“Great drama is great questions,” Arthur Miller wrote, “or it is nothing but technique.”
He was right, but his counsel had become a lonely one by the second half of his career. In many ways, the American theater has returned to what it was before Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Miller arrived — light entertainment. Even today’s dramas, more often than not, tend to confirm fashionable points of view while pretending to be shocking or politically daring. One thinks of Six Degrees of Separation, among others.
Great questions extend beyond place and time, and Miller’s greatest play, Death of a Salesman, shows every sign of doing so. When it appeared in 1949, it was widely viewed as a critique of American notions of success, and that is still the widely preferred interpretation. But I wonder how much longer such a view can endure.
Death of a Salesman does portray the harshness and impersonality of the American business world; when Willy Loman can’t make money anymore, his company discards him. He discovers that he “is worth more dead than alive,” in the form of a life insurance policy. Though he is about to make the final payment on his home, he is nearly penniless. The play declares that Willy’s success ethic is a fraud. As his older son Biff says, “he had the wrong dreams, all, all wrong.”
But what were those dreams? Willy believes, essentially, in get-rich quick schemes founded on nothing more than personality. He raises his sons to believe in the power of personality and being not just liked, but “well liked.” For him, all success is about exteriors, about one-upping the next guy, about being, as his younger son Happy puts it, “number-one man.” Biff is good looking, athletic and popular in school, and his father encourages him to exploit these qualities to the exclusion of all others, including basic ethics. Biff becomes a chronic thief with a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement, unprepared for an economic world that demands merit beyond personality.
Next door, Willy’s neighbor Charlie raises a son, Bernard, very differently. Bernard is awkward and un-athletic; he does not have any of Biff’s easy charm. But he gets good grades and becomes an attorney. Near the end of the play, he is preparing to argue a case before the Supreme Court.
The ruthless American economic system rewards Bernard, who sacrifices and plays by the rules, and rejects Biff, who never applies himself and expects special treatment at every turn. At least in regard to the sons, the American dream seems to have played more than fair.
As for Willy, on a basic human level, we feel sympathy for his suffering, but beyond that it is not readily apparent why we must accept his wife’s famous admonition that “attention must be paid.” The man is an incurable blusterer whose hollowness is apparent to most of his customers, even in his glory days. At play’s end, he is a broken man less because he sacrificed himself to an inhumane system than because he was never honest with himself or his family.
Miller seems to have meant for the audience to associate Willy’s dreams with America, but most of us have counter examples to Willy readily at hand, often in our own homes. Miller even supplies one himself in the person of Charlie. The play is famous for supposedly exposing the falsity of the American promise; what a strange, self-defeating approach it takes to this task. Could it be that the play’s enduring relevance lies elsewhere?
More than 50 years after the play opened, we’re all salesmen now. Entrepreneurs and small businesses abound in America, and even office workers are encouraged to think of themselves independently, to approach each new position as a means of enhancing their own individual “brand.” Instruction books and guides to personal success are everywhere. Many are superficial, but most offer sensible, if obvious, advice. Few that I know of encourage people to develop a sense of entitlement or double standards, or to believe that a “smile and a shoeshine” alone will advance them very far.
I don’t imagine that many men believed this in 1949, either.
Death of a Salesman endures because of its portrayal of the destruction wrought by self-delusion and dishonesty, and the way these forces weave their way through a family. “We never told the truth in this house, not for ten minutes!” Biff exclaims near the end.
We all know something about that, don’t we? Therein lies the play’s real legacy, and Miller’s.