Portrayal of the American Dream in the 20th Century Theatre Essay

January 19, 2022 by Essay Writer

The American dream has become one of the most important values in the sense that it has played a significant role in providing American citizens with the freedom to pursue their goals, rights and dreams. This has been a dominant phenomenon for many years now. The idea of the American dream has been existing since as early as the 17th century. However, in the beginning of the 20th century period, it was generally formulated and widely accepted among people who arrived in the USA.

As a result, different playwrights developed dramas which were played in theatres and largely portrayed the quest for the American dream by individuals, as well as society. This paper examines how the search for the American dream was portrayed in two plays namely the American salesman by Arthur Miller and the melting pot by Israel Zangwill.

The melting pot

The American dream has received different and yet numerous definitions over the years. In spite of the various descriptions that have been given to the American Dream, it is also worth noting that this concept has been a major driving force aimed at attaining success in the widely acknowledge land of America.

The various facets of the American dream tend to touch on the aspirations of the youth and beauty, dreams of property ownership, upward mobility and equality among others. This has made the American dream to be real for many people and also elusive to other groups and social classes which regarded it as a mere guideline for people who wanted to become successful.

The concept of the search for the American dream was clearly displayed in the works by Israel Zangwill who in his play The Melting Pot indicated how different individuals in modern societies shift their focus on realizing their freedom (Kraus, 1999). This form of a freedom has been described in various ways ranging from social to financial.

However, different analysts criticized the use of the ‘melting pot’ in the play to show the pursuit of the American dream terming it as unrealistic in the sense that the term ‘melting’ creates a picture of individuals who completely abandon their cultures in search for the American dream (Cardullo, 2007). In addition, this has been viewed as an uncivilized way of seeking perfection in society, especially if culture is to be abandoned for the sake of the American dream.

Nonetheless, the play brings out the importance of freedom tacking into consideration the fact that during the previous era, it was evident that some identities and cultures were perceived as unwanted and inferior, certain groups, like black people, were under the yoke of slavery, while the Native Americans, South European immigrants and Irish Catholics were discriminated. As a matter of fact, there were adequate and quite justified reasons why the American dream was being considered as the best available option.

In order to back up the concept of the American dream and respond to criticisms from the analysts in the play the melting pot, the concept of cultural pluralism was developed in 1915 with an aim of incorporating the fact that even with American freedom diverse ethnic groups can still keep and enrich their different cultures in a harmonious and mutual manner (Alba et al., 2000).

However, different individuals fro the outside interpreted the American dream wrongly. The dream was interpreted and largely perceived as a ‘peaceful co-existence of different people and ethnic groups’.

While there was great discriminations among different ethnic groups in America with the minority ones suffering while the whites enjoying great dominance. The play was meant to motivate various groups towards freedom. During that time, the civil rights of Afro Americans, as well as many Native Americans, had been denied (Cardullo, 2007). These incidences were reflected in the events that took place shortly before, during and immediately after the Martin Luther’s time.

The long way that America had come required a clear understanding of issues and a straightforward method of addressing them. It is also notable that both, the white segregationists and black community clearly understood that the constitution was being broken and justice was not being delivered to all (Alba et al., 2000).

Addressing the issues of segregation and discrimination of the Native Americans by different leaders was a call for freedom that drove many followers to offer support since they sought to address the gap. Straightforwardness supports the leader’s values that tighten the bond between them and followers. During the great march on Washington in 1963, President Kennedy’s administration and pro-discrimination whites could not resist but grant the hard fought freedom by changing the existing laws (Alba et al., 2000).

The American salesman

As indicated earlier, the notion of upward mobility of the American dream saw many people in the 20th century develop a strong belief in improving their economic status and overall wellbeing. Developing a dream of upward mobility was strongly expressed in theatres in Arthur Miller’s American salesman shows whereby Willy Lowman together with his son hoped to make their lives better by pursuing the American dream (Fix, 2008).

As much as they belonged to the citizens of the low class, Lowman, as his name suggests, knew quite well that he could not arise above this level and as such saw it as necessary to prepare his sons for a better life indoctrinating his dreams in them (Fix, 2008). Perhaps, instilling some dream in them would be the most viable way of attaining the kind of success they were yearning for.

According to the play, the protagonist intended to help his sons live and fulfill their dreams. Scholars posit that the play brings out a self made American man whose need for upward economic mobility is based on pursuit of happiness and secularization of Puritan and Calvinist dreams (Cardullo, 2007). Achievement of an upward mobility therefore comes through unrestricted and persistent effort, ambition, hard work and desire to master one’s own destiny.

However, Arthur Miller seems to criticize the search for American dream in the play indicating that it led to loss of identity. Indeed, the American dream instilled in people some desires to pursue success regardless of the outcome of the entire pursuit. This perception and consideration that America would eventually provide the much need upward mobility has been brought out well in the play through heteronomy which happened to take humanity away.

The play also brings out the fact that the pursuit for freedom can lead to destruction, a consideration that is seen in the end of Willi Lowman’s life, who after directing his entire life and material possession to achieve his dreams, fails to achieve one of his extrinsically prescribed goals of upward mobility. This drives him to madness as he feels segregated. He eventually loses his mind.

The American Dream, ever since its inception, influenced people’s livelihoods due to its application to the national social-economic and political points of view. According to the definition of the term, it seeks to create a sense of economic improvement for various classes of people in the United States who are all seeking for the better economic achievements.

It is also worth mentioning that theaters during the 20th century played a key role in advancing the need for developing a stronger drive towards the achievement of better living standards, freedom from discrimination, segregation and economic hardships (Cardullo, 2007). Scholars agree with the reality depicted in the American salesman that the attainment of the American dream has been elusive to many Americans who still feel discriminated and undergoing economic hardships (Cardullo, 2007).

In any case, the current economic divide has unfortunately been obstructive regarding the overall objectives of the American dream. With the original objective to create a level playing ground for all, the current economic divide, as Madsen (2011) indicates, appears to act in a different direction. Notably, the high social class has increasingly assimilated the dominance of key economic units such as industries and private institutions.

Madsen adds that though this notion takes root silently, its implications are strongly felt. Even after completing university education and gaining enough experience in management, many individuals still belong to the same social class (middle class) for a long time without shifting upwards.

During economic recession, stagnations have been evident as salaries were cut down while people’s economic positions were greatly threatened.

Summing up everything mentioned above, it is imperative to reiterate that both plays attempt to portray the American dream as a powerful drive that saw individuals work hard to attain it. Nonetheless, the 20th century theater was also quite ironical in the matter of presenting the American dream, indirectly describing it as being elusive.


Alba, R., Portes, A., Kasinitz, P. & Fonari, N. (2000). Beyond the melting pot 35 years later: On the relevance of a sociological classic for the immigration metropolis of today. The International Migration Review, 34(1), 243-279.

Cardullo, R. J. (2007). Selling in american drama, 1946-49: Millers death of a salesman, O’Neill’s the iceman cometh, and William’s a streetcar named desire. The Explicator, 66(1), 29-33.

Fix, C. (2008). The lost father in death of a salesman. Michigan Quarterly Review, 47(3), 464-467.

Kraus, J. (1999). How the melting pot stirred America: The reception of Zangwill’s play and theatres role in the American assimilation experience. MELUS, 24(3), 3-19.

Madsen, D. (2011). Out of the melting pot, into the nationalist fires. American Indian Quarterly, 35(3), 353-371,476-477.

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