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We, damaged people

October 21, 2012 22 comments

Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem by Arthur Miller. 1949. French title: Mort d’un commis voyageur.

You’re going to read about theatre again as I renewed my subscription to the city theatre. The first play we chose was Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. I read it before attending the play and I was both excited and curious when I entered the theatre. Excited to see the play on stage as I found it very good on paper and curious to see what the director would do with the numerous stage directions Miller included in his text.

Willy Loman is the salesman mentioned in the title of the play. When the lights appear on the stage, Willy is coming home from work, it’s late, he’s exhausted. His wife Linda wakes up and greets him. We quickly learn that he’s over 60, that he has worked as a salesman for the same company since 36 years and that he’s in charge of New England sales for his company. He travels the whole week and comes back on weekends.

But tonight, Willy is distraught and came back home on a Monday night when he should have been in Boston. He can’t drive anymore because he can’t focus enough. He was almost in an accident and when back driving very slowly, afraid as he was to kill someone in a car crash. Willy is no longer a good salesman, he’s burnt out and his employer stopped paying him a salary, he lives on commissions.

Willy and Linda make too much noise and wake up their sons Biff and Happy. Biff has come after a three months errand and at 34, he’s not settled yet. Happy usually lives by himself but is back in his old room for now.

The play has two intertwined stories. In the first place, it’s Willy’s story, his professional fall and his small life. Willy is a true believer in the American dream and its pendant, the consumer society where you buy on credit. He constantly regrets not following his brother Ben in Alaska to seek fortune. Ben died a rich man. Willy has lived the life of a middle-class man: he worked to support a wife, two kids, buy a car, a house and all kinds of domestic equipment but starts doubting, now that he’s older:

Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it.

And with hindsight, his life seems a bit meaningless.

Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.

With the loss of his professional standing, his confidence is shattered and he speaks to himself aloud, ruminating conversations with his brother Ben or with Biff. Willy worked for a better life for himself and a better life for his boys but he failed miserably on both sides.

Biff has tried dozens of different jobs and can’t keep one for a long time. He never had a serious relationship with a woman and is nowhere near getting married. All this isn’t a choice but the result of a vast personal failure. His younger brother Happy works in company, usually lives in his apartment and is a womanizer. Sex is almost an addiction, he sorts of suffer of the all-whores-but-mommy syndrome. Here are the two brothers talking about women and sex:

HAPPY: I get that any time I want, Biff. Whenever I feel disgusted. The only trouble is, it gets like bowling or something. I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything. You still run around a lot?

BIFF: Naa. I’d like to find a girl—steady, somebody with substance.

Willy’s relationship with Biff is broken and the clue to the damage only comes at the end of the play. They can’t communicate and we soon understand that Biff had a brilliant American future before him: he was popular in school, a good football player, he had scholarships for university. But he failed his math final in high school and never graduated. All his hopes of glory and a good job evaporated with this.

As the story unravels before our eyes we understand Willy’s responsibility in Biff’s failure. He never had his feet on the ground, indulged his sons in everything. They lived in a mutual adoration fueled by Linda’s blind adoration for her husband. This is a family where people don’t see reality as it is but nurture childish dreams of grandeur, a family where nobody questions Willy’s opinion or vision. He can only be right and no one could undermine his confidence. Willy is the king of his family but the king is naked. He isn’t open to advice or to the thought that he might be mistaken. Unfortunately, he based his faith in life upon the silly concept that to be successful, you must be popular, loved and daring. Isn’t that childish?

The play is powerful, painfully up-to-date when it comes to Willy’s work life and the treatment of senior employees in companies. It made me think about my carrier and brought me back to a question I’ve already asked myself many evenings: how on earth will I be able to work at the same rhythm as today when I’m 60? What will become of us in such a competitive corporate world when we’re old? How can a play written in 1949 resonate that strongly on that part? Perhaps it’s because working conditions are going backwards nowadays or because so many young people in their twenties have difficulties finding a permanent job and settling down.

The family dynamics gives a universal tone to the play and deals with the parents-children interactions. Do we expect too much of our children? How can you raise children to be themselves, unique, detached from you and pursuing their own goals and not the ones you decided for them, while giving them the right amount of guidance for them to have the best chance to make the most out of their potential?

On a literary point of view, Miller managed to break the codes of theatre. There is no unity of time, place or action here. Some scenes are flash backs from Biff’s adolescence and help the spectators understanding the events that led this family in this cul-de-sac. They also show Willy’s appalling principles of education or lack of principles actually. The characters are at the Lomans’ but some scenes are in a restaurant or in the office of different side characters. It’s like a film.

Death of a Salesman is Miller putting the American dream to pieces: Family? Dysfunctional and toxic. Climbing the social ladder? Useless. Working hard? What for? To buy more? This play is clever, witty, profound and powerful. For those who don’t like reading theatre, my friend watched the film directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Dustin Hoffman plays Willy and John Malkovich plays Biff. The scenario was written by Arthur Miller. I heard it’s excellent.

PS: one last quote, for the road:

CHARLEY: Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters.

BEN [clapping WILLY on the back, with a laugh at CHARLEY]: And the stock exchange, friend!

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