Professor A. Kiarina Kordela was a panelist for our Crashing the Party Salon, “The American Dream: A Dream Deferred?” and had a lot of wonderful things to say. As the founding Director of the Critical Theory Program at Macalester College, Professor Kordela heads up a department that uses philosophical thought to analyze cultural and social phenomena. Her background fit perfectly for our discussion on the state of the American Dream. In addition to her thoughts at the Salon, we’re grateful that Dr. Kordela penned this guest blog post:
I do not know whether it was because I was invited to the salon on “The American Dream: A Dream Deferred?,” but our (I went to see the play with friends) first association was Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman, a play that one can even find cited under “Literature” in the entry “American Dream” on Wikipedia—for, as Toblessen’s play teaches us, we all know how to google.
Being a businessman who went to college on an athletic fellowship, the father, David Sr., strikes us as kind of middle-aged sequel to the promising high-school athlete, and older son, Biff, in Death of a Salesman. Or, more precisely, David Sr. would be Biff’s future, had Biff never flunked senior-year math and missed his chance to go to college.
But Biff finds a further reincarnation in Crashing the Party: Arthur, the son who bears Miller’s first name, is the only one to ‘escape’ the family at the end, just as Biff had symbolically done by refusing, after the suicide of his father, to stay and become a businessman with the insurance money. Arthur, too, was an athlete in high school, and dreams of making a business to sell his self-designed T-shirts, just as Biff had tried to open a business for athletic attire and used to wear his self-designed “University of Virginia” shoes.
However, conspicuously absent in Crashing the Party, in comparison to Miller’s play, are the plights of aging, victimhood, and sacrifice. The mother does not spend her days in sufferance, worrying about her husband and kids or let herself be bullied around. Far from being portrayed as the aging victim of the ruthless competition of the market, the father is an agile crook suspected for having a relation with his young accountant. In lieu of the salesman’s sacrificial suicide, the play’s final joyous dinner is sealed with Catherine’s, the mother, toast: “We are very lucky!” I could mention several other examples but I do not want this to be a spoiler, particularly regarding a play rife with unexpected and witted twists.
More strikingly, perhaps, is the absence of trauma. While in Death of Salesman we eventually realize that the reason why Biff grew indifferent to the prospect of college was his traumatic discovery of his father’s adultery, in Crashing the Party Arthur sees, in parental adulterous possibilities, his own chance for sexual adventures.
And what about the American Dream? In his 1931 book Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams, who popularized the term, states: “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are.” In both plays the paternal expectation, as well as the accepted measure of a fulfilled life, is closely tied to economic/professional success, and in both the filial predicament is that others do not accept them for “what they are” and what they are “innately capable” of—even if this turns out to be an obnoxious couch potato (perhaps as a result of an affluent liberal upbringing?). In its interpretation as socio-economic success, the American Dream becomes a new form of oppression that replaces those posed by, again in Adams’s words, “the barriers…erected in the older civilizations,” such as more fixed hierarchical social class orders, etc. But Crashing the Party goes even further: in a fabulous exchange between the two brothers cynicism bulldozes as they discuss the dream of doing something meaningful and socially beneficial in life.
One son escapes the family, but can he also escape all these features (assumptions, non/values, etc.) that the play suggests inform the discourse of postmodern advanced capitalist societies?
Beyond being a treat in terms of comedy writing, directorship, and acting, Crashing the Party is a profound study of our society that raises tough questions with no easy or unambiguous answers. So, don’t be misled by any review or comment that would present the play as ‘shallow entertainment.’ Crashing the Party is representative of the standards established by Mixed Blood’s repertoire, and even supersedes expectations by succeeding in addressing profound social issues and forcing us to think even as we cannot stop laughing.
A. Kiarina Kordela