Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Historical Context in Master Harold and Death of a Salesman

Both "Master Harold and the Boys" and "Death of a Salesman" take place in tumultuous periods in their respective countries' history. These periods provide the backdrop for both plays and the basis for many of the thematic elements present in the narratives. Using the conditions imposed by apartheid in South Africa and the aftermath of World War II in the U.S, both dramas explore the response of a contained group to certain stressors.

"Master Harold and the Boys" takes place during the apartheid era in South Africa, the period in which racial segregation and discrimination were institutionalized in the country. Social reform is a major thematic element discussed in the play, with Sam and Hally stopping to discuss what it truly means to be a “social reformer”. Each suggests his own examples of “a man of some magnitude”, but while Sam’s first instinct is a man who has made tangible societal and racial progressions, Abraham Lincoln, whereas Hally suggests Charles Darwin, a man who only reformed society in terms of high-browed intellectual dialogue. Darwin's theory of evolution didn't help improve conditions for slaves in 19th century America or blacks in apartheid-era South Africa. Rather, he suggested a concept that only the intellectuals and aristocrats of Europe were really exposed to.

"Death of a Salesman" follows the Loman family in the aftermath of the second World War and chronicles their catastrophic financial failures.  The World War II era occurred 30 years after the American Great Depression and the era that followed was idealized as a "golden age" for the United States, a period of unbridled capitalist success in the face of Soviet Communism. Willy possesses a similarly romanticized perception of life and work as he continuously contends that Biff and Happy will be successful, even when all evidence points to them being wholly unsuccessful. When discussing Biff's work ethic with his wife Linda, Willy rationalizes that "Certain men just don’t get started till later in life. Like Thomas Edison." The most apt comparison in Willy's opinion for Biff, a kleptomaniac who threw away his college education, is Thomas Edison. Willy operates under the assumption that there is always hope for his sons even when, with the financial reality of a working class family and his sons' blatant lack of work ethic.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Sets of 'Worlds' in Death of a Salesman and the Importance of Being Earnest

In "Death of a Salesman", our protagonist, Willy Loman drifts into nostalgic daydreams and memories of a bygone era of success and hope, often inhibiting his already limited capacity to work and function in daily life. The result is a man attached to an idealistic imagining of the "American Dream", one in which everyone can succeed, especially a football star who refuses to study. In many ways the play mirrors The Great Gatsby, in that they are both social commentaries with much to say about the state of the American Dream. Both Willy and Gatsby believe that they'll "break through" and reach validation through perseverance in the American capitalist system, and both men have an interesting relationship with the past. Whereas Willy is stuck in the past, Gatsby refuses to acknowledge that the past is static. 

Both "Death of a Salesman" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" involve separate 'worlds' that the characters interact with. In "Earnest" the division is between the city world and the country world, a divide that is bridged through the act of Bunburying. Both Algie and Jack are forced to develop alternate personas in order to freely operate in the city and in the country. In "Salesman", the different 'worlds' that are explored are the idealistic, optimistic memories of Willy's past, and the true, bleak reality of the present. Both sets of realms function in order to allow the playwrights opportunity for social commentary. The disparity between Willy's idea of how his life should have turned out and his current state of affairs is emblematic of the disconnect between the American Dream and economic realities in the great depression. The way in which Algie and Jack change temperament and behavior to fit either the country or the city demonstrates the ease with which British aristocrats changed how they acted. Wilde and Miller both implement contrasting 'Worlds' in order to comment on societal phenomena.