In Businessweek late last year, Jason Zinoman noted the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino as Levine. The play, says Zinoman, “speaks as directly to the economic anxieties of today as when it opened on Broadway in 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Then, the play was widely seen by critics as a left-wing attack on a free-market system run amok.”
But as he also notes,
Glengarry Glen Ross is often compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the fundamental difference is that Mamet shows us in concrete detail the value of work. He lets the audience see salesmen doing their job, and then distinguishes between those who do it well and those who don’t. In fact, as corrupt as the office may be, there is a meritocratic ethos at its core—the most impressive salesman, Roma, is also the most successful. Levene, by contrast, repeats himself, caves in negotiation, lies poorly. It’s easy to have sympathy for him, but hard to conclude that he doesn’t deserve to get paid less than Roma. Look closely enough at this play and you’ll find a belief in the market as well as a critique of it. Like most great dramas or novels, its ideas are far too complicated to fit into a slogan.
As another great work of fiction that likewise doesn’t fit neatly into a simple binary pattern, in between Death of a Salesman (1949) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), I’d like to also highlight a short novel I recently read, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956). Seize the Day follows the travails of hapless Tommy Wilhelm as he tries to scrape out a living in New York, or at least as he tries to appear to try to do so. There’s some serious engagement with the realities of internalized expectations, competition, envy, hucksterism, and the phenomena of commodity speculation.
But one dynamic of Seize the Day I’d like to note here is the intergenerational dynamic between Tommy and his father, a successful doctor. It’s clear that Tommy’s father doesn’t really understand him, but he is certainly not about to continue to enable Tommy’s indolence and self-indulgence. Tommy, raised in the context of his father’s professional success, enjoys the benefits of affluence. But with these benefits come expectations and corresponding possibilities for failure. Much of Tommy’s suffering is self-induced.
Commenting on the fact that the middle class has historically given rise to some of its greatest critics, Michael Novak observed, “In one of the choice ironies of intellectual history, many great scholars and artists of the first rank, themselves children of the middle class, celebrated the virtues of aristocracy in preference to those of their own class.” There’s something about those who newly enjoy affluence and success that tends not to filter down to the next generation.
Seize the Day strikes me as in large part about the inability of Tommy’s father to educate him, to foster his growth, in such a way that the expectations and possibilities of wealth would not destroy him. As Novak puts it, “the success of democratic capitalism in producing prosperity and liberty is its own greatest danger. The virtues required to ‘increase the wealth of nations’ are less easily observed once wealth is attained. Parents brought up under poverty do not know how to bring up children under affluence.” This inability is perhaps Tommy’s father’s greatest flaw. He doesn’t realize how to inculcate in his son the virtues needed for success, contentment, and happiness. Thus Tommy is driven by ever more fantastical visions of seizing success, day by day.
There’s a line in The Descendants that captures the complexity of parenting under poverty and affluence quite well, I think. The main character, Matt King, says this: “I don’t want my daughters growing up entitled and spoiled. And I agree with my father – you give your children enough money to do something but not enough to do nothing.”