The reviews are in for the recent Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play and they are respectful and mostly positive. Perhaps deceived by the uneven high school reading of the play during my 11th grade American History/English seminar (I remember also reading The Crucible and A Raisin in the Sun out-loud as well), or blinded by my recent reading of radical literature over the past decade I had an ersatz ideal of this play in my head: American Society and the Dream it promises of capitalist success are a sham; witness noble “Everyman” Willy Loman be crushed and defeated by a cruel and heartless system. Being lucky enough to nab a ticket to one of the first previews several weeks ago, what struck me is that instead of this critique of capitalism that perhaps I expected from Miller (who in 1948 was a member of the Communist Party and pirouetted around naming names in his 1956 testimony to HUAC), Death of a Salesman is more the story about a stubborn, delusional, petty, frustrated, unlikable, bragging, proud man who has fundamentally misunderstood the rules of success in America– Although there is a whiff of mid-century (misunderstood) “communist” influence here and there, it is this specific character flaw of Loman’s and the damage it inflicts on his family that shadows the entire drama. This attention to character makes for riveting theater, but falls short of giving the play the contemporary “relevance” it supposedly enjoys.
Willy Loman’s tragic choice is to believe in a code of conduct in business which boils down to striving to be popular, good-looking, well-liked, connected, fun, and having lots of friends. He is of course a salesman, not a capitalist and this high-school vision of success has some validity–cashing in confidence, friendships, networks, and looks for business success has been and will continue to be one way to ensure a modicum of success if not a career. But for as long as capitalism has begun to penetrate and overwhelm entire countries and societies, the predominant ethic has been one that the system itself engenders: saving, cost-cutting, squeezing labor, ruthless efficiency, and rewarding whoever can produce the product for the cheapest price. Being likable may help grease the gears of commercial transactions, but is an ideal that is alien to the relationships the system actually reinforces: competition, relentless technological change, immiseration of workers. Focusing on a salesman allows the play to pry into this unique position in capitalist society in which the personality penetrates into the job itself. Unlike the factory, farm, or menial laborer who is not expected to be smiling on the job, or even the capitalists and the bourgeois professions who are expected to be seriously dedicated to the task of making money, the salesman’s demeanor (and perhaps the growth of the service sector in the American economy has widened this definition to a broader swathe of workers) to a large extent is braided into the line of his or her financial success. The salesman is expected to have a confidence in his product and an optimism about that product’s place in our society. The salesman adopts a persona of success and the friendships, connections, leads, happiness that accompany this persona as an essential element of his job. So in a world in which capitalist success demands the cruel tyranny, ruthless decisiveness, and psychopathic megalomania of a Steve Jobs, for instance, the sale of his company’s computers depends on a sales force, advertising personalities, and community of users that spells the exact opposite: Relaxed, affable, creative, open, transparent, easy-to-navigate. The salesman is burdened with a lie.
The irony in this play is that Willy is completely incapable (at least at this point in his life and it seems always was) of fulfilling his ideals of the happy and successful salesman and so lies to his family about where he actually stands in the company. The family budget is stretched; they have bought appliances like refrigerators on installment plans; Willy inflates how much he is expecting to take home from a recent sale; he has had an affair with a woman while traveling for business– What makes his denial particularly tragic is that in the throes of a doomed career Loman forces his false ideal on his eldest son, Biff, who is unsuited to business success, recently returned from “out west” where he was supposedly working on a ranch, but actually kindling a career of petty theft. The arc of the play rotates around what Eugene O’Neill perhaps would call the pipe-dream of Biff starting his own sporting goods store with seed-money from an old co-worker of his. Willy along with Biff’s philandering younger brother Happy become obsessed with this dream of small-business ownership for the family, which is of course doomed to failure. Willy, who has a habit of cutting off family members trying to speak never grasps the impossibility of this scheme. The plot of a parent blindly burdening a child with an ideal they are unfit to reach recalls Tennessee Williams’ 1944 drama The Glass Menagerie–the American drama feeds on stories of self-delusion.
The foil to all these hallucinations of the American Dream is the next-door neighbor Charley who admits near the end of the play that he’s “never cared about anything”, but whose son (seen in a flashback as a young, awkward nerd whom Willy forces to give Biff answers to a test) becomes a lawyer about to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Charley loans money to Willy and tries to coax his neighbor towards a more mundane vision of success: In this society the unassuming and meticulous have more chance of success than the athletes–Biff was a star baseball player in high school and the dream of the family is owning a store that will sell sporting goods.
It is here that Miller’s Communist Party history may start to creep in– Against his father’s vision of business success Biff sings a refrain that he is built for physical labor. The stoop that his father constructed is what he is most proud of; Biff talks about working on a ranch, working with his hands. The labor theory of value makes a brief cameo, if only in Biff’s hesitant critique of society. The breakthrough comes at the end of the play in which Biff is finally able to scream to his father and family that he’s sick of dreaming and lying to himself and will be content to live honestly, if poorly: “Pop, I’m a dime-a-dozen and so are you!” The world this play creates is one where factories and manual labor are strategically out of view and a family is expected to own a house, a car, appliances, send its children to college and watch them succeed in the business world. Miller hints that those who are physically gifted to be excellent laborers have no place in a system that proletarianizes the labor force and consigns them forever to the working class, the antithesis of the American Dream. Loman’s hallucinatory conversations with his eccentric brother who supposedly had a wild adventure in Alaska and made a fortune in Africa with diamond mines only reinforces that perhaps there perhaps was a moment when athleticism, ingenuity, physical courage, and a dash of the charlatan could ensure success on The Frontier (Willy’s father hawked flutes; a salesman selling dreams to future pied-pipers?). Concealed in this trap of the man-who-cannot-fit-in is perhaps a dim vision of a society in which Labor would be valued and Stakhanovite feats of physical ability and dedication justly rewarded. But instead of leaving us with some sentimental vision out of a proletarian novel, we find ourselves in a skewed and accurate vision of the “middle-class” myopia. There are no “workers” in this play; the middle-class ideal and its concomitant perversions predominates–tertiary characters include Happy’s dial-a-date, eye-candy prostitutes, Willy’s unkempt mistress, Willy’s techno-gadget-obsessed boss Howard Wagner– The waiter at the Manhattan restaurant is presented without embellishment, as is Charlie’s secretary.
The play is Willy’s spectacle, which only looks up and out with glazed eyes. Unlikable, unsuccessful, and spiteful, his critique of society barely emerges as a paean to his Fezziwig, the old boss who supposedly treated him much better than that boss’s son, who fires Willy near the end of the play. Willy is shown to be so delusional and out-of-touch that one can hardly blame the unlikeable Howard Wagner for sacking an under-performing and aging salesman. But his drive continues and he pushes it onto Biff, who heroically cracks the mirage to pieces at the end of the play and finally opens up the possibility of assessing oneself honestly without the relentless American obsession towards elusive success. Willy misinterprets Biff”s simple gesture of familial love unimpeded by lies and delusions and self-annihilates in order that his life insurance money can further his dream of Biff’s success.
If there is a critique of capitalism here, it would be that in capitalism’s relentless drive towards the future (coming from the the fear of not being able to sell the commodities that are sitting in the warehouse, the fear of future competition from a firm that will undersell your product or develop a cheaper way to produce, and the credit system which concentrates all energy towards the eventual repayment of a debt), the salesman is tragically caught in the trap of needing to behave as a success today when only tomorrow will tell if success is possible. The salesman is forced to assume a persona of success in order to assure his or her success. But we see Willy Loman not as someone who has played by the rules of the salesman, but as someone who lacked the skill to excel at his craft while at the same time believing in a creed that he obviously was unable to meet with his stubborn and unlikeable core. The play concludes with the problem of self-awareness, the unbridgable irony that Loman never sees himself the way that we can from the audience. Willy speaks in the play that a colleague of his died “the death of a salesman”, which is to say with a funeral attended by hundreds. At Willy’s funeral we find his wife, his two sons, and the next-door neighbor. The problem here is not a system that has twisted and ruined a man, but a man who has twisted his own mind and left nearly all of his relationships in ruins.