The Death of a Culture

There are critics who think that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Those who would nominate Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or The Skin of Our Teeth find them much more profound from a metaphysical point of view. We can hear the mystics speak in both of Wilder’s plays. Some of the characters have insights into what it means to be contained in a narrative of Oneness and how it feels when they hear the whispers of the still, small voice.

The Greek tragedies set the standard for theatre and still provide the yardstick by which serious drama is measured. Although neither of Wilder’s plays are tragedies as defined by Aristotle, compassion, humor and brilliant storytelling lead straight to the human heart. Wilder’s plays point to the possibility of self-transformation.

Salesman warns of the trap inherent in a story created by the false-self dependent intellect. Looking at Salesman as a warning or prophecy we might see more than the tragic life of one misguided individual, we might see the death of a culture.

The uniquely American expression of P-B is fundamentally the same as any other culture or narrative in the world but it does have some interesting and tragic expressions that we are not aware of. Like humanity as a whole the American male represses or denies some of his most self-destructive behavioral traits. The American female supports, aids and abets him in these behaviors but not always.

Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman taught his sons the myth of American exceptionalism. That is a good thing right, a point of pride? In fact, as Arthur Miller understood, that myth destroyed both Willy and his sons. That myth in its fullest expression is destroying America today.

The only way America is exceptional today is that it is exceptionally afraid. The macho American male would be loath to admit that but machismo is precisely acted out to delude the Tarzan who is beating his chest that he is indeed not afraid. Methinks he doth protest too much, in fact, we know he does.

Looking at beliefs and values, key components of the American worldview, we see competition (survival of the fittest), football (violence is admired for its own sake), NASCAR (destruction as a form of violence affirms the “toughness” and insecurity of both spectator and participant alike), gun racks in pickup trucks and the proliferation of weapons in general (we are afraid but if enough of us have enough weapons we can defeat the shadow characters that occupy our anxious minds), and finally the American male is superior to the American female and people of color, different religions, ethnicities, etc. (the other exists so the American male can project his shadow and gain some measure of relief from the specters that haunt his dreams).


References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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