatever he likes in Europe a few years after the war: “But a man can’t buy his life with [money], he can’t buy back his life with it when his life has been spent, that’s one thing not offered in the Europe fire-sale or in the American markets or any markets on earth.” Or again: “The human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!”
What, then, of religion, the famed American belief in God and good works? “Church!—It bores the Bejasus out of me but I go!—I go an’ sit there and listen to the fool preacher! Clubs!—Elks! Masons! Rotary!—crap!”
The preacher, the Reverend Tooker, is contemptible, and is also at heart a grasping materialist, for he is more interested in having his church air-conditioned than in the life everlasting. Expecting Big Daddy to die soon, he addresses his soon-to-be grieving family with words of comfort: “Did you all know that Halsey Banks’ widow put air-conditioning units in the church and rectory at Friar’s Point in memory of Halsey?”
What is left? Civilization? “That Europe is nothin’ on earth but a great big auction, that’s all it is”, Big Daddy claims, “that bunch of old worn-out places, it’s just a big fire-sale… bought, bought, bought!—lucky I’m a rich man, yes siree, and half that stuff is mildewin’ in th’ basement.” At the heart of the American dream being fulfilled for untold numbers of Americans lies an existential void.
It is to that void that Williams returns in play after play. In The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963), rich, dying widow Mrs. Goforth clings on to life. She has two days to live but is still concerned about the stock market, even though she has no one to leave her money to. On the telephone to her broker, she speaks as urgently as if she had fifty more years ahead of her:
Chuck, baby, how’re we doing? Ah-huh, glamour stocks still slipping? Don’t hold on to ’em, dump them before they drop under what I bought ’em at, baby. We’ll start buying back when they hit basement level.—Don’t give me an argument, SELL! SELL! HELL!—It’s building into a crash! So, baby, I’m hitting the silk! High, low, Jack and the game! Ho ho!
The poignant absurdity of this is clear, and suggests that her previous life has been just as empty, that is to say one of accumulation for accumulation’s sake.
Her amanuensis for the memoirs she is dictating, when asked by a poet who turns up at her villa whether she does not know that she is dying, responds, “Dying? Oh no! Won’t face it! Apparently never thought that her—legendary—existence could go on less than forever!” A little later, Mrs. Goforth dictates the passage in which she describes the death of the last of her several rich husbands:
The death of Harlon Goforth, just now—clearly—remembered, clear as a vision. It’s night, late night, without sleep. He’s crushing me under the awful weight of his body. Then suddenly he stops trying to make love to me. He says, Flora, I have a pain in my head. And silently, to myself, I say, Thank God, but out loud I say something else: ‘Tablets, you want your tablets?’ He answers with a groan of—I reach up and turn on the light, and I see—death in his eyes! I see, I know. He has death in his eyes, and something worse in them, terror… I see it, I feel it, myself, and I get out of the bed, I get out of the bed as if escaping from quicksand!
This is, apart from anything else, writing of genius. But it again points to the void at the heart of life, however materially prosperous, and is confirmed by something Mrs. Goforth says a little later, “I’ve wondered more lately: [about the] meaning of life—sometimes I think, I suspect, that everything we do is a way of—not thinking about it. Meaning of life, and meaning of death, too.”
In The Night of the Iguana (1961), a Williams play better known than many through the star-studded Hollywood film made of it, an old blind poet in a wheelchair and his granddaughter arrive at the rustic Costa Verde Hotel in Mexico. Before he dies he wants to finish a poem that is the summation of his life. In fact, he dies very shortly after completing it. The first verse goes: “How calmly does the orange branch/Observe the sky begin to blanch/Without a cry, without a prayer,/With no betrayal of despair.”
Eventually, the tree dies and is incorporated into the ground by “The earth’s obscene, corrupting love,” but “With no betrayal of despair.” The final stanza goes: “O Courage, could you not as well Select a second place to dwell, Not only in that golden tree But in the frightened heart of me?”
And in Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), Boss Finley, the corrupt (and again self-made) big man of the town of St. Cloud on the Gulf coast, describes how he attempts to divert his wife from thoughts of death with diamonds:
Last thing I gave your mama before she died… I knowed she was dyin’ when I bought her that clip, and I bought that clip for fifteen thousand dollars mainly to make her think she was going to get well… And she sat up bright as a little bird in that bed with the diamond clip on… And not till the very last moment did she believe that the diamonds wasn’t a proof that she wasn’t dying.
If death is the ultimate mocker of the American dream in Tennessee Williams, in Arthur Miller (the lesser playwright, in my opinion) it is failure, inauthenticity and meaninglessness that vitiate it. Failure can be moral or material, or both. A man who fails economically fails because he does not achieve his dream. A man who succeeds economically fails because his dream is empty and shallow, and in the process has done violence to his soul. Either way, failure is guaranteed.
In All My Sons (1947), Chris Keller, the son of a successful self-made manufacturer of aircraft parts, tells of his disillusionment when he returned from the war. “I came home and it was incredible. I—there was no meaning in it [the war] here; the whole thing to them was a kind of a—bus accident.” If that vast conflict could be seen as nothing more than an accident on a large scale, with no more meaning than an accident, what meaning could life itself have for them?
Chris Keller’s father, Joe, has hitherto successfully concealed the fact that, for business reasons, he allowed faulty parts from his factory during the war to be fitted to aircraft that crashed as a result. If he had not done so, he might have lost the contract for failure to supply the parts on time; and when his son discovers this, the father defends himself by saying that he did it for his son, so that he might have a better life. His son, who at the time was away fighting the war, explodes:
For me?—I was dying every day and you were killing my boys and you did it for me? What the hell do you think I was thinking of, the Goddam business? Is that as far as your mind can see, the business? What is that, the world—the business?
By implication, of course, many Americans, and not just Joe Keller, are so narrowly focused on their own affairs that they are blind to deeper moral questions and finer purposes. The American dream, at least according to the playwrights, is essentially one of self-enrichment; but even where successful it is not satisfying, for it estranges the successful from their own families. The success of Joe Keller, a man who has built up his own business, leads to the ultimate failure: his suicide.
In A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge, one-act plays that debuted together in 1955, the economic institutions necessary for the fulfillment of the American dream estrange people from nature and beauty. The windows of the warehouse in A Memory of Two Mondays have never been cleaned; and Kenneth, a new immigrant from Ireland whose romantic imagination has not yet been entirely squelched by the routine of the warehouse, says of the windows, if cleaned: “With all this glass we might observe the clouds and the various signs of approaching storms. And there might even be a bird now and again.”
Later, Kenneth forgets the poetry he knew when he arrived, and Bert, another worker in the warehouse, says to him, “There’s too much to do in this country for that kinda stuff.”
In A View from the Bridge, two illegal immigrants from Sicily lodge with a family of Italian Americans. But the American dream for the Sicilians is as much loss as gain, the loss being qualitative and the gain being quantitative. For in every town in Sicily there is a fountain around which people gather to talk, and there are orange and lemon trees. But their host, Eddie Carbone, has lost touch with orange and lemon trees, and is like the English children of the slums who thought that milk originated in bottles. Here he is discussing them with the immigrants, Marco and Rodolpho:
EDDIE [to MARCO]: I heard they paint oranges to make them look orange.
EDDIE: Yeah, I heard they grow like green.
MARCO: No, in Italy the oranges are orange.
RODOLPHO: Lemons are green.
EDDIE [resenting his instruction]: I know lemons are green, for Christ’s sake, you see them in the stores they’re green sometimes. I said oranges they paint, I didn’t say nothin’ about lemons.
Eddie’s ignorance and gullibility, and his sensitivity about it, are not laughable; they are tragic, the result of the truncated existence as a longshoreman that has given him the standard of living that attracted the Sicilians to America in the first place. The American dream merely replaces one form of deprivation by another.
Existential problems are more explicit still in Death of a Salesman (1949). Willy Loman conceives of success in purely financial terms, but judged financially he is an abysmal failure despite having worked hard all his life. Unfortunately, there must be failure for there to be success because, as Doctor Johnson said, all judgment is comparative. Not everyone can be a success, therefore, any more than everyone can be above average height or intelligence.
His son, Biff, was a great success at school until overcome by a sense, if not of futility, at least of doubt as to what life is for, and has drifted ever since. He has the example of his father’s failure before him. He says: “I don’t know what the future is. I don’t know—what I’m supposed to want.” He tells his mother, “I just can’t take hold, Mom. I can’t take hold of some kind of a life.”
Willy’s other son, Happy, wants to emulate the merchandise manager at the store where he works, but it is clear that he is worshipping a false god, for the manager: “just built a terrific estate on Long Island. And he lived there two months and sold it, and now he’s building another one. He can’t enjoy it once it’s finished.”
This restlessness, even in apparent success, recalls the myth of Sisyphus, except that the compulsion comes from within rather than from without. Miller intends us to see the compulsion’s absurdity, its pointlessness, and its wretchedness. It is precisely the nature of the American dream that enough is never enough.
Biff suggests to Happy that they go west, to live authentically in the great outdoors; but though Happy agrees, he first wants to prove himself: “I gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade. I want to walk in the store the way [the manager] walks in.” We know that he will devote his whole life to this worthless ambition, which in the end will embitter him whether he succeeds or fails.
Willy Loman seals his own misery, as it were, when he says of Biff’s directionless existence: “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness gets lost.” But if Biff is in the greatest country in the world, and could therefore have whatever he liked, so too could Willy. In a democratic meritocracy where success is worshipped as a god, failures such as he have few psychological defenses left to them. Willy has reached the time of life when his failure is unmistakably clear and irreversible. Disappointment and self-loathing, Miller implies, are the inescapable reverse of the coin of success. But even had he been successful according to his own criteria, he would not have been satisfied because of the shallowness of his criteria, which are those of the American dream.
This is not to say that a society in which everyone occupied precisely the place ascribed to him by birth—hardly possible in the modern world in any case—would be better, even though it would avoid bouyant America’s particular categories of success and failure. It would have other miseries; and the demand for the establishment of a meritocracy would soon arise in such a society, which would bring in its train the pains of failure as well as the pleasures (and disappointments) of success.
Both Williams and Miller took pains to draw attention to the existential limitations of human life, to which the American dream is not, in their view, an adequate response. The fact that there is not a better one, deep religious conviction aside (which most Americans do not have, polls of belief in God and church attendance notwithstanding), only makes matters worse. It is therefore natural that these existential limitations should have been pointed out by acute and reflective writers precisely at a time of general optimism, for when palpable dissatisfactions arise from specific circumstances—war, economic depression, epidemics and so forth—the illusion is possible that, once the circumstances improve, life will become free of dissatisfactions. It never will, of course, which is perhaps why the best of times, as some writer once said, can also be the worst of times. It is bitter indeed to come close enough to bliss to smell it but not to taste it.
Doctor Johnson had it right:
Life is not long, and too much of it should not be spent in idle deliberation how it shall be spent: deliberation, which those who begin it by prudence, and continue it with subtlety, must, after long expense of thought, conclude by chance. To prefer one mode of life to another, upon just reasons, requires faculties which it has not pleased our Creator to give us.
But how do we translate such theoretical wisdom into practice? (Not by attending the great plays of Williams and Miller, to be sure. But who would want to miss them?) Perhaps it is enough to know that if good times need not make us happy, bad times need not make us despair. There is energy and opportunity, after all, in crisis and even in fear. As anyone who has faced danger can tell you, it has the merit of obliterating for a time the existential questions that torment but have no answer. That, after all, is why war correspondents often become war-junkies, not playwrights.