Category Archives: History of Entertainment

From Normal to Veblen Goods in Entertainment: The Curious Case of Broadway Tickets and the Dilution of the American Middle Class , 1945-2012

Found a piece by Lee Siegel in the New York Times on the revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”:

Certainly few middle-class people, or at least anyone from any “middle class” that Loman would recognize, are among the audiences attending this production. What was once a middle-class entertainment has become a luxury item. Tickets for the original run, in 1949, cost between $1.80 and $4.80; tickets for the 2012 run range from $111 to $840. After adjusting for inflation, that’s a 10-fold increase, well beyond the reach of today’s putative Willy Lomans.

Then again, in 1949, the top marginal tax rate was 82 percent. The drop in that rate to 28 percent by 1988 helped create a stratum of people who could afford to pay high prices for everything from inflated theater tickets to health care and college tuition.

[…]

In our time of banker hustlers, real-estate hustlers and Internet hustlers, of suckers and “muppets,” it is unlikely that anyone associates happiness and dignity with working hard for a comfortable existence purchased with a modest income. Even what’s left of the middle class disdains a middle-class life. Everyone, rich, poor and in between, wants infinite pleasure and fabulous riches.

Mr. Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. For Mr. Miller, Willy’s middle-class dreams put the system that betrayed them to shame. In our current context, Willy’s dreams of love, dignity and community through modest work make him a deluded loser.

Perhaps there is a simple, unlovely reason “Death of a Salesman” has become such a beloved institution. Instead of humbling its audience through the shock of recognition, the play now confers upon the people who can afford to see it a feeling of superiority — itself a fragile illusion.

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