We, damaged people

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment Go to 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!

  1. Brian Joseph
    October 21, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Great commentary Emma. This is one superb play. I have only read it and seen television adaptations, never live. Willy is truly a poignant character.

    I have very similar thoughts and feelings about maintaing a high stress career into my 60s. It is a frightening prospect.


    • October 21, 2012 at 10:38 pm

      It’s fantastic, isn’t it? I barely scratched the surface of the text in this entry.

      Claudia Stavisky is a good director, I enjoyed all the plays I saw with her as a director. (especially Lorenzaccio by Musset, played in a big top.)

      I agree with you about the frightening prospect.


  2. October 21, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    I’ve seen this performed too, and while it was an excellent production, I was also lucky enough to see Arthur Miller’s After the Fall which was (at least the production I saw) emotionally wrenching. Some people criticise the play as it is supposed to be a thinly veiled version of Miller’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe. It’s not his most popular play, as a result, but it’s clear that a lot of blood and guts went into writing it.


    • October 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      This is my first Miller and he’s sure a writer I’d like to explore.

      The pain to be married to a writer: one day or another, you’re book material.


      • October 28, 2012 at 6:10 pm

        Yes it must also be tough being married to a therapist/psychologist. They’d always want to friggin’ analyse you.


  3. Fay
    October 22, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Excellent review. Glad to see the play travels across borders. On the topic of believing that success is based on being popular and loved, well, in general that does seem silly, but for a salesman, it may be a little different. He is not just selling a product, he believes he must offer an image of himself as an attractive fellow. Part of making the sale is to convince potential buyers to believe in the salesman personally, and now his company does not believe in him, and he does not believe in himself, so how is he to get anyone else to believe in him or buy his wares? I love this play.


    • October 22, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      Lots of foreign plays are produced here and sometimes a British troup plays in English with French subtitles on a screen below the stage. (‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore is the next one)

      Death of a Salesman is famous in France. In the leaflet I received in the theatre, the director says that when it was first put up in the 1960s, the spectators found it fantastic but very American.
      Nowadays, it’s still American because Biff’s character as a popular football player who qualifies for a scholarship is eminently American. But for the rest, we experience the same kind of situations in Europe.

      I don’t think a salesman needs to be loved to be good; he needs to master sales techniques. For me, basing professional behaviour on emotions is a mistake. You don’t go to work to be loved; you go to work to do your job, which doesn’t mean that you must act like a robot and leave all human behaviours at the door when you enter the office. I’m not sure I’m clear. I agree that a salesman needs empathy, openmindedness and a certain ability to communicate but his goal can’t be to be loved by his clients. This is where Willy is wrong: he asseses his abilities in terms of love when his boss just measures the turnover he brings to the company.


  4. October 22, 2012 at 2:43 am

    I studied this play too many times at school to want to ever see it again. Arthur Miller tells a good story in his autobiography Timebends of a hardened industrial coming out of the theatre on one of the play’s first nights weeping and telling Miller he will see to it that in the future no one would ever again be dismissed in his firm on the grounds of age.


    • October 22, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      That’s when foreigners reading your classics become handy: they look at the book you studied in school with brand new eyes. I love to read reviews from foreigners on Balzac or Maupassant or Mérimée, especially when the book is one you had little chance escaping in literature classes. Any volunteer to read Le Cid and make me discover it all over again? 🙂

      Interesting anecdote about Miller and this industrial. I wonder if he kept his promise.


  5. October 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    I saw this a long time ago and remember liking it very much as well.
    I see some upper managers, all 60+, and they are still speedy, same pace, just like the younger ones, I even think it’s easier for them but it must be what you want to do. Competition is over, so maybe that takes away some of the pressure. It wouldn’t work for me but it does work for some. I think the age is far less limiting than we think it might be.


    • October 22, 2012 at 9:37 pm

      I didn’t expect to find it so up-to-date. It’s a bit sad, actually.

      When today’s 60+ managers were in their 30s, I think corporate work was less competitive and the environment was less stressful. I wonder about my generation, if we’ll reach that age in one piece.


      • October 23, 2012 at 7:52 am

        Ah, I see what you mean, you think they were capable of going on that long because it was less stressful at the beginning, so to speak. But don’t get me wrong, they are still damaged people, it’s just from an energy persepctive, they can do it.


  6. acommonreaderuk
    October 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I’ve not seen or read this so thanks for your comprehensive review. The only Miller I have read is Black Spring which is set in Paris and is full of Parisian detail.

    I have no idea how people are supposed to work well into their sixties, but a neighbour who is an engineer loves his job and has just agreed to stay on another four years until he is 67 and is delighted about it. I expect that people in less interesting jobs, or who work in hard physical jobs like builders and plumbers would be unable to carry on.


    • October 22, 2012 at 9:37 pm

      I should read Black Spring. Was it good?


      • acommonreaderuk
        October 23, 2012 at 9:32 am

        Yes – very good – an early work but interesting enough. I don’t know whether its worth going out and buying it.


  7. October 22, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    Death of a Salesman is one of those plays that seems like it should be past its prime by now but that remains surprisingly (perhaps horrifyingly) contemporary, as you make clear in your sensitive review. The older I get the more Willy Lomans I see all around me – decent people ground down and betrayed by the promises of an ultimately inhumane system. I always have that line from the play in my head – “You can’t eat an orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit” – because, well, of course you can eat and orange and throw the peel away. Willy just hasn’t recognized that he’s in a system that has normalized doing away with human beings, that includes them in the same “planned obsolescence” Willy complains about in the objects he buys. All My Sons, though, is probably my favorite Miller, again one that gets to a core dynamic in American capitalist society, one that can be seen here on a daily basis.


    • October 22, 2012 at 9:48 pm

      I grew up in a region where steel industry was the major job provider. I saw it collapse and lots of decent people dismissed as useless at 50. When you see this around you as a child and adolescent, it builds your character and your vision of work.

      I remember that line from the play, it stayed with me too. Unfortunately, the papers are full of Willies. Their chance to find another job are slim when they’re over 50. That’s the paradox in France: you have to work until 65 but you’re a senior employee at…45. No one really knows how you manage between 45 and 65 if you get sacked.


  8. October 22, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    When they stop smiling back, that’s an earthquake. Not a quote, but near enough.

    I think I studied this in school, I’ve certainly seen it performed, and you capture it well. It’s an incredible play, so very painful. Horrifyingly contemporary (thanks Scott) is a good way to describe it.

    It may remain relevant as long as we remain the kind of humans we are, until we evolve or are designed into something different or our civilisation collapses. A depressing thought, but a true play.

    Anyway, great writeup.


    • October 22, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      As often, I agree with you. I found it a bit depressing that it’s so contemporary. You’d expect the corporate world to be kinder in the 1940s. Unlike Scott, I don’t think Willy is the victim of a “system”. His boss knows what he’s doing and he does it personally. Later this will become a system, with processes to make sure that the people who do it feel better by managing a project instead of dealing with humans.There’s an excellent French film about this, it’s called Ressources humaines by Laurent Cantet. It’s worth watching it.

      But then, if Willy’s fate is not due to the system, it’s due to human nature. And that’s when it becomes depressing and where I rally to your analysis: it’s in the core of human beings, and it won’t change unless something radical happens. And I don’t mean a political revolution, we’ve been there, haven’t we? So what’s left? Working on yourself to accept the inhuman in every human and try not to be knocked out of naivety like Willy is.


      • October 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm

        I should really clarify that by a “system” I don’t mean that Willy Loman is purely a victim. He’s an incredibly weak and passive person. But I do mean that the impersonality of the way he’s treated, the expectation that one’s value is primarily as an employee, and an expendable one at that, is largely institutionalized in American society, where profiteering is a shameless art, and those who get in its way be damned. By system I simply mean that it’s become acceptable for individuals to be dispensed with in this manner. It’s business as usual, instead of the appalling waste of human potential that Miller reveals so penetratingly. One only has to look at the mortgage crisis, at outsourcing, at the huge levels of credit carried by Americans, and at the way in which the unemployed get blamed personally for their unemployment to see that Miller’s play is as relevant now as it was when written.


        • October 26, 2012 at 10:25 pm

          Sorry for the slow answer, Scott.
          I understood what you meant. I just expected it to be different at the time it was written. I agree with what you write but I think this way of acting had been “industrialised”, ie put into anonymous processes in the name of efficiency later than the time the play was written. For me, Willy’s boss treats him as a commodity and it’s even more shocking for the time. I don’t know how to say it properly in English. Things were slower in companies at the time and there weren’t as many KPIs and controls upon employees. But perhaps I’m naive and the violence was elsewhere. (in the working conditions regarding safety for example)


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