Lessons from Willy Loman

Dustin Hoffman says he always wanted to play Willy Loman. He did a helluva job in 1985.

I have a confession to make.  I wasn’t sure that Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is such a great play.  Maybe that’s because its message seems obvious: the capitalist system is oblivious to the damage it can do to any individual human being.  When it was written, in 1949, that idea should not have been surprising to an audience that had grown up during the Great Depression and half expected another one.  Of course, as Miller himself said in an interview for the 50th anniversary of the premiere,  that belief proved to be “cockeyed.”  In fact, the country proceeded to take “a completely unforeseen path” of prosperity.  As the generation of Baby Boomers that enjoyed that prosperity enters retirement, however, there are some other poignant reasons that Willy Loman’s predicament remained relevant.  It turns out that there was a pervasive fear of failure in American society, which validated the play’s pessimism for decades to come.  At the same time, “Salesman”‘s astonishing global appeal hinted at the prospect of greater mutual sympathy–but on what basis?

Oddly enough, Miller found a lot of humor in the character of Willy Loman.  His enthusiastic embrace of possibility is undaunted by contradiction.  Having praised his Chevy as “the greatest car ever built,” he cheerfully swerves 180 degrees to denounce it as a lemon when he learns the repair bill is due.  More seriously, his attitude toward his son Biff alters in a flash: one minute he is “a lazy bum,” the next “such a hard worker.” Even as the audience chuckles, Willy’s faithful wife Linda accepts all these judgments with the same anxious acquiescence.  If some scenes are suited for levity, there is always a deeper streak of desperation and darkness.  And it’s hard to joke about suicide.  As Miller put it, ”The play is really about mortality and leaving something behind. Willy Loman is trying to write his name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.”

Whatever its ultimate import, “Death of a Salesman” was an immediate success, winning the Pulitzer, and became a dramatic standard throughout the Boomer years.  It was produced across the country, with many stars in the leading role, including Lee J. Cobb, Fredric March, George C. Scott, and Dustin Hoffman.  When Generation X took over, the play was accorded the ultimate sign of recognition, parody, and Second City’s version (1980) was a meta-take-off paying faux homage to the Boomers’ TV icons.  Willy was purportedly Fantasy Island‘s Ricardo Montalban (actually portrayed by Gene Levy), and Biff was George Carlin, refracted through Rick Moranis.  Deforest Kelley, McCoy from StarTrek, was “cast” as the younger son Happy but “played” by Dave Thomas.  It was weak comedy but it honored the play’s status as a cultural touchstone.  More bizarrely, it inspired a 5-minute Chinese language voice-over video.

This improbable pastiche marked the outer limits of “Salesman”‘s influence, geographical and literary.  How to measure its significance now?  Most famously, in 1983, Arthur Miller came to China to direct a revival of the play, recently rendered into Chinese.  He had been there twice before, and several of his works had been popular for 20 years.  In the wake of the Cultural Revolution and on the cusp of liberalization, Chinese audiences were barely able to grasp the idea of individual vulnerability in a market economy.  But the deeper themes were easily understood and translated.  Three years after Miller’s visit, Liu Jinyun’s Uncle Doggie’s Nirvana struck a chord by examining the fate of the common man.  “The unsuccessful salesman in Miller’s commercial competition became a common Chinese peasant cherishing a dream for success.”  More profoundly still, “Death of a Salesman” probed the inner drama of the family, especially ambivalence toward the father’s position of unquestioned authority.  The idea of “great ambitions for one’s child” required no further explanation, and the reaction of one Chinese woman who attended a rehearsal revealed another source of its appeal.  Watching the tension between father and sons unfold and realizing the mother could not save them, she sobbed, “It’s the same situation.”

Despite the clear cultural uniqueness engraved in American language and custom, what impressed Miller about his visit to China was the similarities among societies.  Wherever his play was staged, differences in etiquette and culture were lost in the overriding themes of failed dreams and family tragedy.  China itself has since been transformed into a quasi-capitalist powerhouse, where the prerogatives of the elders are being undermined.  As Miller said in 1998, “The Salesman is close to being the universal occupation of contemporary society—not only in America, but everywhere.  Everybody is selling and everything is for sale.”   Thanks to globalization, the trade in all kinds of goods, including human beings, has ramified across continents, bringing distress as well as comfort.  To focus on the US alone, the Great Recession damaged or destroyed the dreams of many hard-working breadwinners, fatally postponing, for example, the hope of home ownership.  (Recall that even Willy had almost paid off his mortgage.)  Parents still entertain “great ambitions” for their children, but college education appears to be an illusory temptation for many families, surely expensive but not necessarily accessible.  For lots of mid-level managers–salesmen, in fact–the Recession brought sharp reverses, even unemployment.  The extent to which the opioid addiction crisis is a symptom of economic turmoil can be debated, but it certainly is a feature of small towns where men like Willy used to have jobs.  Linda Loman merely pointed out the first step toward averting disaster, “Attention must be paid.”

In the end, then, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of this classic.  My only complaint about Boomers’ understanding of the play is that, in spite of our own experience, we still just don’t seem to get it.  Willy relied on “personality” to clinch the sale.  It was important to be not just “liked, but well liked.”  Burnish your image; exude confidence in your “brand.”  We have certainly seen that technique at work recently, and we are beginning to glimpse its weakness–lack of substance leaves you vulnerable.  Miller had Willy’s son Happy deny his father, though he could barely explain why the character did it.  “He intends to win and be like his father,” Miller suggested, “The same tragedy awaits Happy.  It’s going to be repeated in him and probably in his children.”  Wanting to make your father proud is an admirable trait.  Doing it simply by winning is a miserable one.

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