Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a resounding cry for help for the working class. Willy Loman, the play’s main character, is a traveling salesman, always on the road and so far removed from his family (physically & emotionally) that he is too blind to see how disrespected he is by his children, and how pitied he is by his wife. Willy’s youngest son, Happy, and his wife, Linda, perpetuate an illusion of grandeur – convincing Willy that he is the greatest of everything, the greatest father, the greatest husband, the greatest salesman, and the greatest man who ever lived. In reality, Willy is just rather mediocre in everything, and his eldest son, Biff, comes to realize this and is conflicted between wanting to break the cycle of lies surrounding Willy, and respecting and honoring his father. As the boys come home and Willy begins to realize, subconsciously, that nothing really has been as he believed it to be, his mind starts to crack and, ultimately, even Willy’s cowardly end is disguised as an act of sacrifice for the well-being of his family.
Miller tells a painful truth of the working-class father and family. Children are raised to look up to their father as a hero, someone to emulate and worship; but, what happens when the father is just a man? Willy Loman is flawed in many ways. He lives a life of regret for missed opportunities, and he pretends to be a man of character and loyalty, all the while lying to his children about his supposed successes and deceiving his wife in the worst possible way. The turmoil, the struggle to balance a respect for father and husband with reality, this is the true genius of Miller’s work. How does a family deal with its figurehead’s superhero complex, when that superhero is really just the Clark Kent aspect – a decent worker but without any spectacular prowess. I found the husband-wife dynamic beautiful and tragic; that the wife removed Willy’s “suicide pipe” each day to get it out of sight (out of mind) and then replaced it each night, so Willy would not know that she, Linda, knew, is so heartbreaking and so very real. The relationship, too, between the children and their father – the childish way they look at him, the way they pretend to honor and respect him, all the while calling him by nicknames like “kid,” “sport,” and “pal” as if he was just a younger friend, to be tolerated and coddled. Plot and characterization were masterful, the lonely desperation was moving and, despite its hilarity at times, left me really breathless in pained understanding of how tortured this man, this family really was.
The only negative is really a positive, in the end. I found it very difficult to connect with any of these characters, partly because the story moves so quickly and not much time is spent gaining an understanding of any one or the other character. Another reason, though, is because there just is not much to connect with. Each of the Lomans is so utterly superficial and self-indulgent. They pretend to have this powerful, unbreakable bond with one another, a love and respect above all others, to be idolized by other families – a model to all. Yet, while this made it difficult to care about the family, the point might perhaps have been not to care about this family, and its delusions. Their one friend, Charley, seemed to have a pretty clear understanding of what was going on, and though he tried to guide Willy into reality and offered him help whenever possible – including money and a steady job – Willy would not listen, and Charley’s only real way to combat such nonsensical behavior was to behave rather (maliciously) nonsensical himself. It was frustrating that the one friend Willy did seem to have (despite his many claims that people all over New England knew him by name, and would come flocking to his funeral) was rather crass. Still, though I could not find myself loving any of the characters, I did find myself loving their story, and understanding it. So, again, the negative was not really a negative (though I can’t help wishing they had been more tragically similar to the Joad family who, notwithstanding their many flaws, still redeemed themselves as people often enough).
The Final Verdict: 5.0 out of 5.0
Death of a Salesman is a stunning, powerful drama, reflective of the confusion of the “new” American sales family. This tale is the tale of the rise of capitalism and the destruction of personal bonds for monetary gain. Brothers, friends, children mean nothing in the face of making more, more, more. The characters were believable and easy to empathize with, though I could not really sympathize with any of the characters except, perhaps, Biff and Willy’s brother, Ben.
Published by Penguin Plays, 1984
Source: Owned Copy