Death of a Salesman
This week, a revival of Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 tragedy Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway. Something seems redundant about this sentence, since Miller’s tragedies from the 1940s and ‘50s exist in a state of near-perpetual revival. Last year, the Roundabout Theatre staged an acclaimed version of A View From the Bridge, Miller’s 1955 tragedy about immigrant life. The season before that, it was All My Sons, Miller’s 1947 tragedy about a son’s discovery of his father’s wartime corruption. In 1996, Miller’s own son produced a fine film version of The Crucible, Miller’s 1953 tragedy about the Salem witch trials as a parable of McCarthyism. On the basis of these four works, written over a period of only eight years, Miller is frequently referred to as America’s greatest living playwright.
Arthur Miller did not die or quit working in the 1950s. He remains alive and continues to write–more prolifically, in fact, than he did back then. Yet despite the immense national and international interest in his four famous postwar plays, the dozen or so he has written in the last 40 years are all but ignored. If you’ve read or seen any of the more recent ones–The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, The Last Yankee, Broken Glass, or The American Clock, you might agree that this neglect is warranted. These works are labored, didactic, and humorless, with weak characters and weaker ideas. Even if you think, as I do, that Miller’s “classic” plays are somewhat overrated, the gap between his early work and everything since is mysteriously wide. What happened to this man? Attention must be paid.
The crisp 50th anniversary production of Death of Salesman, which comes to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City from the Goodman in Chicago, is a good place to begin the inquest. Brian Dennehy restores the original girth to the role of Willy Loman, who was played on stage in 1949 and in the first film version by the looming Lee J. Cobb before he was downsized by Dustin Hoffman. Stuffed into a three-piece suit that visibly wilts in the course of his decline, Dennehy uses his bulk as his chief dramatic asset. Just carrying his own weight seems a terrific burden for his character–the working stiff as beached whale. Almost everything else about the production is equally strong. The design and staging are clever but not too arty. Sliding screens and rotating platforms convey effectively the chaos of Loman’s mind–the jumble of present, past, and fantasy. This is a Chicago-school production, the kind associated with the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Wisdom Bridge theaters. Robert Falls, the director, draws out the dramatic vigor and intensity of the text, without adding any heavy interpretive overlay of his own.
Such a limpid production provides a window into the merits and flaws of the play itself. The chief strength of Death of a Salesman is its psychological acuity and its insight into family misery. At its heart is the head-butting relationship between the disappointed father and his troubled son Biff, played by Kevin Anderson. What the play captures so well is the way in which a parent’s frustrations and projected ambitions can poison a child’s life. Willy’s pushing his sons to succeed and his unwillingness to accept their failures develop into delusion and insanity. In catching this phenomenon, Miller created a great role on the American stage.
B ut Miller’s weaknesses as a dramatist are also latent in this play. I hope I never have to sit through Death of a Salesman again, not because it’s depressing and bleak but because it’s unrelieved and unchallenging. As a dramatist, Miller not only has no sense of humor, he also fails to grasp how changes in tone and texture can be used to make tragedy tolerable. Here, as in his other plays, he seems terrified that someone might accuse him of entertainment. Nor is there much loveliness to his language. Miller occasionally writes a brilliant line, such as Willy’s response to the callow boss who fires him after 35 years–“You can’t eat an orange and throw the peel away.” But more often, when he reaches for poetry, he achieves only portentousness, as in the nearly play-wrecking “requiem” that Willy’s friend Charley delivers at his funeral, “No one dast blames this man.” The humorless, stilted quality of Miller’s writing makes Salesman feel like a dental extraction.
The other problem is that while Miller at his best is fierce and brutal, he is seldom intricate or subtle. Death of a Salesman is of a piece with powerful but uncomplicated works of literature from the same era such as The Grapes of Wrath. The social content of the play–its “indictment” of the values of American capitalism and consumerism (as they say in 10th-grade English)–retains something of its currency. But you don’t get a lot more out of this point by hearing it made again and again. Miller is a preachy playwright who lets you know what you’re supposed to think about everything that happens in his moral universe. In his didacticism he denies his characters ambiguity and hence a life of their own.
What redeems Death of a Salesman is its furious energy and the fact that Miller’s arguments were fresh when he wrote it. But in his subsequent plays–both the few that are good and the many that are not so good–these ideas become steadily more tiresome. For example, Broken Glass (1993) is Death of a Salesman compounded by issues of Jewish self-hatred and sexual impotence. The setting is Brooklyn in 1938. Phillip Gellburg is an upscale Willy Loman who has devoted his life to a company that throws him onto the slag heap as soon as he begins to falter. As Gellburg’s life comes apart, self-understanding eludes him. He dies begging forgiveness from his martyred wife.
In all his plays, Miller remains fixed to the same set of concerns: corruption and the worship of material success; loyalty and betrayal; fathers and sons; public responsibility and personal conscience. That list is surely rich enough to support a lifetime of playwriting, but Miller handles these themes in the same way again and again. That way identifies him as a playwright of the immediate postwar era, a period characterized by the anxiety of affluence, the worry that rising material status was being purchased at the expense of decency and mutual responsibility. His plays have a message, and it’s always similar, if not the same.
It isn’t just themes and arguments that recur in Miller’s work. Plots and characters do too. His plays most often involve the devastating loss of one’s children’s respect (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A View From the Bridge, The Price, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan). This leads to suicide as the only remedy for shame (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, After the Fall, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,The Crucible). Miller’s men struggle with their consciences, but his women never do. They’re either saintly, maternal figures (Kate Keller in All My Sons, Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible) or destructive temptresses (Abigail Williams in The Crucible, Catherine in A View From the Bridge, Maggie in After the Fall). The lack of interest in women’s minds is another thing that dates Miller and makes even his more recent plays seem like period pieces.
To some extent, Miller’s fate is that of the Broadway stage. Since the 1950s, the middle-class audience for his kind of serious social drama has shriveled. The theater has ceased to be the place where Americans explore issues of the kind raised by Death of a Salesman. But Miller’s failure is ultimately his own. As his ideas grew familiar and then stale, he found no way to complicate them, develop them, or move on to something else. Death of a Salesman, his greatest play, is about the devastating effects of professional failure. But Miller’s career is a testament to the opposite problem: creative paralysis brought on by early success.