Alienation in Twentieth Century American Drama

By Gayla Nelson

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Alienation from one’s peers and one’s culture is not a twentieth century phenomenon. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve were the first people on earth, and the first people to be alienated from their culture upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  On the other hand, if you hold to the beliefs of Darwinism, then alienation can be viewed scientifically from the aspect that historically man has always shunned those different from himself, so as people evolved, they most likely were alienated on a continuous basis, not only from their peers, but also from their culture, forcing the forging of new cultures systematically throughout the evolutionary process. From this perspective, it is obvious that in order to better understand ourselves, we must understand the concept of alienation.  This has been a deep concern of humankind as evident in the earliest writings.

Alienation can be found in all literature from Beowulf to the modern fiction of today. But it is through the drama, the genre meant to be performed and witnessed rather than studied in solitude, and from that objective point of view in which we participate in the drama as it unfolds before our eyes, that I think we gain the greatest awareness of alienation in society, and oftentimes in ourselves. Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story are great examples of alienation, but because I have already written and published extensively about both of these plays, I decided to exclude them from consideration for this critique in order to expand my understanding of this concept. Because so much of American drama can be analyzed in terms of the alienation factor, I have narrowed my choice even further by looking for yet another common theme. After great deliberation I decided that the three plays in twentieth century American drama that I think best exemplify alienation from one’s peers and one’s culture are Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.  In all three plays, death, in one form or another, is the ultimate price paid for a person’s alienation from society.

While the university setting should imply a feeling of “family” and indeed, for Martha it is a family affair in that her father is the President, she and George have formed a mutual alienation from the “real world” through their concoction of the imaginary son. Not only have they become alienated from the microcosm of the university, but from the entire world.  Most of this has been the result of self-imposed isolation - Martha, because George has not lived up to the high expectations that she held for him, and George because of his own feelings of inadequacy, be it from his lack of success in the eyes of his wife, or his inability to father a child. Martha is living an unsatisfying life, dependent upon her husband’s success, rather than her own, to lead her to a state of happiness. The game playing that probably began as compensation for what was lacking in their lives and in their marriage has grown into an obsession.  It also became a weapon and where weapons are involved, death is often the result. 

Logically, one would think that if you feel alienated from the world that you would desperately cling to what you could.  George and Martha did cling to this imaginary child for many years, yet in the end, George killed him, and in the process, killed the only thing that was left between Martha and him.  In the final conversation Martha lost her biting sarcasm and became timid, asking him, “Did you have to?” George assures her that he did, but the ambiguity remains as he says first “yes” then “no” then “it was time” but obviously unsure about what the outcome will be of this “killing.” Martha points out their isolation then when she asks, “Just…us?” She knows that “just us” is not enough.  It has never been enough, not for her and not for George.  When George softly sings, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” in the closing scene, Martha admits that she is.  Virginia Woolf wrote in the stream of consciousness mode in order to expose what goes on in the human mind.  Martha is terrified of that truth about herself.  Despite their game playing, throughout the play George and Martha related to each other because they both understood the game.  When George changed the rules, he further alienated himself, for now even Martha has lost her connection, via the imaginary son, with him.

Where an imaginary son and his symbolic death is the catalyst for the alienation in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, in Death of A Salesman, Arthur Miller takes us into a different realm of alienation.  Here, we have the alienation of a man who believes he has lost the battle for the American dream and who ultimately believes that the only way he can provide for his family, particularly for Biff, is through his own death.  Like George, Willy Loman does not think about the consequences of his actions.  Willy does not recognize that a suicide will negate his insurance policy.  He thinks of it at one time when Ben points it out to him, yet he disregards that advice in the end.

But Willy is not the only alienated person in this play.  Each family member is alienated in one way or another, whether it is from reality, from each other, or from themselves. They are not connected appropriately to give to each other what each of them needs. Biff has been on the road and held countless jobs in an effort to “find himself.” He physically alienated himself from his family during this time, but no distance could alter the fact that he had caught his father cheating on his mother, and had never forgotten it.  Happy has worked diligently at having a good time and being “well-liked” in an effort to avoid “finding himself” which is another form of alienation – alienation to oneself.

Linda has discovered the little rubber tube and fears for Willy’s life, yet because she doesn’t want to “embarrass him” she leaves it there and simply checks it each morning.  Like Happy, Linda is operating under the avoidance principal. On the surface she appears to be in control of things: the house, the payments on various bills, how much is needed when and why.  She wants her sons to “act like good boys.”  She truly loves Willy and cares for his well being, but knowing her husband as she does, it is easier to avoid the underlying issues and focus on the practical.  It is ironic, but not surprising, that in the Requiem she points out that she has made the final mortgage payment on the house.  Even with her husband buried, she points out their current financial status to an unhearing corpse.

Willy Loman felt himself to be alienated from the American Dream.  He just wasn’t “lucky.”  As hard as he tried to be popular and to be well liked, in the end he could not even maintain his job.  Willy was alienated from reality.  He chuckled at the “antics” of Biff, even when those “antics” were theft. The only person in Death of a Salesman who grew from his life experiences and has a chance at conquering this sense of alienation is Biff, because in the end he recognizes that his father had a salesman’s dream and that his father’s dream was not one in which he shared.  Happy, on the other hand, is on the path to the same end as his father’s.

While Christopher Durang’s play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You may come from the theatre of the absurd, it also deals with alienation.  In this case, however, the alienation is three-fold. Sister Mary first of all alienated herself from what is considered a “normal” life through her decision to become a nun. Second, Sister Mary alienates her students through her treatment of them.  And finally, she alienates herself from the ideology of the church and from the entire human race when she commits murder.  

Sister Mary is only one of many children from her family who decided to devote their lives to the church.  She has decided that she is an expert on God and religion and in that regard has also alienated herself from the masses.  She sits alone on a stage to “explain it all for you” and in so doing has separated herself and elevated herself to a position that she does not deserve. While her treatment of Thomas on stage during her “explanation” seems fine at the beginning, we begin to see the cruelty that is truly in her heart when she hints at castrating him in order to keep his beautiful singing voice.  This cruelty is soon proven when her former students suddenly surprise her on stage with the stories of their lives and how detrimental she was to their development. Her job, as a nun, was to be a teacher of children, yet she would not even allow them to go to the bathroom despite their pleadings.  This clearly indicates her alienation from compassion to other human beings and her need for power and control over others. She taught, not from knowledge and understanding and faith, but from fear and dominance.

Sister Mary also alienated herself from her ideology.  Her belief in God, that at one time may have been pure, has become twisted to the point that she believes herself to be God.  She keeps the book of names of who shall be going to hell and she is ready to add those former students to it immediately.  Why a nun, who is supposedly on stage to simply explain religion to an audience, would come to such an event while packing a gun is unfathomable, but of course, one must remember that in the theatre of the absurd, anything is plausible. After killing Diane, she announces to the audience, “For those non-Catholics present, murder is allowable in self-defense, one doesn’t even have to tell it in confession.” Yet, when she kills Gary she states that, “I’m not really within the letter of the law shooting Gary like this…but I’ll go to confession later today, just to be sure.” If her explanation is true, then all of us, at any time, can go shoot anyone we please, as long as we follow it up with confession.  This is alienation from the entire human race.

Symbolic death, suicide, and murder are the final outcomes of these three plays.  Alienation leads to despair, which leads to desperation, which leads to death. Whether it is the death of a symbol, the death of a real person, or the death of an ideology gone awry, it is this alienation that all human beings must endure, conquer and overcome that permeates American Drama during the twentieth century. Because these characters are unable to conquer and overcome their sense of alienation, these plays, while they do not meet the Aristotle’s definition of the tragedy, all end on a tragic note.  The American experience brings to the drama a true focus on the fragility of the human psyche and it is through these three plays that we are given insight into the overwhelming consequences of alienation from other human beings.

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