Albee and Twain: Demystifying an American Dream Essay
Albee and Twain: Demystifying an American Dream “What Happens to a dream differed? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun / Or fester like a sore- / etc. And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust with sugar over- / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load / Or does it explode? ” ——– Langston Hughes American Dream was a term that first appeared in James Truslow Adams’s The Epic of America, where he states The American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (Adams, 1931) It is this land; Twain throws Huck and Jim to endure the hardships of life, to experience the thrown-Inness of being born into the world unprepared, without choice.
Long considered as a “quest for freedom”, Huck-Finn essentially is as M.
Cox puts it “a flight from tyranny, not a flight for freedom” (Cox, p172-173, 1966). Freedom is essentially a relative term, and freedom may manifest itself in physical and psychological realms. Half of the world still considers itself honored under the nomenclature of “The Commonwealth”, illustrates the limitation of physical freedom alone. One dreams in order to maintain that freedom, but as Schumacher put it, “The greatest deprivation anyone can suffers is to have no chance of looking after himself and making a livelihood”, depriving one of one’s existence and consciousness of being free. Kumar, p2672, 1991). Being a Post-American Dream novel, Twain did not go to the extent to overthrow the entire socio-political system to emphasize the impossibility and superficiality of American dream. Europeans found the dark lands flourishing with immense economical and religious opportunities. The idea was perhaps that opportunities could not be isolated to lands, and certainly these “islands” cannot claim to provide equality and recognition to people of all races and creed, when its own socio-political apparatus is plagued with racism and lack of consciousness.
With Huck and Jim, the racial discrimination prevalent in America was laid bare. Twain does not talk about conscience as a mode of judgment of human actions; rather he infused the transcendental viewpoint of intuition and innate human instincts as the basis of making choices. Conscience, which are essentially derived from society, the learned distinction between good and bad, contrary to black and white, are merely “false constraints upon natural behavior.
Such constraint is what Huck rejects” (Burg, p303, 1974), something which is apparent when Huck says “always do whichever [right or wrong] come handiest at the time”. There can be no geographical location which can encompass this distinctness of human quality, to change with time as the instincts indicate may be not dictated or etched in law, and no moral order of society could circumscribe the complexity and vastness of intuition. We must not expect Twain to propound any moralistic view regarding the confrontation of races in Huck-Finn.
Although set in the past, the novel peeps into the future and without dealing with complexities of master-slave psychodynamics, interprets the nature of ‘freedom’, something which seems to suggest that psychological freedom is hard to achieve in a night with such thing as an ‘Emancipation Proclamation’. If organizations like “Afro–American Unity”, “Society of African Culture” and resistance fronts like “Operation Breadbasket” and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” were all prevalent during even the late 1960s, suggesting the fact that the whole concept of American dream was unacceptable to most of the black Americans.
The final chapter of Huckleberry Finn which is often considered as a “chilling descent” is not a flaw in architectural unity, but a denial of celebration of freedom which one would expect from Jim’s liberation. Twain deliberately de-romanticizes and trivializes the whole concept of freedom, since the idea of equality and opportunity was “White American”; the one who was aware of his past and ensured about his recognition, nativity of his own culture and tradition, the one who assumed the nationality of a land which captured.
The slaves, who by now formed the consciousness of a community and not the citizen, was more concerned with their individual identity as Joanna Zangrando puts it “the quest for black liberation is a search for what whites no longer possess in full measure; a clear and purposeful sense of self identity” (Zangarando, p154, 1970). Jim’s never been and would never be free unless he acquires an identity like the slaves of the African culture did. A slave in Nigeria, would still be a Nigerian, while Jim, does not figure into that frame of nationality, and neither into that ‘dream’ which an ‘American’ saw.
The concept of American Dream was built upon the pillars formed by the dislocated and reluctant hands of the slaves, akin to what the Romans did, and just like them, came down the fabrication of entire dream, devastated, stranded and lost. Nationality is not just one issue that can be talked about in reference to American dream. Societal dynamics function through interaction of power, authority and influence. It can well function without the aesthetic and poetic representation of human development. And in a society devoid of sustainable archaic references, financial status does become a determining parameter of individual growth.
Although not implicit in the original idea of James Turslow, but economic influence finds its manifestation in the American dream of the common man. Such aspects find distinct voice in Albee’s works which revolve around the social fabric. The general view that “Edward Albee’s plays are ferocious attacks on lethargy and complacency in American society” and “a savage denial that everything is just dandy” receives a nod from Albee himself (Albee, p8, 1961) and he goes on to confirm his own claim with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play through which historicity speaks out for entire American civilization.
How subjects receive names is also interesting. While George corresponds to the then president of United States and Martha being her wife, Albee certainly hits the nail on the head, illustrating a family whose life is drowned deep into the artificialities manufactured under in the social machinery. Near the end of the second act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, George, the professor of history, is left alone onstage while Martha, his wife, and Nick are playing the preliminary rounds of “hump the hostess” in the kitchen.
Attempting to control his hurt and anger he reads aloud from a book he has taken from the shelf, “And the West, encumbered by crippling alliances and burdened with a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events must eventually fall” (II, 174). George is clearly encumbered with a crippling alliance in his marriage to Martha and does seem to be burdened with a kind of morality that makes it difficult for him to respond in kind to her vicious attacks.
At the same time, this observation on the movements of history, read in connection with the events of George’s personal history, is a splendid example of how Albee has managed to endow the events of the family drama with a deeper significance, suggestive of larger events and movements. Upon the historicity and it’s relation to American Dream, Holton writes “One of the principal myths on which this country was founded was the notion that America was a New Eden, a second chance ordained by God or Providence in which man could begin all over again, freed from the accumulated sin and corruption of Western history” (Holton, p47, 1973).
With Holton’s comment, we move yet closer to the objective of this paper, that not only could the American become a New Adam and found upon the unspoiled continent an ideal human polity, but this new way of life and new order of society could serve as a shining example to redeem erring Europe from her own sinfulness. Such a dream was essentially impossibility in an imperfect world where multitudes dream their own dreams.
Thus the majority of American historians, says David Noble, have been Jeremiahs, decrying America’s involvement within the transitory patterns of European history and calling Americans back to their duties and obligations (Nobles, p4, 1965). With such a catastrophic dream at hand, the people of American couldn’t have gone far with the nightmare it was to cast.
It was not unprecedented, as such a crumbling of social order already shook the British machinery where ‘The Angry Young Man’ was invented during the mid of twentieth century who looks back in anger and, shouts “I’d love to live too… But I must say, it’s pretty dreary living in the American age” (Osborne, p9-14, 1954). This disillusionment and dissatisfaction with life and lack of recognition in society, was soon realized in America as well. In fact the three acts of the play titled “Fun and Games”, “Walpurgisnacht” and “Exorcism” may be said to illustrate the historic passage of American civilization; from innocence to guilt to madness.
America which began as an un-spoilt continent, convinced that it was unique in human history to create a perfect society, just like the Germans once thought, in a race of differentiation, cut themselves from European tradition and history, in effect ‘killed’ its parents. But how can one neglect the parenting they once received in Europe, when memories transform into haunting, only by retreating into madness can one escape the vicissitudes of history.
Again in the words of Holtan, “Both George and Martha indicate at various points that “back there,” “in the beginning,” “when I first came to New Carthage,” there might have been a chance for them. That chance was lost and now their “crippling alliance” exacts its toll from both of them” (Holtan, p48, 1973). Finally, what Johnson perceived with his panoramic eye while surveying “mankind from China to Peru” (Johnson, p50, 1749), acknowledging the universality of human behavior, holds true for any nation any “island” claiming to become land of opportunity.
Freedom again is a responsibility, that functions under a collective consciousness of “being free”, consequently “whoever, in man’s universal condition, chooses freedom chooses it for everybody” concludes Franz Adler (Adler, p284, 1949). Similarly an idea that negates the masses, devoids itself the potential of transformation into a phenomenon, its localization soon consumes its very presence with time. References: Adams, James, Truslow, The Epic of America, Simon Publications, 2001.
Adler, Franz, The Social Thought of Jean-Paul Sartre, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Nov. , 1949), The University of Chicago Press. Albee, Edward, The American Dream, Coward-McCann, Inc. , New York, 1961. Burg, David, F. , Another View of Huckleberry Finn, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, University of California Press, 1974. Cox, James, M. , Mark Twain, The Fate of Humour, Princeton University Press, 1966 Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes, edited by Harriet Raghunathan, Worldview Publications, 2004, New Delhi.
Noble, David, W. , Historians Against History, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1965. Osborne, John, Look Back in Anger, edited by Neeraj Malik, Worldview Publications, 2002, New Delhi. Schumacher, E. F. , Dilemmas of Measuring Human Freedom, Kumar, K, G, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 47, Economic and Political Weekly, 1991. Zangrando, Schneider, Joanna, Zangrando, L. Robert, Black Protest: A Rejection of the American Dream, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, Sage Publications, Inc. , 1970.