Academic journal article American Drama

Cherrie Moraga's Radical Revision of Death of a Salesman

Academic journal article American Drama

Cherrie Moraga's Radical Revision of Death of a Salesman

Article excerpt

Two generations after Death of a Salesman played to sell-out crowds on Broadway in 1949, Cherrie Moraga's Shadow of a Man (1990) takes the subtext of Miller's play for its subject. (1) Salesman uses dishonesty as a metaphor for the dark side of the American dream, while Shadow foregrounds family secrets and sexual tension in an examination of the dream of ethnic minority assimilation to America. Like a photographic negative, Moraga's play highlights the psycho-sexual dynamics at which Miller only hints. Shadow exposes the roots beneath not only Salesman, but the American culture to which Miller's and Moraga's characters aspire, a culture that demands the subjugation of human sexuality. American values, only slightly less puritanical in 1990 than in 1949, prescribe the narrowest of possibilities for sexuality. (2) What does not conform to heterosexual marriage is condemned either through denial of its existence or an elaborate, almost impenetrable fabrication of lies and distortion to cover it up. Sex, in its myriad manifestations, resides at the core of the dream to which we are meant to aspire and while both playwrights recognize and exploit this idea, they do so in necessarily different ways.

Whether or not Moraga intentionally set out to revise Miller's play, the surface similarities between the texts provide enough evidence to warrant comparison. I will argue that each play's central theme of one man's betrayal of his family--a betrayal which leads to his destruction and the family's inevitable and salutary reconfigurationBis the same. While in no way diminishing Miller's achievement, I believe his vision is liberal while Moraga's is radical. (3) Unlike a liberal perspective, which can criticize aspects of culture without challenging basic beliefs about human identity, radicalism demands revision of assumptions about who we are. And because the United States and the American theater of 1949 were not the same as those of 1990, each play points to a different desire in its audience. The "common man" of the 1940s and 50s, recovering from economic depression and thrust so quickly into postwar euphoria, was uncertain about himself and America, but cautiously optimistic about the future (Kullman 627-8 ). He did not question, or only rarely pondered, his identity. By the 1990s, however, Americans were less comfortable with the associations of male, white, and middle-class as normative. Artists began to represent more than the breakdown of cultural monoliths: they imagined, if not replacements for outmoded icons, ways to reinvent American shibboleths of identity, prosperity, and equality. While Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano describes Moraga's work in drama, poetry, and non-fiction prose as the "liberatory project of making desire[s] legible" (xiv), I find the work, particularly this play, to be more than this. Multiple desires represent but one theme in Shadow of a Man, while other issues peculiar to American self-definition make the work more inclusive of an artistic project of humanist celebration.

Thematic elements shared by Shadow of a Man and Death of a Salesman are striking: a broken father and his perverse influence on his children, skewed sexual dynamics among family members, a mysterious male figure outside the family who influences the father, the father's suicide as the family's liberation, and criticism of the American dream. Moraga, however, shifts focus to the women of the family, the family's Mexican heritage and Catholicism, and links the outside male figure to the mother as well as to the father. A yearning for a pastoral past also figures in both plays, an older American land eulogized as a space of authenticity and true freedom. For Christopher Bigsby, the father/son relationship in Salesman "becomes a microcosm of the debate between generations, of the shift from a world still rooted in a simple, rural past to one in which that past exists simply as a myth" (126). Willy's obsessive need to plant seeds reiterates his nostalgia for an American dream that included land with home ownership , earth to domesticate as another measure of manhood. …

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