2500 words Gender and Performance in 1950s US theatre

Gender and Performance

The representation of gender and performance on the 1950s American theatrical-stage continues to invite much theoretical response and opinion. Renowned playwrights and dramatists of the era have produced some of the world’s best-loved scripts and memorable characters that, to this day, remain highly regarded and heavily influential. The first stage performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman appeared on     Broadway in 1949. Since this time, it has played out over seven hundred performances and has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award. Fifty years later and Miller’s play continues to dominate stages across the world, providing performances that seek to unmask the social ideology of  1950s American society, revealing in its place a damaged and warped sense of space for the common man caught up within the cultural codes of a broken America. The crisis affecting the common man and the very threat to his masculinity will provide the basis of this discussion. Other revered playwrights and works of this time will also be used to reflect the gender crisis and the failure to construct an accepted persona – plays by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams shall be discussed. Identities in crisis and marred relationships within the worlds they inhabit promote a common theme and shall remain at the heart of this discussion.

As a performance text, Death of a Salesman will provide a solid basis for which to theorise the representation of gender and, in particular, to understand more fully the overriding sense of masculinity in crisis. The play itself centres around one man’s fight for, ‘his rightful position in [a] society’ that is all too ruthless in its disposal of failure. (Miller 1949).  Not only does one bear witness to a broken society but, more significantly, the overwhelming sense of a crisis of masculinity for central protagonist, Willy Loman, who tries in vain to adhere to the social and moral codes that in the end become too far out of his lines of control. The physical presence of Willy Loman alone accentuates this crisis from the outset. In his search for the right actor to play Willy in the 1966 filmed version of the play, Miller had a clear mental image of how Willy should appear. In his autobiography, he states, he ‘had to be small.’ (Miller 1999) Miller’s initial intention to visually cast his lead character as somewhat impish, and arguably less ‘masculine’, would seek to accentuate further Willy’s downfall as story and character unfold. Miller continues to add that his original image of Willy was more to do with the idea of a little, feisty man, ‘taking on the whole world,’ and would therefore act as a visual demonstration to show the struggle of the ‘little’ man caught up within the huge, consuming grip of the American world. (Gussow 2002). This idea of masculinity in a performative context can be theorised by Judith Butler, who states that ‘gender identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.’ (Butler 1990) Butler explores the idea of imitation and reveals how both gender and sexuality are overtly ‘performed’ or ‘imitated’ in order to characterise how much of a man or woman one might be. What is interesting in Death of a Salesman is that Miller’s original characterisation of Willy not only demonstrates the struggle of a man that is unable to fit within the society that has set standards and ideals, but also the physical struggle of a man in which society would label him less masculine and less of a man because of his size. On his characterisation of Willy, Miller writes:

[Willy’s] striving to climb to the top of the mountain, and the striving is perhaps clearer in this kind of production. He doesn’t have it natively given to him by life. He’s got to struggle for it. For example, his whole relationship to his sons – he says, ‘I thank almighty God, you’re both built like Adonises. (Gussow 2002)

With this in mind, it is interesting that the initial requirements set for Willy’s character would not materialise until the later 1984 production, where the more diminutive Dustin Hoffman takes the lead. With the burly Lee J Cobb setting the bill for the 1966 production – described by Miller himself as a ‘mountainous hulk’ – this idea of visually promoting and showcasing masculinity in order to demonstrate struggle and conformity is turned on its head. (Gussow 2002) However, what transpires from this different visual imitation of masculinity is merely, as Miller writes, just a different kind of tragic effect – a big-guy unable to withstand the bigger forces of American consumption.

The fifties American Dream, the struggle, and then the fall of the all-consumed American man is a well-oiled theme of plays from around this era. In Death of a Salesman, rejection from the business world – and at the very hub, which allows Willy to provide for his family – is threatened. The struggle for a man to provide for his family successfully and to remain a prominent figure within the family set-up successfully are areas of conflict that can also be located in Eugene O’Neill’s 1955 play, A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Central protagonist and head of house, Tyrone, is unable to control the addictions and past regrets that afflict his family, and like the relationship between Willy and Biff in Death of a Salesman, Tyrone’s appeal to his son to ‘make [his] mark’ and to become successful on the stage is cast aside as a mere fantasy.

TYRONE (with indignant appeal now): If you’d get ambition in your head instead of folly! You’re young yet. You could make your mark. You have the talent to become a fine actor. You still have it still. You’re my son! (O’Neill, 1955)

Once more, the pressure to ‘arrive’ and to make a ‘mark’ on the fifties world stage ends in disappointment, with the realisation that the struggle to do so remains merely an unrealistic and unobtainable dream.

The portrayal of Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, and the ‘woman’ figure in general within this play, are features that do not preside over the performance as a whole. This is not to say that they are in anyway physically absent from the play either. In terms of Linda’s character, her desire to please her husband and to satisfy Willy’s ideas of what a wife and mother should represent, are notions that she embraces well – she is happy to subscribe to the idealised housewife and mother role and would never question her part to play in society as a whole. For Linda, her role is a subscription to the norm and her husband’s happiness is the single most important factor of all her desires. With this, Linda Loman is happy to conform to the image of the fifties housewife. Her presence as lead female character is not feminised or overtly sexual, demonstrating her position within the household further. Her role is her family and family alone. Her strength in character lies in her rational and calm persona. She offers hope and reason to the possible plight of her family and is the only character that can effectively manage and stem the downward spiral of her husband and family, during times of uncertainty. Linda provides the level at which male-desires and dreams should be reached for and attained. As the mother-woman figure, she becomes sensible to over-zealous ideas and dreams that her husband and sons soon become obsessed with. Her strength as a woman lies in her ability, in desperate situations, to effectively over-rule her male contemporaries and lead them to a logical and reasoned point of view.

LINDA: […] Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person. (Miller 1949)

Whereas Linda represents the model housewife and mother, it becomes apparent that the only other type of woman within the play is one which is set to unbalance security and stability, threatening the very vision of the squeaky clean fifties American household that Willy places so much importance on. The play fluctuates between stability – that of Linda and her representation of home and security – and insecurity – that of the women in hotel rooms and those sexual beings, whose desires unmask and challenge the male’s moral dexterity and hidden desires. As Hadomi explains, the fluctuation between the two images of women, demonstrates the turmoil that later adds to the tragedy of Willy’s character:

Willy and his sons have an inner conflict in which they fluctuate between loyalty to the mother-woman figure and an attraction to women as sexual objects. Loyalty to the first is linked to stability and integrity in family and social life, whereas the desire for the second represents disintegration of the individual and his role in society. (Hadomi 1988)

Like Linda Loman, female characters within the male-dominated sphere of the theatre, often harbour qualities of strength and resilience in times of struggle. However, in O’Neill’s play, A Long Days Journey into Night, housewife and mother character Mary is representative of a woman unable to deal with the past and the unfortunate hand that life has dealt her. Raleigh writes:

Men-sons, husbands, lovers and whiskey, these are the sources of feminine sorrow in O’Neill’s world. And at the end of the long, dark tunnel of the long day’s journey into night stands a wounded woman, grieving at what time has done to her, at her present sorrows or lost felicities, of life’s general impossibilities. (Raleigh 1965)

For Mary, shattered dreams of the past and her inability to accept the failures of her husband, in turn brings about a life focused solely on addiction and depression. Her addiction to morphine may be a consequence of her husband’s inability to become the successful actor he placed so much desire and promise on. With Tyrone’s dreams at the forefront of their relationship, Mary’s dreams too become shattered. Once more the struggle to conform along with society’s pressure on what is deemed to be successful at this time only delivers disappointment and failure – identities and personas in the act becoming confused and even lost.

Continuing the theme of a crisis in masculinity on the fifties American stage, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, moves away from the idea of the inept male and his desire to succeed. In this play, masculinity and success is measured under a different weight. The character of Stanley Kowalski may be regarded as the quintessential ‘masculine-male’ in his fierce morals and his animalistic desire to protect his own. However, through the eyes of Blanche DuBois, Stanley and all his visual masculine-presence represents is an unrefined, vulgar man who is beneath the world he inhabits – othered in respect of his Polish immigrant parentage, a reject in any business-orientated work-role and a mere representation of a working-class, unsophisticated adopted-American that Blanche herself would not wish for the likes of her sister to have become involved with. The vivid and overtly masculine character of Stanley is in a stark contrast to the characterisation of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, whose aim is to live out the American fairytale and to be seen as its chief representative. Yet both characters are rejects in the eyes of their societies they inhabit. They both demonstrate the struggle of the man to be accepted in the eyes of a ruthless Capitalist society.

STANLEY: I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is a one hundred percent American, born and raised on the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don’t ever call me a Polack. (Williams 1984)

Stanley’s code of morality and his acceptance of his status are clear and simple. He defends his territory and protects forcefully against any threat of invasion into his life and the world he has created. He is a fierce but proud American who is prepared to put up a physical fight to defend his own, in stark contrast to the character of Willy Loman, whose very persona and dated set of beliefs determines his suicide at the plays end. Williams’ characterisation of the brutish Stanley successfully critiques the American Dream in its ideals of how the American man should act and behave. However brutish or coarse Stanley’s manner to life and to his women may be, the very essence of his characterisation and his lack of refinement and primitive qualities as male, somehow cast him as morally in-tune – that is accepting and getting on with life with the hand that has been dealt to him. Despite the inhumanity that his character at times displays, his compassion towards Stella and their moments of tenderness are acts of more weight and significance. His success as a working-class male is finding a way in which to survive capitalist society and the pressures it puts on the man to conform to the ideals of what it is to be deemed as a ‘man’. Playwright critic, Christopher Bigsby writes, ‘Williams’ sympathies are always with the weak and defeated while his admiration is always with those who manage to survive in, an almost dominate, contemporary society. These latter-men – like John Buchanan and Stanley Kowalski – are described by Williams as Promethean figures “brilliantly alive in a stagnant society.”’ (Bigsby 1969)

The representation of gender in the plays discussed highlight the recurring issues of lost and confused identities. In a post-war American society preoccupied with perfection and over-patented images of success and ideals, the struggle for the common man to become a part of society and to be regarded as ‘successful’ and ‘worthy’, all too often ends in disappointment and failure – the ‘American Dream’ representing just that: a mere dream. The physical entities of those actors on stage and the performance they give are important when understanding the impact of the crisis and the struggle their characters have to project. Through clever casting and confident stage direction, the essence of their characters, and more often than not, the downfall that awaits them, allows for the audience to understand the crisis more effectively and fully.










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BIGSBY, C. W. E (1969) ‘Tennessee Williams: Streetcar to Glory’ in Deland, F, The Forties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Everett/Edwards Inc, New York, PP. 108


Butler, J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London


Gussow, M (2002) Conversations with Miller, Nick Hern Books, London


Hadomi, L (Summer 1988) ‘Fantasy and Reality: Dramatic Rhythm in Death of a Salesman’, University of Toronto Press, 31, 157-174


Miller, A (1949) Death of a Salesman, Penguin Books, London


Miller, A (1999) Timebends: A Life, Methuen, London


Miller, A (Winter 1949) ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, New York Times, Sec II, 1-3


O’Neill, E (1955) A Long Days Journey into Night, Nick Hern Books, London


Raleigh, J (1965) The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville


Rivkin, J and Ryan, M (1998) Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell Publishers Inc, London


Williams, T (1984) A Streetcar Named Desire, Methuen, London