I have taught six sections of Theatre Appreciation in my lifetime, and for each of the sections, I required students to read what some consider to be the great American tragedy, Death of a Salesman. Then, I asked them if they thought that it was true. Is Death of a Salesman the great American tragedy?
You probably know the story. Homeboy Willy Loman is living the dream, or trying to. A traveling salesman, he's worked his whole life to see his family shine in the light of the American Dream. However you define that, I'll go out on a limb and say that we can all agree that it has something to do with rising to the top, being able to have whatever we need without having to worry about anything...and it may also include without being limited to...at least fifteen minutes of fame.
When Willy doesn't reach great heights in his heyday, he looks to his son, Biff. Surely Biff will carry on the "family name" through success. He was successful in high school; thus, there is no reason he should not be successful beyond.
There is an ongoing literary dispute over the contention that this play is truly a tragedy. Yes, it is tragic, but a tragic life or tragic ending and a tragedy are two different things.
In Aristotle's Poetics, he describes tragedy as being, "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament...in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis [sic] of such emotions..."
Confused? Well, first of all, just so you know, "[sic]" in the middle of a quote means that I know that the previous word is misspelled (or grammatically incorrect), but I gotta be true to the guy that wrote it. Secondly, what?
In theatre, as in most forms of literature, we cling desperately to the past. In the case of the dramatics, we hold to the Greeks because they were the first dudes to start writing stuff down about theatre. Also, they wrote plays...and a guy named Thespis one day was all, "I sound better than all these people in this [Greek] chorus, so I'm going to step out in front and start talking alone." Thus, self-centered, and mostly ignorant to the true art of the form actors were born. GUH. (I'm kiddin, y'all. I'm an actor)
The tradition of the Greek Tragedy was to have a tragic hero, described by Aristotle as "a man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake."Aristotle actually defines the man as a great man, a man who is regarded as a good man from a good family. Mistake is also defined as a "tragic flaw." Every tragic hero has a flaw that makes him predisposed to tragedy. It's not that our hero trips accidentally. There is an error in his character.
And we, the audience, watch him fight a great enemy (through actions and events, rather than a narrative), knowing that he will fail because of his tragic flaw. The enemies he goes up against are not "bad guys," or "villains," but rather representations of truly unbeatable odds. In most Greek tragedies, heroes fight the gods or even worse, they fight the inevitability of fate. Who here has read Oedipus the King?
So, with that in mind, is the American Dream a god? Is it fate? Or is it an idea? Is Willy Loman a true hero? Does he die victoriously standing tall in the face of his fate? When you finish reading or watching Arthur Miller's famous play, do you feel the purging of all of your fears?
Did I mention that part? Aristotle's "Katharsis" is possibly the most important part of the tragedy. If we know our hero is going to fight that which cannot be defeated, and we know he is going to suffer and probably die, why on EARTH do we waste our time watching tragedies? Because we do. We love watching a derailed train charge to its destruction. What happens to us in the end?
Catharsis. The internet defines it as "the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions." We applaud the man or woman who is brave enough, despite his or her inevitable fall, to stand up to fate, and to stand proud. Because we all die. And we all fear death. We are all going to die, and we are all terrified of that finality of life. The end of everything we know or can define. We fear it so much that we rarely even speak of it. But the tragedians are not afraid to bring it center stage, to make us see it face to face, and through their fearlessness in the art, we are given relief from our greatest fear...if only for a moment.
Therefore, before you read the NEXT blog that I write, I want you to ask yourself: Do you feel relief when Loman decides to kill himself? Do you feel that Willy is a tragic Hero? Are you satisfied with the ending of Death of a Salesman? Or do you feel more hopeless than ever about the fate of the American pitted against the demands of the Dream?
And finally, did you watch Breaking Bad?