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The American mythology of the American Dream clearly dominates the theme in the plays Death of a Salesman and Buried Child.
In Death of a Salesman, the concept of the American Dream is explained byArthur Miller as
the belief that through the pioneer virtues of hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, and fortitude, one might find happiness through wealth
The intended meaning of this belief is that there is a fixed formula to attain satisfaction from life. At the time and setting of Death of a Salesman, the New Deal that Willy and many others in society bought into brought with it a lot of imaginative ways for people to join "rich quick" schemes. As society was presumably progressing, the idea was that acquiring things to show "how hard you have worked" means making "something" of yourself. Therefore, symbols in the play such as the Chevy, the game at Ebbets Field, Biff's bodily constitution, Willy's mistress, and Dave Singleman are key points in Willy's life that he (and only he) would consider points of success.
In addition to making Willy's American Dream seem so shallow, Miller also makes Willy, himself, a complete antihero. Far from the hard-working, money-earning, faithful husband and dedicated parent, Willy is weak, full of complexes, insecure,and has achieved nothing. This fake existence lives on and continues, as he passes his chaotic personality on to his own two sons, who are equally unable to make good choices and wean out of their parents' presence. The passing on of bad traits from father to sons is also part of the upbringing that Willy chooses for his children, who are weak and isolated while their egos were grossly overfed with fantastic remarks and disproportionate praising.
Hence, the author shares the very American tendency to place hope in the future generations; to see in our children all the success and charm that we cannot find in ourselves. Yet, when they too fail to meet the dreams that we have set out for them is when we realize that our children are a reflection of us, and of our own choices....is it nature, or is it nurture? That is the question. Moreover, is the American Dream real? That is what Arthur Miller ultimately asks the audience.
Sam Shepard shares this ambivalent and ambiguous opinion about the American Dream in Buried Child. In an interview with Matthew Roudanné in the year 2000, Shepard declared not knowing exactly what is the American Dream, or how would it positively influence anyone's life.
the myth of the American Dream has caused extraordinary havoc, and it is going to be our demise...this notion that not only were we given this land by God somehow, but that we are entitled to do whatever we want with it, and reap all the fortunes out of the land, much to the detriment of everybody else.
We certainly see this opinion embodied in full in his play. Living in a field where a "Normal Rockwell" type house stands, what seems to be an All-American family hides the most hideous sins and secrets. Halie and Dodge are not a fulfilled marriage. They just play the part and co-exist in ambivalent tolerance of one another. Their sons, who also are unable to wean away from them, are older but too chaotic to live alone. Tilden, the oldest is an idiot savant who commits an atrocious crime in New Mexico and is banned from the state. Bradley is an abusive son, who is also an amputee, Vince is the only son that is able to escape and lead a normal life but, like Biff and Happy, keeps gravitating back to the household as he is in need to find himself. Ansel, the dead son whom Halie romanticizes as a would-have-been hero, is the scapegoat that Halie needs to tolerate her life.
Similar "American Dream" issues occur in this play- A secret is kept. Appearances are kept as well. When Shelly, Vince's girlfriend, enters the scene she is the only "outsider" that could really peek inside what goes on in the "Normal Rockwell" looking house: emasculation, incest, murder, dejection, physical abuse, sickness, sexual deviance, and lies everywhere. All this carefully hidden by Dodge's baseball cap, which covers his abused head when Bradley attacks; by the manicured landscape, and by the whimsical house that hides it all in. When it is known that the child conceived by Tilden and his mother was killed by Dodge and is buried on the back of the home, Dodge dies, leaving a legacy of chaos behind him. Still, Shepard shows over and over how normalcy can masks a plethora of unfinished business and inconvenient truths that make the American Dream even more unattainable and, as a result, will make us even more miserable in the end.
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