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American Dream | Context

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Post–World War II and the American Dream

The phrase the American dream was coined in the 1930s by writer and historian James Truslow Adams, though the idea has been around since the founding of the United States in the late 18th century. The phrase originally meant that every American, regardless of circumstances at birth, could achieve economic prosperity and a way of life better than his or her forebears. Put more succinctly, class and social standing could be improved through hard work. However, this meaning has changed over time. The end of World War II in 1945 initiated a period of prosperity during which mass manufacturing allowed—and even seemed to encourage—the accumulation of material goods.

Playwright Edward Albee believed the fundamental values of the American dream were corroded by this new, materialistic way of life, which emphasized an exterior veneer of happiness devoid of emotional and intellectual depth. Albee's The American Dream thus satirizes the shift in American values between generations, shining a particularly harsh light on those who define themselves by what they have and not by who they are.

Existentialism

Forming the backdrop to the arts during the 20th century was a philosophical movement known as existentialism that began after World War II. This way of thinking places the responsibility for finding meaning in life—or choosing to view life as meaningless—squarely on each individual. In literature influenced by existentialism, a struggle to find meaning is often prominent. So, too, is an emphasis on responding to life with emotions rather than with reason. However, in the end such a search for meaning is all for naught. Humans begin from nothing and return to nothing. The only thing that can free a person from the anxiety over a meaningless life is consciousness, yet such an awareness brings nothing but conflict. Existentialists believe that thinking people know their existence is absurd and yet must try to justify it anyway.

Theater of the Absurd

The American Dream is an example of the theater of the absurd, a short-lived but significant theater genre that began in Europe in the 1950s and spread to America in the 1960s with Albee's works. Absurdism was in some sense a reaction to the horrors of World War II and the following terror of the Cold War. During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union battled for supremacy through the use of psychological warfare and the buildup of stores of weapons, including nuclear weapons.

Albee taps into the societal tension created by the Cold War to heighten the suspense in his own work. The atmosphere of menace and dread is paralleled in The American Dream, for example, as the characters Mommy and Daddy engage in a cold war of their own against those who do not provide them satisfaction. Early audiences might have been just as nervous awaiting the nuclear explosion in Mommy and Daddy's apartment as they were awaiting a real one.

During the height of the Cold War era, leading thinkers of the day embraced existentialism most strongly, and in this window the theater of the absurd developed. Absurdism was not a formal theater movement, but rather a loose term to describe unconventional plays using nonrealistic methods to reveal characters who are out of sync with themselves and the world. Its purpose is to take an audience outside their comfortable lives to contemplate what happens when existence has no meaning and communication breaks down.

Producer and drama critic Martin Esslin wrote that absurdism is the sense that "unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away" after having been discredited as "cheap and somewhat childish allusions." Characteristics of the theater of absurd include:

  • minimal stagecraft
  • irrational dialogue
  • somber moments punctuated by instances of absurd or wild humor
  • actions devoid of reason
  • unconventional structure
  • pessimistic view of human existence

Like other absurdist plays The American Dream employs a lack of logic to create uncertainty as a way to emphasize the absurdity of existence and the hopelessness that stems from a lack of purpose. The goal is to urge audience to pursue the opposite. Other playwrights in this genre include Samuel Beckett (1906–89), whose Waiting for Godot is perhaps the most significant work of the theater of the absurd; Eugène Ionesco (1909–94); and Harold Pinter (1930–2008), among others.

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