Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller: Arthur Miller centenary, the RSC and the Noel Coward Theatre
Posted on April 19, 2015
I generally get uncomfortable gushing about books, particularly ‘literature’. It makes me feel like that Certain Type of person who reads books and watches plays just so the Type can pontificate later about how good the book/play was and therefore how clever they are in understanding it.
A lot of discussing book and plays, it felt to me from my council estate background when at uni, was really so the discusser could feel clever. This was possibly not a helpful feeling to have when doing a degree in English lit, but I couldn’t help it. I cringed. I would have been destroyed at Cambridge.
Which brings me to Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, the story of 63 year old Willy Loman (geddit?), who is still trying to be a successful salesman in 1940s America to cash in on the American Dream.
By ‘A series of private conversations and a requiem’, Miller shows Willy Loman as a confused, frightened and hurt man who can’t understand why he can no longer make his sales. Surely if a man works hard, he’ll be rewarded/make money, says America in the 40s/Britain under Cameron? Well, no.
Which brings me to my opening paragraph. I studied Death of a Salesman for A level, and as a reasonably sensitive seventeen year old, found it sad, poignant and an indictment of Western consumerism. But. I read it again today a couple of decades' worth of life experience later and have found it an even more bloody brilliant play than I thought at seventeen.
I'd already given it five stars on Goodreads but now want to give it six. So I'm gushing. About a text that won the Pulitzer Prize, no less. And I agree with the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran who says it’s ‘the greatest American play of the 20th century’ (and I’ll be booking tickets when the RSC transfer their performance to the Noël Coward Theatre in May).
Death of a Salesman is brilliant, and genius, because, as well as its obvious theme of consumerism, capitalism and the 'American dream', it's also about lives of quiet desperation, of trying to live up to something you’re not. And most of all, and most tragic, not only trying to live up to something you’re not, but desperately pretending you don’t know these two things: that a) you can’t live up to the life/person you have constructed for yourself; and b) that you’re pretending you can.
And I suppose also c), knowing you're pretending but then realising — like a kick in the stomach — that other people know it too. That they've seen through you. The devastating realisation that can literally destroy an inner and therefore then an actual life.
Willy Loman knows all three facts, but he spends both acts of the play pushing these facts from him — this is why Young Biff, Young Happy, Bernard and Ben appear from a time when Willy could still dream.
I won’t do spoilers here. But go and see this play if you can; read it if not. And bring two hankies if seeing it (really, you’ll need a spare). And if you’re a type who likes to wear make-up, it's possibly best to lay off the eyeliner and mascara.
Here are the lines that made me sob; all, I’ve just realised, spoken by Willy’s wife Linda (she’s trying to get her and Willy’s adult sons Biff and Happy to realise the desperation of their father).
Caution — here there probably be spoilers. Also a caution if you do read/watch: if you have an actual, normal heart and not a heart as a swinging brick, the restaurant scene will destroy you.
- I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.
- He used to be able to make six, seven calls a day in Boston. Now he takes his valises out of the car and puts them back and takes them out again and he’s exhausted. He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him anymore, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man’s mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent? Why shouldn’t he talk to himself? Why?
- Be loving to him. Because he’s just a little boat looking for a harbour.
And now I don’t care if I’m being a Certain poncey Type about ‘literature’. Either read Death of a Salesman or see it; it’s outstanding. But have hankies to hand.