The Convergence of Death and Truth in Early American Theater
By: Sarit Perl
The emergence of American theater in the mid-20th century was colored by family plays that explored relationships, conflict, and loss. Our Town by Thornton Wilder, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller are three such plays that confront these themes. Death in particular takes center stage in each of these plays; the entire third act of Our Town depicts a funeral and its lead character’s journey in the afterlife, Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire is haunted by the death of her husband, and Death of a Salesman makes it clear from just the title that Willy Loman’s struggle is a mortal one. Although the encounters with death and the roles that it plays are very different in each story, each of the playwrights draw some connection between death and truth or clarity. Whether for those who experience it themselves or those who are left behind, the notion of death as a revealer of truth is a prevalent theme that Wilder, Williams, and Miller have all chosen to examine through their plays. In doing so, these playwrights challenge their audiences to reflect on the times these two elements appear in their own lives, and the ways in which they – and the rest of humanity – respond when they do.
In Our Town, Thornton Wilder writes Act III from the perspective of the dead looking down on the living in order to depict the omniscience and resulting detachment of those who have left the world. Emily Webb, the show’s female lead, has passed away in childbirth and is ascending to join those who have died before her. Wilder places Emily in a state of transition in which she is quickly absorbing the truths that her new perspective affords, expressing these new truths as she realizes them: “Oh, Mother Gibbs, I never realized before how troubled and how . . . how in the dark live persons are. Look at him. I loved him so. From morning till night, that’s all they are – troubled” (Wilder 74). However, being newly dead, she still feels a connection to the world of the living and longs to encounter it again. She chooses to relive a day of her life, despite warnings that it will be painful. As she watches herself and her family play through her twelfth birthday, she is agonized by how quickly time passes and how flippant and distracted everyone seems to be. The clarity that death has given her allows her to see how blind she had been in life, how foolish she and her loved ones had been not to cherish each other’s company while they were still together. She wonders:
EMILY:… Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER: No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.
Through Emily’s journey, Wilder tasks his audience to consider their lives, their relationships, and the opportunities they will regret having missed when the clarity of death reveals to them the beauty of life.
In his play A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams creates a character, Blanche, whose personality and motivations trace back to an experience she had in which the revelation of truth led to a tragic death. The playwright subtly alludes to a traumatic incident in Blanche’s past from the very beginning of the show, but the details are not revealed until Scene 6:
We danced the Varsouviana! Suddenly in the middle of the dance the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out of the casino. A few moments later–a shot!
[The polka stops abruptly. Blanche rises stiffly. Then, the polka resumes in a major key.]
I ran out–all did!–all ran and gathered about the terrible thing at the edge of the lake! I couldn’t get near for the crowding. Then somebody caught my arm. “Don’t go any closer! Come back! You don’t want to see!” See? See what! Then I heard voices say–Allan! Allan! The Grey boy! He’d stuck the revolver into his mouth, and fired–so that the back of his head had been–blown away!
[She sways and covers her face.]
It was because–on the dance-floor–unable to stop myself–I’d suddenly said–“I saw! I know! You disgust me…” And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this–kitchen– candle…
As a result of her traumatic brush with uncensored truth and the mental and emotional pain it caused, Blanche insists on living the rest of her life in willful naivete. She insists, “I don’t want realism. I want–– magic!” (Williams 80). Blanche romanticizes the world around her, intentionally ignoring harsh realities that seep in to her consciousness despite her attempts to maintain the illusion she has constructed. She presents herself through illusion as well; lying about her age, refusing to appear in bright light, concealing stories from her past (Williams 55, 80). She does all this to protect herself – she so closely associates truth with loss that she believes she cannot have one without having to endure the other. Blanche’s delusions and their incompatibility with the world around her are the underlying catalysts that fuel the events of the play. Williams seems to present her as a cautionary tale, a warning against the dangers of either too much or too little truth.
Arthur Miller’s exploration of this theme in Death of a Salesman is evident in his titular character’s belief that the true measure of one’s life is revealed in his death. Willy Loman glorifies the “death of a salesman” – one that occurs after a long full life, and yet the salesman is still on the job until the end; his success marked by the luxury items he owns and how widely he is mourned (Miller 66-67). Willy finds himself fired from his job, with no other prospects, but still desperate to prove to himself and his family that he is capable of attaining this particular vision of the American Dream that he has held onto his whole career. In his deluded mental state, he convinces himself that the only way to accomplish this is to commit suicide; his family will thrive on his twenty thousand dollar life insurance and will idolize him as a heroic martyr. It is especially important to him to prove his worth to his son Biff:
Because he thinks I’m nothing, see, and so he spites me. But the funeral— [Straightening up.] Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old-timers with the strange license plates—that boy will be thunder-struck, Ben, because he never realized—I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey—I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all.
Biff had long since condemned his father’s lifestyle, but Willy believes that his death will demonstrate to Biff that he did in fact gain success and that Biff can reach it too by following in his footsteps. Miller writes these scenes as a conversation between Willy and his dead brother Ben, a figment of his imagination whom he reveres as the pinnacle of success; the dialogue shows how pitifully twisted Willy’s logic is. In the Requiem, Willy’s death in fact reveals the opposite of what he intended; the insurance company does not cover suicide, his funeral is attended exclusively by his family and not anyone he ever did business with, and Biff is even further convinced that his father has a misguided sense of what is important in life. With this ending, Miller shows that a person’s death may indeed reveal the quality of their life, but it is unwise to live life for the sake of a grand death.
Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller are three early American playwrights who write about the convergence of death and truth. They each develop a dynamic between the two ideas in vastly different plots and perspectives, but all three of their plays demonstrate that they are intertwined, examine the ways in which they are connected, and implore their audiences to ponder their place in the human experience.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Play in Two Acts. Authorized Acting ed., Dramatists Play Service, 1980.
Wilder, Thornton. Our Town : A Play in Three Acts. Samuel French Acting ed., Samuel French, 2010.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire: A Play in Three Acts. Acting Edition for Theater Productions, revised ed., Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1953.