I don’t read very many plays. And yet, when it came to choosing one for the Back to the Classics Challenge, I was excited. I know there are a lot of great plays out there that I may never have the chance to see. I finally settled on Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winner from1949, Death of a Salesman. I like Arthur Miller. I’ve read and seen The Crucible. I watched All My Sons. They are both powerful if emotionally difficult plays. I had high expectations for Death of a Salesman.

The edition I read (The Viking Critical Library edited by Gerald Weales) came loaded with extra reviews and criticisms, some of which I skimmed, but mainly I concentrated on the text.

What a downer.

It is the end of the road for Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, who can no longer sell. He has two grown boys. The older, “Biff,” has just returned home from a ranching job in Texas. Biff is in his mid-thirties and is still “finding himself.” Biff was a golden boy, a football star, right up through high school, and Willy had high hopes for him. He’s still Willy’s favorite. So it drives Willy batty to see Biff so unmoored.

Also at home, although he apparently has an apartment elsewhere, is the younger son, “Happy.” Happy idolizes Biff and is desperate for Willy’s attention/approval. He’s always been second best, although now he’s the one following in his father’s footsteps.

Both boys are testosterone-fueled womanizers. They enjoy boasting to each other about all the women they’ve had and how many more they will have. The only worthwhile woman (and eventually they’ll find one just like her) is their mom.

Their mother, Linda, supports Willy in whatever he says or does, boosts his fragile ego, and does the same for the boys unless they are doing something to knock down their father.

Willy is at a particularly fragile crossroads. The life he has built for himself – that of successful salesman, father of sons who will be even more successful salesman– is clearly not working out for him. He claims that the important thing is to be well liked, and that will always open doors. (Nothing else is important – not doing well in school, not honesty or personal integrity – only being well liked.) But he is such an icky person, and his sons are such icky people, that it’s hard to imagine any of them being liked at all. Willy is delusional. The more the play goes on, the more truly delusional (or is he supposed to be suffering from dementia?) you see that he is.

The play does raise questions about Willy. Was he ever any good or was he always mediocre, chasing a dream he would never obtain? How significant, really, was the “shocking” revelation that caused the rift between Willy and Biff? At times, Willy thinks that this one episode is what made Biff give up on life, and he alternates between blaming himself and refusing the responsibility. But really, that one experience, as awful as it was, was only one small part of the terrible parenting by Willy.

And I’m not sure that simple bad parenting is enough of an excuse for what unpleasant men the boys turn out to be.

So here’s the thing. I imagine watching the play would have made it a lot more compelling. (There is a lot of drifting back and forth in time that would have been easier to visualize if it was separated into the compartments the way the stage directions indicated the scenes should be.) I could have better appreciated the pathos, maybe pitied Willy more for the way he tried to cover for his failures by blustering and lying, particularly to make himself look bigger in front of his boys. Willy is now not the man he once was, so the volatile, blustering, confused, pathetic character cannot be judged to be the real Willy. (But the Willy of his memory is no more likeable to my mind.) Maybe watching Biff and Happy interact would have been more comical or even poignant than off-putting. But reading it…I found the characters annoying. Except for the wife/mom. She deserved better.

Anyway, I’m glad to have read the play so that I have a better understanding of this piece of Americana. Some day I hope to have a chance to see a good production of the play to see how my appreciation of it differs when the characters are alive in front of me rather than flat on the page.

Credit: Susan Coventry

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