Ghosts of the Past: A look at absent characters in modern drama
In Tenesse Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, absent characters are used to not only provide exposition, but also to set up the tragic downfall of the protagonist and to further the themes through expressionism.
Exposition Absent characters have a significant impact on the behaviours, attitudes, and aspirations of the protagonists in both Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire
Allen Grey • the catalyst for Blanche’s delusions • romanced and married Blanche as part of his manipulation to mask his own sexuality • Blanche’s promiscuity also sprouts from the fact that she is missing and grieving for her idealistic and naive romance. • “I’ve got to be good—and keep my hands off children.” Blanche’s flirtatious nature with young men seem to indicate her inability to forget Allen Grey, who was “just a boy” when she married him. • Ironically, this scene also reveals her hypocritical nature – she is just as lustful as Stanley is under her genteel façade. Her illusions of innocent love mask her obsession to be “desired” by a man. • “I don’t want realism – I want magic!” – reveals Blanche’s escapist quality
The DuBois Family • represent the grandeur and that Blanche seeks • Belle Reve seems like paradise, as the title indicates; a “good dream” • Eunice remarks that it must be filled with “tall, white columns.” • Now just an illusion, like Blanche’s fantasies about her own disposition • The death of the Dubois family represents the destruction of Blanche’s ideals • “All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard! Father! Mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, it couldn’t be put in a coffin! But had to be burned like rubbish! You just came home in time for the funerals. Funerals are quiet, but death–not always.” • Blanche compares death (abstract, unkown) with a funeral (concrete) which she describes is better, comforted with flowers. • “How in hell do you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? Death is expensive, Miss Stella!…Why, the Grim Reaper had put up his tent on our doorstep!” • It seems as if death has touched Blanche in a way – she is fading in her physical beauty as well as her sanity.
Mr. Loman • Willy lacks memories of his father • He made and sold flutes • was a traveller • “he’d toss the whole family into the wagon and then he’d drive the team right across the country; through Ohio and Indiana Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states.” • left Willy when he was three and a half • The absence of a father’s presence seems to have had negatively impacted Willy. He is filled with self-doubt and feels doubtful raising his own kids probably due to the fact that he was barely raised by his own father.
Flute • represents the value of a good that can be sold • contrasts Willy and his father’s capability • Willy has only an elementary understanding of the products, while his father can take pride in the instruments he sells.
Significance • Absent characters have such a lasting impression on the central characters because they are only memories. Blanche and Willy cannot question, fight, or reason with these characters because they are essentially gone. And the protagonists are trapped in the past and must battle with the problems alone. In short, everything the audience is able to pick out from absent characters is that they provide background contexts of protagonists. They allow us to have some sort of understanding why Blanche is a pretentious escapist and why Willy is unable to turn away from the American Dream.
ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS THE AUTHORS OF THEIR OWN MISFORTUNES OR VICTIMS OF THE INFLUENCE OF ACs? "ARE WE WHO WE SAY WE ARE OR ARE WE THE PRODUCTS OF OTHERS?"
Tragedy • Absent characters in both plays drive the tragic downfall of the protagonist through their absence from the action of the play; this absence allows them to haunt both Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman without allowing closure, thereby preventing them from functioning as “normal” people • The protagonists also place their hope for salvation in characters not actually present, and are therefore shattered when these missing characters abandon them to fend for themselves.
Ben Loman • Not following Ben to Alaska is a constant regret for Willy; he feels as if Ben left him to conquer the American Dream himself, and is unable to get over this abandonment • This is shown through Ben’s continual presence in Willy’s personal dialogue, despite the fact that Ben has been entirely absent from Willy’s adult life
“I’ve got to go” [picking up his valise]…Goodbye, William.” (Miller 65/66) • Short sentences indicate general disinterest; Willy feels as though Ben doesn’t care about him, and is constantly leaving him- this is obvious in his comparatively long, rambling sentences where he tries to extend their time together • Formality of “William” (as opposed to Willy) indicates distance but also the hope that Ben views Willy as an adult of equal stature.
Bill Oliver • Absence from the action allows Willy’s hope for the future to be entirely shattered, through shattering Biff’s hope for a loan and then being unavailable to explain it to Willy • “How did I even get the idea I was a salesman for him…I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been.” (Miller 81)
“Say you got a lunch date with Oliver tomorrow…Dad is never so happy as when he’s looking forward to something.” (Miller 82) • False hope created by kids because Oliver let them down but can’t say he did • Juxtaposition: Biff is miserable over having to lie but Happy is overjoyed because his Dad will never have to know the truth (ignorance is bliss); however its precisely the false hope that puts the final nail in Willy Loman’s coffin
Allen Grey • Suicide caused Blanche to feel entirely abandoned and unwanted, which leads to lifelong flashbacks of Polka music in addition to other hallucinations. • “Then somebody caught my arm…Allen! The Grey boy! He’d stuck a revolver in his mouth and fired… And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light stronger then this – kitchen – candle…” • Blanche’s world without her husband is dark (lonely, void of hope.) After he leaves her, she feels entirely lost, and seeks the company of men which continually lets her down, as she falls in love with each one. Blanche knows this is wrong (“a girl alone in the world has got to keep a firm hold on her emotions or she’ll be lost” (Williams 87)) but can’t help it as she already feels more broken than anyone could ever hope to fix.
ShepHuntleigh • Absence leaves Blanche waiting for things to get better and they never do • Inability/unwillingness to communicate allows her to continue living a lie rather than taking action to improve the situation • “Just when I thought my luck had begun to fail me – …Into the picture pops this Miami millionaire!” (Williams 124) • Blanche refuses to admit how desperate her situation is; later, when Stanely tells her the truth, she begins screaming (“Oh!”) as if she is in physical pain. • Believing her own lies only made the truth harsher.
Absent characters help further the protagonist’s fears of abandonment (in the case of Allen Grey and Ben Loman) and build up false hope (in the case of ShepHuntleigh and Bill Oliver) which conclude in the truth being so much harder to accept. • Having this truth exposed eventually snaps the already fragile psyches of both tragic heroes, bringing about their downfall.
Is Ben Loman an absent character? Why or why not? • How would having these characters appear in the action affect the impact of the play? Would it be more or less effective?
Expressionism through absent characters • Absent characters also further develop expressionism within the two plays • Blanche’s suffering is highlighted through this as well as Willy’s dreams of being successful
Expressionism in “A Streetcar Named Desire” • Allan Grey’s story is told from Blanche’s point of view • The audience feels more sympathy for Blanche because of this; the play becomes more subjective • If Allan told the story, audience might not understand that Blanche tried her best to help and would sympathize more with Allan • “He came to me for help. … all I knew was I’d failed him in some mysterious way… He was in the quick sands and clutching at me… I was slipping in with him!” –Blanche, Williams 95
Ambition and success in Death of a Salesman • Ben is used throughout the play to portray Willy’s hopes and dreams • Willy dwells on the memory of when Ben told him and his boys how he became a millionaire • “Why boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. … And by God I was rich.” –Ben, page 33 • Using memory to express Willy’s desires shows what’s really important to Willy: wealth and success
Developing core themes • Absent characters further develop major themes in the plays • These themes include self-delusion, dependence on others, wealth and success, and satisfying parental expectations
Blanche’s Naïveté • By speaking of ShepHuntleigh, Blanche reveals her self-delusions • She continuously puts her hope into other people but they cannot help her • “As a matter of fact there wasn’t no wire at all!” –Stanley, page 127 • But naïve Blanche still believes in “the kindness of others”
The Lomans’ Ultimate Failure • Willy’s dream is for himself as well as his sons to be great renowned businessmen who are rich, powerful, and well-liked • However, they could never achieve that goal. This is portrayed through the absent character Bill Oliver • Oliver didn’t talk to Biff when he went to meet him. He didn’t even recognize Biff! This shows that a life such as Oliver’s is out of the reach of the Lomans’ • “He walked away. I saw him for one minute. I got so mad I could’ve torn the walls down!” –Biff, page 81
Satisfying Parental Expectations • Biff constantly tries to make Willy proud but fails. • Through stealing Oliver’s fountain pen, Biff hopes to steal some of Oliver’s wealth for his father. • Willy is still angry but Biff continues to try to make him happy. • “Dad, I’ll make good, I’ll make good.” –Biff, page 8
How are absent characters in Death of a Salesman used to portray the ways in which Biff and Happy are following in their father’s footsteps? In what ways does the theme of “meeting expectations” also apply to Blanche’s life, and how do absent characters affect her behaviour?