Towards a humanistic democracy: The balancing acts of Arthur Miller and August Wilson

Date of Completion

January 1997


Theater|Literature, American




Arthur Miller and August Wilson may be called "postmodern" playwrights in that their writing is a response to a postmodern world, but theirs is a mode of positive postmodernism which insists on maintaining a humanistic and optimistic outlook through social commitment and irony, while acknowledging the contingencies and uncertainties of modern existence. They are both concerned with establishing personal morality in a world increasingly devoid of values. This dissertation examines Miller's plays of the nineteen-eighties to nineteen-nineties alongside the works of Wilson, in order to demonstrate the importance of Miller's later works as well as wider implications of Wilson's work than have heretofore been considered. The study uncovers thematic similarities between the works of these two playwrights. Through their art, Miller and Wilson seek to provide American society with propositions for survival and improvement.^ The plays of Miller and Wilson espouse a classical Humanism which views mankind and its development as the highest ethical goal. The balance between the individual and social interests and needs, which Miller and Wilson promote, is achieved by asserting moral responsibility towards self and others. For these writers, morality is not innate but a matter of choice, and so, though in one sense confining, moral responsibility is a matter of freedom so long as we believe in the existence of free will and in man as an essentially responsible and progressive being. Miller and Wilson ensure that we do not fall into the trap of forgetting we have the important and self-affirming capacity to choose; whatever the state of the world, they assert we still have free will, and it is our responsibility to create the society we would live in.^ While Chapter one explains what Miller and Wilson see as the prevailing social conditions of our contemporary society and outlines each playwright's dramatic aims, subsequent chapters build an incremental picture of the lessons both playwrights attempt to teach by close analysis of their work. This study illustrates how, together, the plays of Miller and Wilson form an affirmation of American potential and spirit, which reveals the playwrights' mutual, humanistic, and democratic vision of America. ^