Sociopathic salesmen

The final author in my 20th Century American Drama class is Eugene O’Neill.  We’re studying The Iceman Cometh, a play I’ve never seen. When the Hickey appears, and it turns out he’s a salesman, my thoughts turned from theatre to sociology.

What does it say about American culture that three of the top dramas of the previous century all revolve around sociopathic salesman? Hickey, in Iceman is a liar and a cheat who’s killed his wife. Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman, is a liar and a cheat who’s fed his family nothing but delusions, and all of the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross are dysfunctional schemers, liars, and cheats.

Is there something in the national psyche that’s brought these stories to the fore? The plays were written 44 years apart, O’Neill’s in 1939, Miller’s in 1949, and Mamet’s in 1983. Despite been much closer chronologically to Iceman, Death of a Salesman feels more contemporary, and you’d guess it was written within a decade of Mamet, instead of O’Neill, but they are all sort of clustered mid-century. Was this just a phase in American history or will the next few years bring another look at selling in America to the masterworks of our national theatre? And is any country other than the US so obsessed with selling?

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