Monday, January 25, 2010

* Walter Lee Loman? Willy Younger?

The most famous play of the early 1950's was Death of a Salesman, made even more famous by the playwright's defiant appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his marriage to the most beautiful woman in the world, Marilyn Monroe.

The play ends with the Salesman, Willy Loman, committing suicide after realizing "You end up worth more dead than alive" in a capitalist society that holds the false carrot of the American Dream in front of the donkey of the American worker.

The final scene in a Brooklyn cemetery leaves the audience to wonder whether Willy's wife, Linda will actually receive the $20,000 insurance check, or whether the insurance company will try to prove his car crash was a "suicide" and walk out on the payment.

The play first appeared in 1949 and became world famous overnight, making Arthur Miller an international celebrity.

Nine years later Lorraine Hansberry published
A Raisin in the Sun, the story
of an African American family living on the fifth floor of a tenement in Southside Chicago, waiting for an insurance check to arrive after the death of their patriarch, Big Walter Younger, who "worked hisself to death" after he lost a "baby to poverty".

It is almost unimaginable that the highly literate Lorraine Hansberry was not intimately familiar with Death of a Salesman in 1958, the year of publication of A Raisin in the Sun.

She must certainly have known she was beginning her own play where Death of a Saleaman left off: the family is waiting for the insurance check ($10,000, half the amount of Willy Loman's 1949 insurance policy, a barometer of poverty and racism).

She might even have taken it as a challenge: I wonder what would happen if I transplanted the Loman family from working class Brooklyn, to the poverty stricken ghetto of Southside Chicago, (where 50,000 citizens had recently attended the funeral of 14-year old Emmett Till who was murdered for whistling at a white woman while on a trip to Money, Mississippi) and picked up the story from there?
The check arrives and greed and racism unfold.

And the "what would happen" turns out to be the victory of love over materialism.

Walter Lee Younger (the junior) learns he is wrong in declaring (echoing Willy Loman)
that "money is life". He learns what his Mama has taught his sister, Beneatha, that the time to love somebody isn't "when they done good and made it easy for everybody" . . . it's when he is at his lowest. . .when the world done whipped him so."

That is the time to love.

And the meek --not the materialists-- shall inherit the earth.

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