Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism by Arthur Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I don’t think this play works, but I also distrust the classics-hating canon-smashing puritan iconoclast impulse, as if it were not rashly arrogant to assume a work that’s circulated widely in time and space beyond its own circumstances has nothing to offer. So I will begin with two reasons that Miller’s tragedy of the common man has held the global stage, as well as readers’, critics’, and scholars’ attention, since 1949.
First, it can be extremely effective in performance. While I’m not a great theater-goer, I will never forget the matinee I attended on a school field-trip in spring of 1999 to the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side. The late Bingo O’Malley played Willy Loman in a heroic, athletic performance that is still the best thing I’ve ever seen on a stage, and I promise you that among us jaded, philistine high-school students there was not a dry eye in the house. Yet I suspect it worked because a sufficiently intense and intelligent actor can lend Willy a gravity that, as I’ll explain, isn’t there in the script.
The second reason for Salesman’s success is its formal audacity and intricacy, which can both dazzle the playgoer and reward the student’s scrutiny. Miller, though an admirer of Ibsenite realism, was avowedly inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire, with its techniques for entering the heroine’s disordered consciousness. Salesman’s cutaway house set and musical leitmotifs and visual memory cues and patterned symbols all reflect Willy Loman’s inner life; Miller’s first title for the play was The Inside of His Head. It’s as if Miller were trying to solve the problem of the realist drama’s belatedness in the 20th century by combining the modernist novel’s stream-of-consciousness stylings with the cuts and dissolves of cinema, all this to reinvigorate ancient tragedy’s rite of the noble soul in its grand defeat, here applied to an everyday American.
Miller explained his intention in “Tragedy and the Common Man,” a manifesto he wrote to defend his play and the realist theater generally from critics like Joseph Wood Krutch, who were arguing that in the disenchanted and democratized modern world, tragedy was no longer possible—that being crushed by fate, like Oedipus or Macbeth, is not the same as being crushed by circumstance, like Oswald Alving. Miller replies:
The tragic night is a condition of life, a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or such action.
Yet in all this admirable ambition, both formal and ethical, something vital is lost: the inner nobility, never mind his social class, of the tragic hero. For on the page, without Bingo O’Malley to assist, Willy Loman never inspires anything other than bathos.
A salesman who moved his small family—wife Linda and sons Biff and Happy—to a suburb on which the city now encroaches, Willy is losing his touch as old age steals on him. He’s been reduced to working on commission rather than for a salary as his former boss’s snotty son has taken over the company. His middle-class life is founded entirely on debt, from his mortgaged house to his new refrigerator, broken though he hasn’t yet paid it off. His sons haven’t turned out well: Biff, who peaked in high school as a football star, is a wandering proto-hippie trying to find himself in nature, while Happy is a crude, corrupt womanizer vying for material success at any price. Willy is moreover losing his mind, frequently lost in memories of better times when he preached the gospel of success to his rapt and adoring sons; he is beset by thoughts of suicide and even keeps a rubber hose near the water heater to suffocate himself when the time comes, in the play’s grimmest prop-symbol.
There is little plot per se, just Willy’s final confrontation with the flawed men his sons have become, a conflict that threatens to reveal to him the hollowness of his own life. In a climactic revelation, we learn that a teenaged Biff discovered Willy’s own philandering ways, which shattered his idealized image of his father and turned him away from trying to emulate the salesman’s pursuit of material success. The eponymous and supposedly tragic conclusion comes when Willy commits vehicular suicide so that his family can get his insurance money—as if to say that a society that values money over all else will reduce a man’s life to nothing whatever but his material worth.
Thematically, the play coheres as a left-conservative outcry against an America immured in false, materialistic values—their falseness emblematized by the inherently half-fraudulent job of “sales”—just as the Loman house is engulfed by the urban buildings that tower over it and prevent any plant life from flowering in its yard. Willy’s persistent delusion of success and exceptionality, even as he never makes much money and cheats on his wife, and even as his favorite son sacrifices real learning to the counterfeit achievement of sports and popularity, is the logical consequence of a culture that has turned away from any principles but money and getting ahead. Miller pursues this theme at all levels: I particularly enjoy the scene where Willy’s boss shows off his new tape recorder, proudly playing inane bits from his family as the anguished Willy tries to ask him for a reprieve from traveling. This scene prophesies how inhuman materialism will become crystallized in machines that mediate and often suppress human relationships. Much in this play is similarly relevant to the current moment, when other left-conservative writers like Christopher Lasch and Ivan Illich, whose social critiques dovetail with Miller’s, are coming back into vogue as a protest against our own age of debt-filled omni-mediated money-worshipping false-fronted materialism. It’s not that nothing ever changes, but that our problems started further back than we think, which is reason enough to revisit Salesman now.
So why do I say this would-be tragedy doesn’t work despite the merits I’ve listed? Because Miller cannot fulfill his high intentions with a hero as deluded as Willy Loman. Except for a vague and undeveloped urge to return to nature, as Biff does by working shirtless on western farms, Willy never articulates any values to rival those he’s sacrificed himself to. Contrast Willy with Blanche Du Bois: she is equally deluded, but Williams doesn’t disparage her ideal. She gives herself to a Romanticism ultimately superior to the crass and brutal world that destroys her. But even Willy’s urge to plant a garden, and Biff’s to work in the sunshine, are adulterated by the recurrent imagery of Willy’s older brother Ben, who made his fortune in Africa and commands Willy to go into the jungle: nature itself, the thematic pole opposite to the play’s hated materialism, can’t be disentangled from the corrupt dream of success and exploitation.
Willy goes to his death no less addled than he was when he first came onstage; his reconciliation scene with Biff is marred by his false conviction that Biff, who really plans never to speak to his father again, is actually going to try to get a proper job and make something of himself. Willy takes his life to help Biff with this non-existent goal by leaving him the insurance money, which renders his death merely bathetic, almost gruesomely comic. Compared to Lear’s recognizing Cordelia—and if Miller wants to insist on writing tragedy, he must accept the comparison—this is an imaginative failure: Willy never really comes to know what he’s lost.
Miller disastrously tries to make up for this failure of tragic characterization with mere rhetorical insistence in the play’s two most famous speeches, neither of which, tellingly, is spoken by Willy. First, Linda, near the end of Act One, orders her sons—and the audience—how to feel:
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.
Surely it is better for a dramatist to attract attention to his main character rather than having a secondary character command an attention that the writing can’t ensure. Even worse is Willy’s neighbor Charley’s impromptu, homespun eulogy at his graveside:
Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
Doesn’t this contradict the whole thematic drift of the play, which censures rather than elegizes the salesman’s false dream? Why place it a page from the end, where it will be taken for the story’s moral?
Miller’s own virtuoso command of stage technique and bold intention to revive and democratize tragedy is like Willy’s own ideal: an appealing vision that leads the visionary astray from nature—in Salesman’s case, the human nature of the hero which alone can inspire both pity (for someone like ourselves) and terror (that his fate may befall us). Ironically, the play’s popular success may owe too much to the kind of popular façade it set out to dismantle. Yet, given an actor who can plant the seed of nature in the perennially false protagonist, the salesman may live again and again on the stage.
I see what you’re saying re the failings of the play and it hasn’t always worked for me but I was lucky enough to see Philip Seymour Hoffman play the lead on Broadway not long before his death. Incredibly powerful performance, as well as Linda Edmond as Linda. Attention must be paid, indeed.
As implied by both you and polloplayer, plays come to life because actors bring them to life. What you read on the page is instructions – you can create your own “theater of the mind” while reading, but it’s not the same thing as seeing.
Generations of actors have seen Willy Loman as a challenge to bring to life, so he survives. Miller’s general faults as a playwright (preachiness and lack of humor) barely get in the way of this.
BTW I’ve always hated the names of the two sons – they sound like cartoon characters (“The Adventures of Biff & Happy”).
Thank you! Yes, I agree with both comments, and also about the names.
I did this play in secondary school and generally didn’t appreciate its fundamental snobbery about the noble pursuit of “sales”, most recently reflected in the David Graeber’s notion of “bullshit jobs”, Miller and Graeber both of course exhibiting in their public lives an unerring gift for commercial promotion.
Yes, the play is politically confused all around. There’s Dickensian sentimentality about “the common man” mixed up with Marxist satire of the petit bourgeoisie (which is, as you say, often snobbish coming from the leftist intellectual).
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