Capitalism as Masculine Identity in American Theater: Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross
America has long prided itself on being a land of opportunity. Since the fifteenth century, pilgrims have flocked to American shores, urged onward by the thought of making money, off the rich lands and resources available here. As time has gone on, this image of America as an enormous money pot has not changed or diminished. One can find mentions of jobs and the economy spackling every newspaper, most casual conversations, and all throughout the media. And because, throughout much of history, men were the primary breadwinners and job holders, masculine identity and occupation have become joined at the hip. To quote Shelley Levene from Glengarry Glen Ross, “A man’s his job,” (Mamet 75). In a sense, he’s right; the world today puts a lot of stock in how men make their money, and doesn’t seem interested in much else. This interplay between male identity and capitalist economy has been explored quite frequently and effectively in American drama, particularly in dramatic plays of the last 100 years. The mix of money and gender dynamics serves as the foundation for many of theatre’s greatest plays, including Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross. What each of these dramas explores regarding this theme is largely different, but all highlight what occurs when capitalism and masculine identity intersect, and how this affects the characters, as well as the world they live in. In this essay, I will argue that by linking their manhood to their business success, the men in these plays have created a volatile and ultimately emasculating world, which works to the long-term benefit of no one.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller perhaps most famously tackled this issue, in its portrayal of Willy Loman, a once-successful businessman now falling on hard times in his old age. Willy holds strongly to the idea of working hard and applying yourself to be successful. Through a series of monologues by other characters and illuminating flashbacks, however, we see his own life does not follow this contour at all. His brother Ben became significantly richer than Willy simply by stumbling upon gold during one of his adventures. And despite years of working hard and allegedly making the company money, Willy is still canned by his new boss because he can’t make sales like he used to. In short, the company doesn’t care about Willy as a person, an associate or a friend– just a means to make money. In postwar America, when sales were sky-rocketing and it looked as though the money would never run out, this harsh portrayal of a business oriented system was much needed. As the war ended and America’s new high tech factory system began putting hundreds of thousands of returning GI’s to work, many workers who’d survived the depression and the war faced unemployment —a thought not far from the minds of audiences when the play was first performed (Grant 54). Death of a Salesman served as a reminder that what we did when we were up inevitably still hurt us when we came crashing down again. When Willy was making sales, he cheated on his wife, was caught by his son, and was, by and large, an aggressive and seldom-present father. But when factors beyond his control end up putting him out on the street, he has to pay for that. He has to live in a house with the son whom he failed, the wife he betrayed, and the other child he perpetually neglects. The trappings of success can occupy him no longer.
This story mirrors that of America early in the 20th century. During the 1920s the country’s economy reached celestial heights, as stock speculation and the rise of on-credit buying put the nation deeply in debt. Then came the crash, and crime and poverty ran amok. During the lucrative 1940’s and 50’s, the play and Miller’s characters all seem to urge us to be cautious of the fickleness of economic wealth. Charley sums this up nicely in a quote in the final scene: “You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake… Biff: Charley, the man didn’t know who he was,” (Miller 138). Most people create their identity by what they leave behind: children, marriages, things they built or made, or memorable feats or achievements. This notion ties into what the Greek thinker Epicurus referred to these as “Natural desires.” The idea is that certain things you can only desire to do for a set amount of time before you are satisfied. If, say, one eats a great amount of food, one will grow full and become tired of eating. But Willy doesn’t grow tired. He sells smiles and shoe shine, dreams and ideas, things which he may not use, the image of a person that he may not be. Epicurus calls these “Vain desires,” things made up entirely by humans. “Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, fame, and the like. They are difficult to satisfy, in part because they have no natural limit. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one wants,” (Cassier, 3). Willy Loman spent his entire existence questing after these things, and as he was slowly deprived of the ability to sell by the changing business climate, began to suffer the symptoms of withdrawal, which ultimately ended in his demise. Money, it seems, bought him only small quantities of happiness, and even those were largely exaggerated by his mind. But it certainly did buy him a sizeable share of misery.
Yet despite this, Willy puts a significant amount of stake in the idea and image of the working man. Throughout the story he still looks back with reverence on his older brother Ben, treating him with a love and respect he doesn’t show to anyone else in the play. Never will he suffer an attack or even a doubt about Ben, and his empire and his wealth. “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” Willy says at one point (Miller 41). Stick-to-it-edness and ambition, then—two traditionally masculine virtues—are all it takes to succeed professionally. And yet he himself, despite years of dedication, is now being slowly cast aside, having never achieved the economic status of his relations. His manhood, his professional reputation, are worth nothing to those around him, and so he must try to express his masculinity in other ways. Much in the same way Swaino attempts to compensate for his lack of money and success with lurid sexual encounters in Small Engine Repair, Willy attempts to recapture some of his virility through anger, toughness, and a sexual tryst of his own. Ultimately, this just pushes him farther down into a hole of misery. Willy has always been dazzled by these striking images– of Ben the adventurer, of Dave Singleman and his green slippers. Real life never quite measured up. Linda and Charley discuss this at the play’s end, after Willy’s funeral. “Linda: I can’t understand it. At this time especially. First time in thirty-five years we were just about free and clear. He only needed a little salary. He was even finished with the dentist. Charley: No man needs only a little salary,” (Miller 137). Willy has worked his entire life towards some ideal of salesmanship, which he got when he met a stranger in a hotel room, and which convinced him to pass up an opportunity to travel the world with Ben. When he pays off his debts but loses the job that occupied him, he is forced to come to terms with the emptiness of his life. This drives him ultimately to kill himself– to end his life in exchange for some measure of control and dignity. Willy labored long and hard under the delusion that his trade was what defined him as a man, but in the end it was what destroyed him.
This same principle is on display, albeit in a different manner, in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a play about small-time real-estate agents in Chicago. The plot centers around two of the characters—later revealed to be Moss and Levene—robbing the business of leads, which would allow them, in theory, to make more sales. It seems almost comical for two people to commit a federal crime in order to benefit professionally—after all, it’s just a job. But for the men in this play, it’s not just a job. It’s everything. We never see them do anything not directly related to work: They don’t see their families, play games, hang out with old friends, nothing. Even when they engage in friendly banter or go out to eat, it is all for the purpose of getting ahead at work. Take, for example, the restaurant scene involving Ricky Roma and James Lingk. In this exchange, Roma seems to be sharing his life philosophy with someone he just met: “Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. Now: What are they? (Pause.) An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To “indulge” and to “learn” about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn’t? They’re an opportunity. That’s all. They’re an event,” (Mamet 49.) Roma seems to be selling an almost existential point of view here to his newly acquired companion: Don’t let events and things in life define you, because they themselves do not have meaning. It is up to the individual to decide what they mean. And yet, after sharing this freeing and liberating viewpoint with Lingk, Roma then launches into the following: “I want to show you something. (Pause.) It might mean nothing to you… and it might not. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. (Pause. He takes out a small map and spreads it on a table.) What is that? Florida. Glengarry Highlands. Florida,” (Mamet 50). All of this rambling speech has led up to a sales pitch. Roma, despite advocating freedom from labels and high concepts that keep us anxious and worried, is himself slaving away for the capitalist business institution. In a way, this is the ultimate horror. Roma’s identity as a free spirit—if it is his real identity and not an affectation—has been twisted and perverted to serve the needs of the company. Roma can preach about viewing all things as mere opportunities, but at the end of the day, he can only do so as long as he’s high up on the board. Those are his two options: staying on the board or starving. He is a slave to the sales figures, and even his free-bird persona has become an instrument of accruing capital.
Even these characters’ most basic relationships, the ones we see, anyway, are there solely for the purpose of getting ahead. Almost every line of dialogue the various salesmen utter is for some self-centered end. What seems like a relatable series of interactions between Moss and Aronow where they complain about their boss and their job is actually an attempt by the former to strong-arm the latter into helping him case the joint and make off with quality marketing leads. Roma’s monologue to Shelley where he tells Levene he admires him and that they should be partners turns out to be a ploy by Ricky to steal money from the senior salesman. Living in this cutthroat business world for so long has corrupted their ability to empathize and befriend one another. By the end of this play, even these characters–whose careers, lives, and self-worth have been annihilated–still come off destroyed in their own way. For these characters, the very act of speech is just a means to a financial end. They are wholly consumed by their occupations. Every experience they’ve had, everything they’ve done, every friendship they’ve made, are just a way to cash in, win a car. If you can’t monetize it, in this world Mamet makes for us, does it really matter? Perhaps this is why, in act two, Roma gets so outraged when Moss values his own dignity over Levene’s accomplishments. Money is really all these characters have, their making of it and losing it. One of the salesmen is literally called ’The Machine’ in a seemingly positive way. When Moss starts behaving as though there’s something more important than money—say, his rights—Roma gets angry, because if money isn’t paramount, what do their lives mean?
More evidence of this can be seen in the disparity in how Shelley and Williamson treat each other. In the first scene, Levene is completely and utterly humiliated by Williamson over and over again, and is forced to go through various stages of obsequious behavior to try and get the leads he needs to keep his job. In order to even gain access to the decent leads, he has to offer a huge portion to Williamson, who keeps raising the price just to watch Levene squirm. And Levene, as he’s low on the board, is forced to take this indignity: “John. (Pause.) Listen. I want to talk to you. Permit me to do this a second. I’m older than you. A man acquires a reputation. On the street. What he does when he’s up, what he does otherwise…. I said ‘ten’ you said ‘no.’ You said ‘twenty.’ I said ‘fine,’ I’m not gonna fuck with you, how can I beat that, you tell me?…Okay. Okay. We’ll… Alright, twenty percent, and fifty bucks a lead. That’s fine. For now. That’s fine,” (Mamet 24). When Shelley can’t sell he has to bend over and do whatever Williamson wants. Contrast that to his attitude right after he closes what he believes to be a large deal: “Why should the sale not stick? Hey, fuck you. That’s what I’m saying. You have no idea of your job. A man’s his job and you’re fucked at yours,” (Mamet 75). The thing is, though, as Levene eventually points out, Williamson cannot fire him, not on, as he calls it “an $80,000 day.” These characters, who they are, how people view them, and what they can do, are entirely defined by their ability to make money. And, as Mamet tries to show us, it’s a fickle, rigged system. One where skills and good business practices are not half so important as arbitrary figures, and where, in the end, both salesman and customer suffer.
And with their identities as men continually either denied them or under attack, these characters must re-enforce this image through hostility, insulting one another, and attempting to humiliate co-workers. In her essay “Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet’s Drama,” Carla J. McDonough examines this ferocity’s roots. “More than anything else, characters such as Teach, Edmond, and Levene are concerned with their identities as men. They are driven by a sense of powerlessness, for which they seek to over compensate, and they labor under a need to establish their identities in the face of real or imagined challenges to their manhood,” (McDonough 196). Levene and the other salesmen in the office are so hostile because their lives could be utterly destroyed by receiving a bad lead, or by having a client pull out at the last second. They have no control over their work or livelihoods, which they consider, and which we the audience are led to believe, constitutes an enormous portion of their lives and sense of self. But they can conceal this apoplexy and insecurity if they act vicious, tear one another down with lies and insults and jabs, which make them feel just a little bit powerful. Much like how Willy concealed his own self-loathing and sense of failure by his excessive faith and devotion to a misremembered past, the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross hide under an aggression without anchors and with an endless number of targets, which, just as in the Loman household, only makes their situation less tolerable and more difficult. As a result of these two colliding forces, masculinity and business, we end up with a gray area, a turbid concoction half testosterone and half tender, which governs more and more of American society.
Capitalism and financial success are a means of self-identification that the men in these plays use, primarily, as a surrogate for what they cannot have: love, happiness, friendships, or a lasting legacy throughout time. But the market is a fickle master. Success runs in streaks, and more often than not, when the good luck runs out, it leaves a nasty scar behind. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to characters in plays. After all, don’t businesses, armies, countries today still exploit the world for all it’ll give them, get massively in debt trying to monopolize markets, and in short, exert themselves far beyond their reach? Doesn’t America court destruction with every new war, new bailout? Perhaps what these playwrights mean for us to take away from their work is not so much the awareness of all the tiny tragedies that hide on every street corner, but rather a larger view of the impending tragedy we still have time to avert. What happens when the world starts acting like Willy Loman? What happens when it gets as desperate as Shelley Levene? Will it, too, do something morally dubious just to stay above water? Or, like Mr. Loman, will it end itself with a bang?
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1949. Print.
Williams, Grant. “Death of a Salesman and Postwar Masculine Malaise” Arthur Miller Journal (8:1) Spring 2013, 53-68,109.
Cassirer, Ernst. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
Mamet, David. Glengarry Glen Ross: A Play. New York: Grove, 1984. Print.
McDonough, Carla J.. “Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet’s Drama”. Theatre Journal 44.2 (1992): 195–205. Web…
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