Saturday, August 30, 2014

The "New Man"

If any of you are Mad Men fans some of this should sound more familiar.
The 1950's (and even more so the 60's) saw the first generation in decades that didn't have to send most of it's men to war.  There was no Great Depression, their was no German Threat or FDR.  This country was built by people who had lived through and seen all of those things and the young men reaping and then creating the new culture didn't understand any of it.  Korea wasn't like Germany and Vietnam hadn't come yet.  Men Biff's age didn't understand The Depression and what that meant to their parents to be able to provide anything for their children let alone if they could actually spoil them.  I mentioned Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in my other post and Williams and Miller dealt with many similar themes.  Big Daddy cannot understand why Brick could want for anything; he'd worked all his life so his sons wouldn't have to like he did.  He didn't understand what more his sons (but of course mainly Brick) could want or need if they were secure and had the chance to enjoy leisure and become an athlete or take time off with their wives.  He didn't understand that they needed love and affection too because when he was growing up you literally didn't have the energy or the time to care about why you felt the way you did and what led to it.  You barely had the time to be sad let alone melancholy.  So when Brick feels stifled and lied to - it comes as a shock, because why should it matter?

Willy and Biff have a similar conflict.  In Willy's mind he has done nothing but work tirelessly so that his sons (but again, mainly Biff) don't have to struggle like he did.  So when Biff throws it away, and then tends the fields because that's "real man's work" and is on a journey to find himself, it's unheard of to Loman.  Not only is his son choosing back-breaking manual labor at a time when he could wear a suit and have wealthy friends, he's also modern enough to be on a philosophical journey of self?  To Willy this is a slap in the face because it's something he could never in his wildest dreams think of doing.  To him, who cares who we are as long as we know what we are, as long as we mean something to the people around us and the people we leave behind.

I mentioned Mad Men because it comes up early in the series (1961) that while Don Draper is in his early to mid 30s, he has more in common with the men over 45 than he does with the guys in their mid twenties simply because he served in the army and none of them ever had to think about it.  Every man older than him knows what it's like to scrape by and to serve while the guys less than ten years younger than him get to watch movies about it and laugh about a war with Cuba.
This play came out in 1949 and we were just at the cusp.  WWII had recently ended and we were already seeing the 50s culture take over.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is 1955, Willy would have already seemed like a dinosaur.


  1. I didn't really interpret Willy's problems with Biff the same way you did. I interpreted Willy's problems with Biff as an issue with how Biff's life style reflected on him. It was all about being liked and respected and if his oldest, formerly most accomplished and promising offspring didn't live up to what he thought every man is trying to achieve, it was a poor reflection on him, that's why he was so sensitive to Biff blaming him for his problems.

  2. Eleanor,
    Nice job with the historical context here! I think this is extremely important to understanding the nuances of the play, and I'm glad you brought up Mad Men as well because this was the time when advertising was coming up as well. We definitely see that end-of-war ethos reflected in Willy and his attitudes toward success and expectations for his sons. I wonder if Biff could almost be a predecessor for the Beat generation and other writers of the late 50's-60's?