One of my favorite moments in all of literature is the scene in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where Biff Loman finally breaks down and breaks through a lifetime of lies and delusions and makes his father, Willy Loman, understand that he loves him. It’s the same scene where Willy famously exclaims, “I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman …” Willy’s response to the breakthrough is three simple words: “Isn’t that remarkable?”
I’ve read only a handful of great American plays, but one theme that seems to consistently run through them is illusion versus the truth. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, opens with the following speech from Tom, the younger brother of the play’s main character, Laura:
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
The entire play is about the struggle between truth and illusion, responsibility versus escape. It’s a theme Williams continues in his most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which becomes an all-out war between the cold and violent truth, represented by Stanley Kowalski, and the fragile dream world of illusion represented by Blanche Dubois.
|Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire"|
These themes continue in almost all great American plays. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is about a night with an alcoholic married couple playing a twisted game of deception and lies on their young guests until the light of dawn reveals the tragic truth they’ve been trying to hide.
|Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"|
The illusions and the truth of America continue to this day. The land of the free is also the country with the largest percentage of its population incarcerated. The gap between the rich and the rest of the country is widening to cavernous proportions, shattering any idea that all men are created equal. There are sharper racial and class divides and deeper wounds to our psyche. We are the most violent developed country in the world.
But we still hang on to the illusion, to its ideals, and every now and then, we make the illusion reality. It was the belief in the illusion that allowed us to join together in World War II and defeat the most powerful evil the world has ever known, it was the illusion that landed a man on the moon, it was the illusion that granted women and minorities the long overdue right to vote, it was the illusion that has allowed men and women throughout the country to marry who they love, regardless of sexual orientation. Every now and then, we hold up our ideals to the mirror of reality and shame ourselves into action. The ugliness of the truth cannot disfigure the beauty of the dream.
Isn’t that remarkable?