This essay will explain what postmodernism is and how it differs from previous movements, and in what ways this movement had such an impact on theatre and the arts. It will also explore how Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman can be considered an example of postmodern theatre through Miller’s use of techniques, style, and characters.
What is postmodernism?
The postmodernist movement arose in the late 20th century and succeeded the modernist period. The modernist movement was a concept that rejected traditional and classical beliefs regarding the arts, criticism, and architecture; it steered away from lavish lifestyles and showiness, favouring practical architecture and the growth of science and technology. The postmodern period was arguably a developed form of modernism; the two sharing similar qualities yet largely opposing each other. John Storey simply described the shift to postmodernism as ‘modernist culture has become bourgeois culture’ (Storey, 2018, p. 205), as postmodernism followed on to diverge from the modernist self-discipline and instead embraced flamboyance, indulgence and artistic elements from older time periods.
Terry Eagleton confirmed the clear divide between the two movements, by saying that ‘postmodernity means the end of modernity, in the sense of those grand narratives of truth, reason, science, progress and universal emancipation’ (Eagleton, 2008, p. 200). He mentions the decay of beliefs in metanarrative (a theory which legitimises society through a grand idea) that occurred during the postmodern era. Society grew sceptical of these metanarratives and absolute claims to existence, and thus saw the decline of them, as Strinati settled by explaining, ‘postmodernism rejects the claim of any theory to absolute knowledge, or the demand of any social practice to universal validity’ (2004, p. 215). The arts had begun to adopt a shrewder approach to science and religion; completely differing from modernist beliefs.
The blending of styles was also something that defined postmodernism. Thomas Leabhart acknowledged the common use of bricolage within the era, by stating that a significant element of postmodernism was its ‘juxtaposition of disparate elements to form a resonant whole’ (1990, quoted in Carlson, 2017, p. 205). Bricolage was defined by Jean H. Duffy as ‘a process of selecting and combining existing materials into new arrangements’ (1998, p. 144). This was demonstrated in architecture, music, and artwork, for example the 1977 Sex Pistols album cover for God Save the Queen which features a traditional picture of the Queen with cut-outs from modern newspapers. The adoption of historical styles and fashions being moulded and merged with elements of the current time period, resulted in a blurred sense of time period within the postmodern culture.
How did postmodernism impact on theatre?
The postmodern theory had an impact on all art forms, particularly theatre. The modernist era had already begun to discard regular theatre that society was accustomed to, as ‘in literature, finally, there was a rejection of traditional realism (chronological plots, continuous narratives relayed by omniscient narrators, ‘closed endings’, etc)’ (Barry, 2009, p. 68). This continued to develop through to the postmodern times; theatre became less fixed and more random, less absolute and more relative, as plays with disjunct narratives were being written and performed.
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Postmodernism also introduced immersive theatre and one-to-one performance, in which the audience were no longer bound behind a fourth wall or obliged to sit conventionally, and were often treated as an equal participant to the performer. Immersive theatre is often described as having the removal of the conventional stage, and one-to-one theatre could take place in the form of performance art, where the traditional large audience is abandoned, and one person is perhaps making direct contact with a performer. This process of blurring the separation of spectator and performer was an outcome of the postmodern obscurity that influenced the arts. ‘These practices share an approach which actively, spatially and scenically integrates audiences as, to varying degrees, co-makers of the performance’ (Allain and Harvie, 2014, p. 192); postmodern beliefs were having a divergent and radical effect on theatre making.
Why might Death of a Salesman be considered postmodern?
Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949. Despite it being written in a time when the modernist movement had not majorly gone out of fashion, Death of a Salesman undoubtedly harmonizes with postmodern theatre.
Even the title Death of a Salesman demonstrates a common characteristic of postmodernist literature. The characteristic is literary narcissism – ‘where novels focus on and debate their own ends and processes, and thereby ‘de-naturalise’ their content’ (Barry, 2009, p. 74). This applies to Death of a Salesman because, once the audience learn that Willy Loman is a salesman – ‘Willy Loman… enters, carrying two large sample cases’ (Miller, 1961, p. 8), they already know he will die due to the title of the play. Consequently, there is no longer the conventional mystery of closing events in the play, de-naturalising the play from the beginning. Furthermore, Willy has the line ‘these goddam arch supports are killing me’ (Miller, 1961, p. 9) in the first scene of the play, creating dramatic irony for the audience as they know he will later die. This demonstrates literary narcissism as the character comments on his own ending state of the play, as if he is almost self-aware.
Death of a Salesman exists as one of the more recognised pieces of literature to comment on the consumerism and urbanisation in 20th century America. Throughout the play Miller comments on the fact that ‘postmodernism was the cultural “dominant” of late capitalism, [and] commodity-driven’ (Fuchs, 1996, p. 144). Tormented protagonist Willy Loman, much like many of the other characters, is driven by his fantasy of being successful and being able to thrive in an urbanised America. His state of denial – ‘business is bad, it’s murderous. But not for me of course’ (Miller, 1961, p. 40) – and then sense of unfulfillment eventually leads to his death at the end of the play, therefore Miller suggests that the materialistic tendencies of society at the time were detrimental to people’s wellbeing. Miller criticised the capitalist society that was so prevalent in postmodernism, fitting Death of a Salesman comfortably under the postmodern theatre category.
Philip Auslander said that postmodernist acting includes characters that ‘are understood to be made up of fragments: words and actions cannot be expected to add up to a psychologically consistent entity’ (2004, p. 106). Miller’s writing of the psychologically-anguished Willy Loman epitomises this description, through his fragmented thoughts ‘I still feel – kind of temporary about myself’ (Miller, 1961, p. 40) and his confusion of time ‘I coulda sworn I was driving that Chevvy today’ (Miller, 1961, p. 13). Willy is constantly switching between the past and the present, and despite this being subject to his fragile mental state, it still attaches a random and disjunct nature to Willy and the entire play. Death of a Salesman is certainly postmodernist, therefore, as the character of Willy seems to represent a collection of his own memories and past, rather than a whole, constant being.
The style of Death of a Salesman certainly cannot be reduced to a single term, as Miller used various elements from a range of styles. ‘Postmodernism… believes in excess, in gaudiness, and in ‘bad taste’ mixtures of qualities’ (Barry, 200, p. 70), which can be noted in the merging of expressionism and realism within Death of a Salesman. Expressionism in theatre is defined as the writer seeking to express the inner world of emotion rather than external reality. The play jumps between present day and Willy’s memories, due to his pyschomachia (conflict of the soul), which demonstrates the expression of Willy’s mind rather than an exterior truth. Contrastingly, Death of a Salesman also includes elements of realism, which is defined as the quality of representing a thing or person in a way that is true to life. This can be seen through stage directions describing the kitchen as ‘actual enough, for there is a kitchen table with three chairs’ (Miller, 1961, p. 7), which reflects a realistic domestic setting. These two styles are so contrasting, arguably opposite, and therefore exemplify a disorderly blend of qualities that was common to postmodernist theatre.
Despite Death of a Salesman not having an obvious narrator, Willy Loman is the protagonist of the play and the audience are led through the narrative by this character. Due to his unstable mental health and inability to know what’s real and unreal ‘sounds, faces, voices seem to be swarming in upon him and he flicks at them, crying’ (Miller, 1961, p. 108), he could be considered an unreliable narrator, which gives a sense of distortion to much of the play. Mark Fortier said that ‘to live in the postmodern condition, phenomonologically speaking, is to live without a grand and deep sense of abiding truth’ (2016, p. 146). This relates to the character of Willy living in a postmodern world and therefore feeling lost and alienated, because he struggles to find truth in what is present and what is not. The unreliable narration also leaves the audience without a sense of certainty, reflecting the postmodern condition and therefore making the play an example of postmodern theatre.
Overall, Death of a Salesman is undoubtedly a postmodern play. Arthur Miller created a bricolage of styles within the play, producing a story that diverged from the conventional realism in theatre in the mid-20th century. Willy Loman is a disjointed protagonist whose frequent reminiscing and confusion gives the play a sense of disorder, which perfectly resembles the typical sporadic nature of postmodern theatre. Miller’s criticism of consumerism in the play certainly relates to the altitude of capitalism in the postmodern era, making Death of a Salesman an example of postmodernist theatre.
- Allain, P., Harvie, J. (2014) The Routledge companion to theatre and performance. 2nd edn. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Auslander, P. (2004) ‘Postmodernism and performance’, in Connor, S. (ed.) The Cambridge companion to postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 97-115.
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- Carlson, M. (2017) Performance: a critical introduction. 3rd edn. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Duffy, J. H. (1998) Reading between the lines: Claude Simon and the visual arts. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
- Eagleton, T. (2008) Literary theory: an introduction. Anniversary edn. London: Blackwell.
- Fortier, M. (2016) Theory/theatre: an introduction. 3rd edn. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Fuchs, E. (1996) The death of character: perspectives on theatre after modernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Miller, A. (1961) Death of a salesman. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
- Storey, J. (2018) Cultural theory and popular culture: an introduction. 8th edn. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Strinati, D. (2004) An introduction to theories of popular culture. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.