The Past in 20th Century Drama
George Santayana’ s oft-quoted aphorism—“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—has entered cultural ubiquity and become a cliché, paraphrased ad nauseam by politicians and philosophically-inclined college students. Still, the over-saturation of this sentiment does not make it any less true, and American playwrights working in the last quarter of the twentieth century seemed to know that. For example, the most representative artistic movement of the era—postmodernism—is characterized by an interest in representing and reinterpreting history on the stage. Unlike the Modernists of the first half of the century, postmodernists did not view their forbears as artists to transcend. Instead, they innovated by broadcasting their influences and interpolating them into new material. These playwrights knew that to adequately comprehend the present—the increasingly complicated contemporary world—they needed a deep understanding of the past. More importantly, they recognized the power of history and memory, acknowledging that nostalgia can quickly spiral into a corrosive delusion and warp one’s view of the present. These characteristics are best exemplified by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog. While none of these plays can be definitively labeled as postmodern, their characters embody a postmodern understanding of the past, recalling events differently and tailoring history to their own needs in order to imagine better lives for themselves. In Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln’s analysis of history can apply to most of the characters in these plays: “People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming” (Parks, 52). Ultimately, these plays suggest that while history is fungible, it cannot be outrun.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, Shelly Levene is caught up in a romantic vision of his past self, a salesman who could land big clients and big commissions. At the start of the play, however, he is older and washed-up, begging Williamson for the more promising leads. Characteristically, he references his past sales numbers, trying to pass them off as a barometer of his current capabilities: “April, September 1981. It’s me,” he says, “[…] Sixty-five, when we were there, with Glen Ross Farms? You call ‘em downtown. What was that? Luck? […] My stats for those years? Bullshit… over that period of time…? Bullshit. It wasn’t luck. It was skill” (Mamet, 17-18). Going further, Shelley operates under an anachronistic understanding of the world. At the beginning of the play, he is still holding on to the idea—however lightly—that his age gives him a hierarchal advantage and commands respect; he does not realize that his age has had the opposite effect, and has essentially made him obsolete. For example, he tries to invoke his age when bargaining with Williamson, saying, “I’m older than you. A man acquires a reputation. On the street. What does when he’s up, what he does otherwise…” (Mamet, 24). His reasoning is also outdated; Levene does not realize that Williamson does not care about antiquated notions of “reputation.” Although Levene is convinced that he is a competent salesman who has been stained by a streak of bad luck, there is nothing in the text to indicate that Williamson is wrong to deny him the leads. In fact, Levene’s nostalgia—his romanticization of past sales—is arguably grounded in more fiction than reality. In the beginning of the play, Levene asks Williamson, “Nineteen eighty, eighty-one… eight-two… six months of eighty-two… who’s there? Who’s up there?” (Mamet, 17). Williamson responds curtly and with confidence: “Roma, [followed by] Moss” (Mamet, 17). Levene’s conception of the past—the aspect of his character that gives him his self-confidence—compels him to steal the leads from the office. This, of course, causes his tragic downfall.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches—first performed in 1991—is steeped in history: the play is set during the Reagan-era, partly as a means of understanding the significant effect that the 1980s had the on the gay community; Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg—two real-life historical figures—are characters in the play. Further, Kushner makes it clear that Angels in America rehashes the past as a means of understanding the present and the future. The hole in the ozone layer—one of the physical causes of Harper’s anxiety—is an objective correlative for the anxiety that the gay characters feel for immediate future: in 1985, when the play is set, Reagan had not even acknowledged the AIDs crisis, a disease of plague-like proportions that made homosexuals feel even more alienated from and rejected by the contemporaneous American society. Roy—a closeted homosexual, or at the very least, bisexual—articulates this feeling in a conversation with his doctor. He denies his sexuality because he thinks it would tarnish his legacy: “‘Gay,’ ‘homosexual,’ ‘lesbian;’ you think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? […] To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. […] They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows” (Kushner, 51). With this, he is trying hard to rewrite history. Later, Roy brags to Joe about how he finessed the legal system to ensure that Ethel Rosenberg was sentenced to death. He says to Joe, “Was it legal? Fuck legal!” (Kushner, 114). This immorality comes to haunt Roy in the form of Rosenberg’s ghost, reminding the audience the importance of the past, and that it is impossible to escape.
The importance of history is most obviously present in Topdog/Underdog, the two-person drama that centers around African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Although Parks insists that the play is entirely bereft of symbolism, it is hard to overlook the significance of the two characters’ names. John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln is one of the most important events in American history. In the beginning of the play, Lincoln is looking toward the future, happy to be finished hustling three card monte. Eventually, he falls back into the game—back into his past—and history repeats itself, with Booth shooting Lincoln. Booth, meanwhile, is another character that tries to rewrite history. For example, in the first scene, he tells Lincoln, “My new names 3-Card. 3-Card, got it? […] Call me 3-Card from here on out” (Parks, 19). They also interpret the past differently, viewing their parents’ abandonment on distinct, opposing terms. When Lincoln says, “I dont think they liked us,” Booth immediately responds, “Naw. That aint it” (Parks, 67). They interpret the past differently because they need to interpret it differently. They thrive on their individual interpretations: Booth stays positive by imagining that their parents loved them; Lincoln, on the other, stays grounded by knowing that they did not.
The past is essential: it both informs and directs our present; people are constantly grappling with the implications of the past. These three plays show the complicated relationship that most modern people have with both American history and their own personal histories. The past is inescapable, yet, in order for growth, it needs to be transcended.
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George Santayana’ s oft-quoted aphorism—“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—has entered cultural ubiquity and become a cliché, paraphrased ad nauseam by politicians and philosophically-inclined college […]