“Death of a Salesman”: Parable for Our Times

My tattered, second-hand copy of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” on my shelf now nearly half a century, shows a cover price of 95 cents. One might be tempted to view that as emblematic and perfect for a now hoary mid-20th century period piece, almost quaint in its portrayal of desperate lives crushed by the weight of an outmoded American dream.

But the play is a period piece only in the way that “Othello” and “The Cherry Orchard” are, which is to say, the “period” it encompasses spans pretty much all of human existence, or at least that in which people have wrestled with matters of conscience and communication, purpose, honesty and authenticity.

Of particular note for our own era is its devastating portrayal of the wages of deception.

Willy Loman, the beleaguered salesman of the title, lives nearly his entire life as a matter of expediency. Whatever will make the contact, open the door, get him “liked” and win him admittance to the buyer’s office for a sale, is what he will do. If that means calling white black, black white, and then exhorting everyone in his orbit to do the same as he fails miserably and literally can’t make a sale to save his life, then so be it.

In that sense, the superb local production I saw last week at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse of Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner, headlined by veteran actor Charles Siebert (“Trapper John, MD,” among multiple other credits), could easily have supported a 2016 copyright. You know—an account of that other long-running production, with the entire United States as an audience, about a protagonist turning the world upside down by displaying only the loosest and most opportunistic fidelity to the truth.

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In Willy Loman’s world, deception, including of his own self, is simply a tool of his trade, a self-validating strategy to achieve a desired end. He wants to be loved, received everywhere with open arms, to really have said hello to the mayor of Providence in a hotel lobby, resulting in the mayor’s immediate invitation for Willy to join him for coffee.

And after that, non-stop sales to all the mayor’s contacts in the Chamber of Commerce.

Willy makes these kinds of things up out of whole cloth in such enthusiastic, self-and-life-affirming fashion that he himself barely recognizes them for the whoppers they are.

Fine things like impromptu coffee with the mayor are always happening to Willy Loman because of how well-liked he is, how finely honed he has made his personality out to be. He tells his boys on the return from one trip:

“America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ‘cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England and the cops protect it like their own.”

“Beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people.” Sound like anyone you’ve been following in the news?

And then:

“Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know, and I go right through.”

As the reader or theater patron deduces very quickly, not a stitch of this relentless boasting is true. It’s all a cover, a classic salesman’s bluff that the mere appearance and narrative of success will magically beget the success Willy so desperately seeks. (“Our wonderful new Healthcare Bill is now out for review and negotiation. ObamaCare is a complete and total disaster – is imploding fast!”)

The insidious aspect of lying is that if one repeats false claims enough, persists in spinning even the most outlandish fantasies and then reacting violently to any challenge of their veracity, it can often wear listeners down, be they family or a nation.

Overwhelmed with the fusillade of lies, their intended audience becomes numb, tempted to give up even trying to disprove them, grown too weary to ferret out any slivers of truth that may survive. So the audience capitulates, ignoring—or even worse, acquiescing to, in order to preserve some measure of sanity—the claims and demands of the deceiver. This represents a “victory,” of sorts, for the deceiver, though everyone is soiled and made the lesser for it.

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Arthur Miller

In “Death of a Salesman,” oldest son Biff, a high school football star whose character defects proved fatal to his dreams of going on to collegiate glory, is the sole Loman family member who attempts to reckon, however haltingly, with the truth. In the name of domestic tranquility and whatever other coping mechanisms they found necessary, his younger brother and mother have long since drunk the kool-aid of Willy’s deceit.

Biff is 34 now, a nearly broken man with a string of failed jobs and even a prison sentence behind him (which he conceals from his family till the climactic scenes of the play).

He has returned home after a stint working at a ranch “out west,” bucking up for one last try at reckoning with his past.

Biff engages in a series of thrusts and parries with Willy throughout the play, sometimes attempting to abide his father’s relentless delusions but often finding himself resistant, angry rather than empathetic.

Ultimately, he leaks rage and resentment at his father’s inability to speak truth, and at the effect it has had on his own sense of integrity and worth.

If his father refuses to listen to anything that doesn’t conform to his persistent fantasy that he is the world’s greatest salesman and that his sons are on the verge of wild success as entrepreneurs, how will Biff or his equally ne’er do well, womanizing younger brother ever come to terms with who they are and where they are going in this life?

Near the play’s conclusion, Biff and Willy engage in a titanic battle of truth vs. delusion, Biff trying his damndest to draw his father into a circle at least mildly resembling reality—and his father is having none of it.

As a long argument unfolds with Biff trying to tell his father the truth about himself—that he has been a thief and liar and was never cut out for success in the corporate world as Willy had envisioned for him—there ensues this raw and devastating exchange:

BIFF: Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am? Why can’t I say that, Willy?

WILLY, with hatred, threateningly: The door of your life is wide open!

BIFF: Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!

WILLY, turning on him now in a controlled outburst: I am not a dime a dozen. I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!

BIFF: I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes anymore, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!

WILLY, directly to Biff: You vengeful, spiteful mutt!

BIFF, at the peak of his fury: Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop. Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it any more. I’m just what I am, that’s all.

Biff’s fury has spent itself,  and he breaks down, sobbing, holding onto Willy, who dumbly fumbles for Biff’s face.

WILLY, astonished: What’re you doing? What’re you doing? To Linda: Why is he crying?

BIFF, crying, broken: Will you let me go, for Christs sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens? Struggling to contain himself, he pulls away and moves to the stairs. Ill go in the morning. Put him—put him to bed. Exhausted, Biff moves up the stairs to his room.

WILLY, after a long pause, astonished, elevated: Isn’t that—isn’t that remarkable? Biff—he likes me!

LINDA: He loves you, Willy!

HAPPY, deeply moved: Always did, Pop.

WILLY: Oh, Biff! Staring wildly. He cried! Cried to me. He is choking with his love, and now cries out his promise: That boy–that boy is going to be magnificent!

***

“Death of a Salesman” is not an easy play either to watch or read. No blood or gore or profanity, but the violence is all internal, a barely contained volcanic force burning up the main protagonists.

On the night I saw it from a front row seat, Willy and his sons, chewing up the scenery with one emotional tussle atop the other, were bathed in sweat and glistening under the stage lights, perfectly in harmony with the hard-won suppression of the roiling emotions their roles required.

As for the audience, it lances one’s insides to see human beings in this much (mostly self-inflicted) emotional pain.

Willy’s suffering is that of a caged or hunted animal, unable to hide from his predator, the truth. (Siebert, at 80 and reportedly in his swan song as an actor, roared mightily in all the brokenness of his character, matched ably by his supporting cast.)

The play reminds us from beginning to end of the colossal weight borne by deceit—of one’s self, one’s intimates, and the wider community caught up in its snare.

When that deceit is relentless, reaching into every corner and expression of one’s life, little can prevent a steadily encroaching dysfunction or even insanity from infecting everyone it touches.

In that way, “Death of a Salesman” lives and bellows mightily as a cautionary tale for our time.

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This five-minute snippet from the movie version of the play starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy stays mostly true to Arthur Miller’s script, conveying all the heat and intensity that has been building over a lifetime in the Loman family.

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Art of Willy in anguish from cover of Penguin Classics edition; cover art of Willy with suitcase from 1962 Compass Books edition

Photo of Arthur Miller from the public domain

13 comments to “Death of a Salesman”: Parable for Our Times

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Oh, my. Too bad that there is no Biff in Donald’s life: Not Don Jr., not Eric or Ivanka or Jared. And certainly nobody in Congress or the White House. Unchecked, raw delusion and deceit leading our country, and scores of citizens swept up in it and encouraging it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, I think everyone expected Trump to become more presidential after taking office, start listening to experts, etc., but obviously he (and his base) had other ideas. Difference between him and Willy is that Willy didn’t inherit money & arrogance from a father who set him up in business. So he was tortured by self-doubt all his life, leaking vulnerability left and right before steadying himself (temporarily) via boasting and deceit. Our president, on the other hand, is the most heavily defended, least vulnerable person I have ever witnessed, not given to a shred of self-doubt nor the humility that accompanies it. Willy fell apart for all the weakness that dogged him; Trump never will. It will remain for external forces to bring him down in this combination farce-tragedy that has so enveloped our country.

  • David Jolly  says:

    Yup. In Death of a Salesman Miller peels back the paper-thin veneer covering one nightmare version of the American dream, with Willy screaming in every line, “Make America, my imaginary America, my made-up life, the me I am in my own mind great again.” Thanks, Andrew, for pointing out the relevance of this classic today and always.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s it in a nutshell, David! So instead of “MAGA” hats they should have “MAMIAMMULTMIAIMOMGA” emblazoned across the bill!

  • David Jolly  says:

    I think Trump’s head is just big enough.

  • Lisa  says:

    Just to funny that the people that don’t like Trump seem to always talk about him. Whereas the people that have the MAGA hats and shirts just sit back and watch all the great things he is accomplishing with a big fat smile on their faces! :-)

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Have to say you’re spot-on in your first sentence, Lisa. I’m sure I gave a thought or two to Obama every day; a president is kind of hard to miss if one follows along with the daily state of the nation. But I’m pretty sure I never wrote about him once since starting this blog late in 2012, and here I’ve written about Trump probably 8-10 times in the past three years. And I certainly do think about him and his actions exponentially more than I have any other president in my lifetime.

      What strikes me about that is that it shows how much more “consequential” a horrible and destructive leader can be than any other type, whether great or mediocre. One can destroy a home a lot faster than it takes to build it, and draw a lot more attention in the process.

      Seriously: who but an ardent history buff can recall who preceded or succeeded Rasputin, or Hitler, or Stalin? We “always talk about” Trump because this country has never suffered the likes of him, and we fear for its future. That is a very serious matter, and I would feel remiss in thinking or speaking/writing about it any less than I do.

  • Lisa  says:

    Andy – Well I like to comment sometimes to speak for those of us on the conservative side who don’t think the same as most of the others who comment on your blogs about Trump. I look forward to a day when he gets some credit in the news for things like North Korea, etc.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      And I’m very glad you do, Lisa. Someone has to hold up the other end of the argument; otherwise it’s only an echo chamber. I also know it ain’t easy entering “opposition” territory, so hosannas to you for that.

      We shall see about North Korea; we’re a ways yet from any all-clear, but if you were to ask me whether it is possible that a nutcase like Kim Jong finally met his match in the degenerate that is Trump, and together they make strange music that might result in history’s weirdest ever detente, I would have to say yes, that is possible, because after Trump got elected, I realized, truly, that anything at all is possible in this confounding & ever mysterious world….

      And all that aside: What’s your take on “Death of a Salesman?” :-)

  • Lisa  says:

    Andy – Laughing at your spin on giving credit to Trump in regards to North Korea, but to each his own. Nobel is what he deserves from us conservatives. Death of a Salesman, ha this blog was never about that book. :-)

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Au contraire: a good 90% of the reflections here are play-specific; our prez was just an interesting and notable sidelight that came to me as I began writing. Now: the Comment stream is a different matter, but cheesh, you conservatives seem obsessed with defending Trump, and can’t seem to bring yourselves to talk about music or art or religion or the many other topics that come up for discussion here! :-)

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Your blog awoke in me a memory that I had shelved for some 55 years. In the summer of 1964, when I was 14, I was “surfing” through the thousands of books in my home library, not an exaggeration, for an interesting read between shooting hoops at the ERHS gym or playing over-the-line at Oxy’s Anderson field. Since I knew little about most of the books, I simply guided my choice on what I considered to be the most intriguing title.
    Lady Chatterley’s Lover had a nice ring to it. After all, I was at an age when the lingerie section of a Sears’ catalog turned me on. However, I confused D.H. with T.E. and didn’t want to read some novel about lesbian lovers, certainly not at 14. You may wonder, why I thought they were lesbian lovers? My answer is a bit convoluted, but I’ll make a stab at it anyway. My older brother Dave told me that T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame was gay, which I had a difficult time processing since Peter O’Toole cast such a dashing figure as the legendary British military hero during the Great War. Gay and General were not an alliterative pair I “generally” associated with one another. Nevertheless, my warped teen logic surmised since T.E. Lawrence was gay so must be Lady Chatterley’s lover. Perhaps that’s the reason schools have their preferred summer reading lists so idiots like me don’t dabble in the absurd.
    The second book title that caught my attention was Death of a Salesman. I wondered how any writer could make a salesman’s death interesting. Salesmen had a market on boredom. Notwithstanding, there were several things that appealed to me. First, it was a play, and I had never read one before. Oh, I had seen a few on stage. Oedipus. Othello. The Mikado. Actually, reading a drama for a first time intrigued me as did the length. Nowhere near as heavy as Moby Dick or War and Peace. I figured I could knock it off in one day.
    I took the play from the shelf, walked down to my father’s study and asked him, “Dad, is this a good play?”
    He didn’t hesitate. “It’s a great play. The salesman, Willy Loman, is one of the great characters in American theater. I think you’ll love it. When you finish, let’s talk about it.”
    He was right. I loved it. I read it in one afternoon. I returned to his study where he was engrossed in writing a response to a New Zealand art gallery that had a question regarding the authenticity of an oil by Augustus Earle, a British painter who happened to accompany Darwin on his trip to the Galapagos aboard the H.M.S Beagle. “Dad, are you busy?”
    “Yes, but I can stop for a few minutes. Did you finish Death of a Salesman?”
    “It was the best play I’ve ever read.” I omitted the fact that it was the only play I had ever read.
    “Why did you like it?”
    “I guess because it was both funny and sad at the same time. Willy Loman wanted so much to be liked, but he tried so hard that no one but his wife really loved him.”
    “Well, it’s a little more than that.”
    “I figured that. Ben was weird. Biff and Willy fought about everything it seemed.”
    “They did. Biff blamed his dad for not being honest with him. He saw his dad as a hypocrite, living in his own imaginary world.”
    “Did they make a movie of it?”
    “Yeah. In 1951, Columbia made Death of a Salesman into a movie. Frederic March played Willy Loman. He was good. But, there’s a tragic story to the making of the film. Lee J. Cobb played the role of Willy Loman on Broadway, but Columbia executives refused to make the movie with him in it because Senator McCarthy accused him of being a communist. He was blacklisted which meant he had a hard time finding a job despite being a great actor.”
    “McCarthy was a jerk.” I might have called him an “asshole,” but if mom heard me say that I’d probably be given a 20-minute lecture, which had to be avoided at any cost. Also, if dad didn’t correct my word choice, he would have gotten 45 minutes.
    He then whispered, “He was more than a jerk. He was an asshole.” I laughed a bit but not too loud. (Today a parent would have prefaced asshole with the word “fucking,” illustrating the progress our society has made in bettering the English language.}
    “Did you like him more than…what’s his name?”
    “Frederic March. I saw Cobb on Broadway. He did one thing March didn’t bring to the character and that was anger. Enough anger to make his character seem more believable.”
    “It’s too bad they didn’t let him make the movie.”
    “Yeah, it was. Well, I better get back to work. I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’ll never forget Willy Loman.”
    Several years ago, when my late father, then 93, and I were watching On the Waterfront (Lee J. Cobb was the evil union boss), I asked him, “Do you remember that conversation we had about Death of a Salesman about 50 years ago?”
    He looked at me for just a second or two and then quietly answered, “They robbed Cobb. He should have been Willy Loman.”

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Nice little slice of history, there, Robert, told through a family memory, little repositories that they are, carrying all that they do… Thanks for crafting this!

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