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.
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?
“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.
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 is 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 Christ’s 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. I’ll 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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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