Monday, 4 May 2009

Death of a Salesman

I read Arthur Miller's celebrated play the other week and could understand why it was so highly praised when it was first written. It certainly has its moments of brilliance and I'm sure it was considered highly original back then, but I have to say it left me depressed. Well, I was stupid to have even thought any other outcome was possible—it's called Death of a Salesman for goodness' sake! Not the type of play you take your little kids to watch. It's steeped in gloom from the very first scene, its humour is dark, and all the main characters are deeply flawed in one way or another.

The play's protagonist, Willy Loman, is a small fry itinerant huckster who has passed his prime but is still trying to make it big. He faces the crushing fact that the endless rat-race he's in has made him nothing but a rat, but his pride prevents him from accepting this, and thus he is driven to suicide attempts, depression and madness. He's basically losing control of his life and, slowly but surely, his mind. (Definitely not a play to take your kids to).

His descent into lunacy is a unnervingly tragic: as more past occurrences, choices and mistakes come to haunt his mind and take over his thinking, he simultaneously falls out of his present reality. His plunge to the bottom is not one of a hero or king, but the fall of an ordinary man; it is the play which amplifies his life and problems into epic proportions. Miller's amplification is not always subtle and can drive the play into the territory of melodrama, but at other times it is convincing enough.

There's plenty of human tension in the play, just like that found in Miller's The Crucible, which I read when I was much younger (I didn't even notice any of the play's political issues then). The focus here however, is familial tension, and of course people in my generation can relate more directly and immediately to this than the witch-hunting frenzy of The Crucible. Biff, Willy's eldest son, fails to meet family expectations and can't "find himself" because he has always been defined by his parents', and in particular his father's, beliefs, dreams and desires for him. He turns out unsure of his place in the world, a kleptomaniac, and cannot make consistent his own wishes and faults with the grand schemes and bloated perceptions his elders have laid before him. And he pisses off his dad a lot. Happy, Willy's second son, copes by instead exalting his own underperformance into lies of excellence; he simply doesn't try hard and pretends what he's got is good enough. (See why I can relate to them?). The family dynamics of the Lomans come into focus, and in many ways this "typical" American family is used as a vehicle to demonstrate the effects of soceital changes on ordinary people.

What truly struck me however, was how relevant the play seems, especially in today's global economic climate. The play could have practically been written yesterday when you examine the theme! Half a century after he was created, Willy Loman is still to be found walking everywhere in America (and the world over), grasping at his dying (American) dreams of success even as he loses his job and faces mounting financial problems. The speech and slang may have evolved since the play's time, but its theme is still fresh, the issues it raises still urgent, and the emotions it conjures still raw and real, even if the manner of presentation isn't.

I also notice that Willy's job is not completely elaborated: we know he sells in towns around New England (against his will because he would prefer to work nearer to home in New York), but we don't know what his product is, nor the name of his company. Really, I don't think his job was of great importance: it could have been the death of a steno, a lawyer, a writer, an accountant, bank manager, whatever. The point was, like many men, he was not getting from his job what he wanted, and his trying to change things only makes matters worse.

Another observation: Willy idolised Dave Singleman, a successful, well respected and well liked salesman whose funeral was attended by hundreds of salesmen and buyers. Singleman was the salesman's salesman of Willy's world, and this immediately reminded me of the lawyer's lawyers, the doctor's doctors, the banker's bankers, the writer's writers of our world: the leaders of our industries. Willy unfortunately never reached the success or popularity of Singleman, but what was even more unfortunate was that he believed he could. Miller gave no sympathy here: Willy, like us, deluded himself into thinking he could be a big hot like Singleman, when there really isn't much room at the top, and the journey is often impossible.

Willy Loman was clearly meant to be the Everyman of his day, and after half a century, most of the men he symbolised have kicked the bucket. Yet their children have grown up to face the same problems their fathers faced—history has cruelly repeated itself. Their fathers' disillusionment and delusion, their frustrations and failing families, exemplified by Willy, have come full circle, and are now own. Willy Loman's children had to deal with the ill-effects of their fathers misplaced beliefs and overblown dreams, just as they themselves were brought up to believe in the effectiveness of their father's approach to life and their own limitless potential, only to face a world far less convinced.

Biff and Happy were the Everychild of that time, and they had to deal with the failures of their parents' generation, just as they themselves have to see the dreams their parents presented them crumble in front of their eyes. With irony in mythical proportions, theirs' is a double tragedy: they were Biffs and Happys but have grown up to be Willy Lomans, and so the play lives on.


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