Death of a Salesman and Death of a Salesman: The Swollen Legacy of Arthur MillerBert Cardullo
Introduction: Death in Two Senses
The immense international success of Death of a Salesman comes from the intellectual force of the play’s central idea prevailing over the glaring defects of Arthur Miller’s execution. But the relevance of this central idea, connected with door-to-door salesmen and the Darwinian nature of rampant capitalism, has withered with time and changing technology, and even if it hadn't, Miller still failed to craft a play befitting Salesman's exalted reputation.
While it's impossible to know his psychology enough to be sure, the shape of Salesman's flaws seem to suggest that Miller's artistic trouble stemmed from a divided personal impulse between making his play and his protagonist Jewish, and making them universal or representatively American. But whatever the case, the legacy questions inevitably following the playwright's recent death, make it time to take another look at his vaunted reputation, and pare it down to its rightful size: medium.
Section I: Compliments
Let's begin, however, with some of the reasons why the play continues to occupy the place it does in American drama and our national imagination. The very title Death of a Salesman both declares the significance of a salesman’s death and finds value in its ordinary anonymity. This evocation is amplified by the opening sight of Willy Loman coming in the door. It’s a superb image, an entrance as unforgettable and instantly iconic as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her wagon (another traveling salesman!). The salesman Willy is home. He is “tired to the death,” lugging his two heavy sample cases, after having been rejected by the milk-filled bosom of the nation from which he had expected so much nourishment. The commodity he expected to sell is never identified because Willy is in a sense selling himself. He’s a survivor of the early tradition of drummers in this country: men who viewed not their product but their personality as their chief ware, and still claimed they could sell anything.
Beyond the title and the entrance sequence, Miller’s organizing idea keeps a fitful hold. It’s the idea of the mid-century man, who has sold things without making them and paid for things without owning them. He exists as an insulted extrusion of commercial society battling for some sliver of authenticity before he slips into the great dark. And remarkably, he is battling without a real villain.
To his credit, Miller was one of the first writers to comprehend a seismic change in the American economy of the late 1940s that saw corporations expand into large, confusing bureaucracies. He depicts late capitalism in his play as having become impersonal and hierarchical; instead of class struggle, there is simple anomie.
Section II: Detriments
But to read or see Death of a Salesman again is to perceive how Arthur Miller lacked the control and vision to fulfill his own idea. First, consider the play’s diction. The dialogue often slips away from a true first-generation Brooklyn Jewish and into a fanciness that is slightly ludicrous in context.
For example, to hear older son Biff say, “I’ve been remiss,” or wife Linda say, “You’re too accommodating, dear,” or Willy himself declare that “There’s such an undercurrent in him,” is like watching a car run momentarily off the road and onto the shoulder.
The same goes for Miller’s grammatical use of the nominative and accusative cases, as well as the subjunctive mood. The less-than-educated Lomans incongruously use the subjunctive “were” correctly, and unabashedly utter “I and Biff,” “You and I,” and “Biff and I” as if they were reading out of a school book. If the explanation is the Lomans merely aspire to speak in an educated manner—pretending, in keeping with their essential character, to be more book—learned than they are—Miller could have helped his cause by having his characters make the mistakes that almost all such strivers make, like using “I” when “me” is the grammatically correct form, as in the phrase “between you and me.”
Thematically, too, Death of a Salesman is cloudy. The salesman figure that comes through is not of a typical grunt brought down by financial failure but of an exceptional invalid, in whom the stress of business only increased existing psychological imbalances.
Willy is shown to be at least as much a victim of psychopathy as of the bitch-goddess Success.
Evidence of Willy’s psychopathy is so plentiful that it has led to his being diagnosed as manic-depressive, before the age of mood-leveling drugs, by Ben Brantley of the New York Times in a 1998 review of a Chicago-born, Broadway-bound revival of Death of a Salesman. Willy was subsequently diagnosed as “other-directed”—or possessing a value system entirely determined by external norms—from a sociological point of view by Walter Goodman in a 1999 Times column.
Indeed, Willy’s self-contradictions go beyond normal human inconsistency into the realm of severe internal division. He yells at Biff: “Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!” But later adds: “Greatest thing in the world for him was to bum around.”
And again: “Biff is a lazy bum!” says Willy. Then almost immediately thereafter: “And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.”
Willy’s memories of past conversations produce similar inconsistencies. One minute “Chevrolet . . . is the greatest car ever built;” the next, “That goddamn Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car.” And, in consecutive sentences, Willy can declare the following without blinking: “I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, people don’t seem to take to me.”
Naturally, for someone like Willy, the past and the present duel with each other as well as with themselves. For example, he remembers saying that “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead;” yet he perceives no inconsistency between that statement and this one in the present action of the play: “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man.”
He remembers telling Linda that “[People] seem to laugh at me.” But he can tell his grown sons, “They laugh at me, huh? Go to Filene’s, go to the Hub, go to Slattery’s, Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens!” And all of this from a man who has the unwitting nerve to wonder aloud, “Why am I always being contradicted?”
Section III: Psychology and Drama
But putting this mountain of Miller-provided evidence aside, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Willy is not a psychopath. Instead, he was a relatively whole or normal man crushed by the American juggernaut. If we also consider Salesman from that angle, what is it’s attitude toward that juggernaut and its business ideals? Such a question is crucial because there is no anagnorisis for Willy, nothing that suggests the play’s attitude. There is no moment of recognition for him, let alone a great downfall: he dies believing in money.
In fact, he kills himself for money. Because he confuses materialistic success with a worthiness for love, he commits suicide to give his son Biff the insurance benefit as a stake for more business.
Willy’s other son, Happy, is himself wedded to money values and says over his father’s coffin that he’s going to stick to them for his father’s sake. Similarly, Biff was so aggrandized by his father that he became kleptomaniacal as a boy and even now, after his father-as-idol has collapsed, he can’t resist stealing a successful businessman’s fountain pen as a niggling revenge against that man’s success and his own lack of it.
The only alternatives to the business ethos ever produced in Salesman are Willy’s love of tools and seeds, building and planting, and Biff’s love of the outdoor life. Miller confuses thematic matters even further by highlighting the successes of not only Dave Singleman, the gentlemanly eighty-four-year-old salesman who was Willy’s inspiration (and who, according to Willy, died the regal “death of a salesman”), but also of young Bernard next door, a lawyer in the Establishment world with a wife and two sons. Bernard’s is a deserved success for which Willy feels envy, as he does for the success of Bernard’s father, Charley, who is also a good businessman with his own office and secretary.
Charley himself contributes to the confusion in Death of a Salesman. He can be heard endorsing Willy’s view of himself when, during the play’s Requiem, he says to Biff:
You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And . . . a salesman . . . don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
However, in an Act II an attempt to puncture Willy’s losing self-image, Charley had said almost the exact opposite to his next-door neighbor:
CHARLEY: . . . The only thing you got in this
world is what you can sell. And the funny
thing is that you’re a salesman, and you
don’t know that.
WILLY: I’ve always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing—
CHARLEY: Why must everybody like you? . . .
What is left in this play is neither a critique of the business world nor an adult vision of something different and better. Rather, it’s the story of a man (granting he was sane) who failed as a salesman and father, and made things worse by refusing to admit those failures, which he knew to be true.
Section IV: Pathos, Tragedy, and Verism
That last sentence in the previous section certainly contains a play, and possibly a good one; but it is a quite a different play from Death of a Salesman, a work that implies in its atmosphere and mannerisms a radical perception of deep American ills.
The difference between Salesman as it is, and as it could have been, is the difference between pedestrian pathos and exalted tragedy. It’s the difference between the destruction of a decent but unknowing man, and a great man, who simultaneously deserves, and does not deserve, his fate.
Ironically, Miller himself understood this distinction. His famous essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” published in the New York Times in 1949 was a not-so-veiled argument for the tragic status of Salesman, in which he unwittingly described Willy Loman when he wrote,
Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witless- ness, his insensitivity, or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.
Miller makes clear by the very title of his Times essay that he considers the common man to be as appropriate a subject for high tragedy as the royal leader. Yet modern writers have found it difficult to create powerful tragedies with workaday salesmen, let alone corporate executives, as protagonists.
There are at least two reasons for this:
First, for an audience to feel the full impact of the fate that the tragic hero brings on himself, the hero must have nearly complete freedom of action. In other words, the more the audience feels that the hero has been able to choose his course of action without restriction, the more emotionally moving his injurious choices.
Second, it is vital that the tragic hero’s actions have some deep moral, spiritual, political, or philosophical significance for the whole of his society. This is why the classic dramatists generally dealt with protagonists whose lives were spent in a public arena—so much so that their every act or decision would have a direct effect on everyone around them.
By contrast, the unique pathos of the salesman lies in the fact that he has neither sufficient freedom of action nor demonstrable public significance. He is one of many just like himself, and unlike classical or neoclassical tragic protagonists, appears to have been conditioned passively and even gladly to accept the very conditions of life that will lead to his own annihilation.This is perhaps sad in the end, but it does not arouse the same kind of feeling as the classic tragedies.
A few additional points about the play, connected more with its verism than with its attempt at tragedy:
When I saw the 1952 film of Death of a Salesman, which made the play’s environment more vivid, I couldn’t help wondering why Willy had money worries. He had almost closed out the mortgage on his house, which to judge by the community development all around it was a piece of real estate in an increasingly valuable and desirable section of town. This is more than a petty literal point in a realistic play whose lexicon is bill-paying.
Finally, a point that is strangely more apparent now than it was likely to have been when Salesman first appeared in 1949: the drama is set in the late 1940s and reaches back some fifteen years to the early 1930s, yet there is scarcely a mention of the Great Depression—or of World War II? How did the Loman sons escape the war, and if they did, were they criticized or attacked for not serving in the military? If they didn’t escape military service, wouldn’t the reunited brothers have had something to say about it? About the Holocaust? And wouldn’t the postwar economic boom itself have had some effect in the present on Willy’s view of a promise-crammed America, not to speak of the Depression’s effect in the past on Willy’s view of that same America and his decreased earning power in it?
Section V: Flashbacks, Family, Judaism, and Christianity
The flashback structure of Death of a Salesman suggests something ominous about the play’s quality as well, something connected with Miller’s observed division between composing a Jewish domestic drama and writing a representative play on the American experience. Miller seems to have split the play twice: first, structurally, between a climactic frame of the last hours of Willy’s life up, and an episodic form that enacts his past in a series of flashback scenes, and then psychologically, as a provisional equivalent for his own divided consciousness on the subject of a Jewish protagonist versus a Christian one.
With regard to the first cleave, who is to say that Willy’s flashbacks are objectively true, as they are always assumed to be? Might they be the subjective or expressionistic visions of a feverish mind on the verge of collapse, instead of a mere device for explicating past events that the Lomans otherwise do not talk about? After all, this is a kind of memory play, and memory, even in a mentally healthy person, is notoriously fallible as well as selectively creative.
Furthermore, Willy’s flashbacks could be his attempt to remember a pivotal year in his family’s history—1931 or 1932, football star Biff’s senior year of high school, during which he discovers his father’s adulterous relationship with the woman in Boston, and when Willy purportedly turns down a job in Alaska working for his brother Ben—while also fictionalizing portions of his past. How else to explain why only Willy uses Ben’s name or refers to the elder brother’s South African business ventures, and only Willy refers to his boyhood wagon-travels West with his flute-carving father?
With regard to the second cleave, could the character Ben and the wagon-travels be Arthur Miller’s inventive attempt to use Willy as a proxy for himself, Christianizing or universalizing his own past? It seems no coincidence that Miller was a real-life Jew whose three marriages were all to Christian women, and who never took the stance of a public Jewish intellectual during his long career.
In any case, a good portion of the material in Salesman is on Miller’s favorite theme: the love-hate of a father and son. This material alone is still touching to read or watch.
Section VI: Looking Back in Bemusement
But, as in the case of the earlier compliments I paid the play, these are sound moments in a flabby, occasionally false, even schizoid work. Miller had gift enough to get the idea for Death of a Salesman, but then—in the face of his divided dramatic impulse—he settled for the dynamics of the idea itself to write his play. Miller’s ongoing popularity depends on many viewers' and readers' taking the intent for the deed. But some never did, and others have stopped.
Looking ahead, I believe the latter two groups will ultimately prevail in determining the value of Death of a Salesman and Miller’s career generally. It won’t be the first time an artist’s reputation has posthumously tanked. Several American playwrights, including Elmer Rice, Robert Sherwood, and Maxwell Anderson, had similarly large followings in the United States and abroad during their lives. Now those legacies are past the point of diminishment.
Miller has the largest international reputation of any American dramatist in our history, with the exception of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. But now that he has passed away, and is no longer present to "sell" himself, as it were, the small group of dissenters he had during his lifetime should begin to multiply. In their mind, there have always been two Millers: the great dramatist of popular opinion, and the much lesser, mostly middling one of their personal perspective. (The charter members of this minority, incidentally, were Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, Richard Gilman, and Stanley Kauffmann.)
So what made for Miller’s undeserved glory in the first place?
Well, in foreign countries his language improves in translation—which, at its best, is a kind of rewriting—and in America his work has an uncanny ability to makes people feel they have undergone daring intellectual and spiritual expeditions when they have stayed cozily at home. In other words, Miller supplies the illusion of depth, endangerment, and enlightenment. He gives his audience a painlessly acquired feeling of superiority for having been present at his plays.
This is not to accuse Miller of cunning. He certainly always did his sincere best. After the Fall (1964) is tainted with a wriggly feeling of self-defense on account of some matters in his private life connected with his marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating communist infiltration of the arts. But usually the falseness that crops up in his work is of another sort. It’s the peculiar falseness of honest writers who are not talented enough to keep free of contrived or misguided artistic means.
This is so much the case that going back to Salesman, Miller’s most highly regarded work yet a relatively early one in his career, has been for me like going to the funeral of a man you wish you could have liked more. The occasion seals your opinion because you know there is no hope of change. Perhaps now that he is no longer around to sell and guard his own reputation, the “double” Miller will die away and only the mediocrity will remain.
Bert Cardullo is the film critic for The Hudson Review and the author of a number of articles and books on drama, including the forthcoming American Drama/Critics: Writings And Readings. He is spending the academic year 2005-2006 in Istanbul, Turkey, where he is a visiting professor of American studies.