Sure Arthur Miller’s masterpiece is flawed, but so’s your mother
On paper, Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner, shouldn’t work. Miller intended the play as another blow against capitalism, similar to the one he’d struck with All My Sons,1 which demonstrated how the pursuit of the American dream leads inevitably to war profiteering, treachery, deceit, and murder. But somehow things got out of hand. Miller’s memories of the standard Jewish childhood from Hell2 came boiling up from down below, and those furious passions, sometimes naked, sometimes disguised, took control.
The result was the unforgettable Loman family – Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy – a foursome about as functional as the House of Atreus. Their wild, headlong struggle to stay one step ahead of the truth grabs the viewer from the first and simply never lets go.
There are at least four strands to Death of a Salesman, none of which really fit together. First is the official “capitalism is bad, socialism is good” message – “Willy never put a nut to a bolt,” we’re told. Second is the family drama that is the real heart of the play. For Miller, as for O’Neill,3 family is a suffocating web of co-dependency that nonetheless offers the one shred of defense against the utterly alien world outside. Third is the “good Jew, bad goy” message, in which Miller covertly asserts the superiority of Jewish intelligence and hard work over goyish athleticism and charm. Fourth, and most tangential, is Miller’s private obsession with adultery, which he tends to present as the root of all evil.4
Death of a Salesman turns on Biff’s discovery that Dad has been cheating on Mom. This is the great, hidden secret that destroyed the trust between Willy and Biff. If only Willy hadn’t cheated! If only Biff hadn’t come unexpectedly! If only Willy had gotten the broad out of the room in time!
But suppose he had? Then you have no play. Biff goes on to glory at the University of Virginia on a football scholarship. He eases into a big bucks corporate job and buys Willy and Linda a retirement cottage in Florida. Goyish irresponsibility trumps Jewish hard work. Worst of all, capitalism works!
But Death of a Salesman really isn’t about adultery, or Jews and goys, or even about capitalism. It’s about Willy Loman, a shallow, blind blowhard who somehow carries the sorrows of the whole world upon his shoulders. And attention must be paid.
The 1966 CBS version stars Lee J. Cobb as Willy, Mildred Dunnock as Linda, George Segal as Biff, James Farentino as Happy, and a pre-Bonnie and Clyde Gene Wilder as Bernard. Cobb and Dunnock also played the lead roles on Broadway during the play’s first run. The CBS production is simply a photographed version of a stage play, and it seems a little creaky at first, but that’s probably more the fault of Miller’s script than the set or the actors. Once the action gets underway, we’re hooked, and hooked good.
The 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman, starring Fredric March, is unfortunately not available on video.5 A second TV version, done in English for West German television in 1985 and featuring Dustin Hoffman as Willy and John Malkovich as Biff, is available.6
For more Broadway, consult the Broadway Theatre Archive’s website, which offers 91 theatrical videos, on either VHS or DVD. The site is also offering pay-per-view current performances. Kultur’s website offers a wide variety of live performance videos, in ballet, modern dance, opera, and other fields. A third site allows you to search for all home video versions of plays. (But the site is hardly perfect; it lists only three of the seven Hamlets available.)
Although Arthur Miller his written 17 plays since Death of a Salesman, none have enjoyed the success of what was only his third play.7 Artistically, Miller was corrupted by his conscience. He felt it his duty as a public intellectual to tell the people what they ought to think. The result was a preachy didacticism that is more likely to conceal human truth than reveal it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in The Crucible, his 1953 parable on McCarthyism. Miller grew up drenched in the ambience of left-wing Jewish thought and could have written half a dozen great plays on the subject.8 But he didn’t want to write about Jews9 and he didn’t want to write about communism. By transferring the action to 17th-century Salem, he could write about witches and warlocks, who didn’t exist, rather than about communists and spies, who did.10
- The 1948 film version of All My Sons, starring Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster, is available on video, along with a 1986 TV version starring James Whitmore. All My Sons is a terrible play, but it’s perversely fascinating to watch Miller use his extensive knowledge of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and the ancient Greeks to create an utterly meretricious drama. [↩]
- The jury is still out on whether the standard Jewish childhood from Hell is worse than the standard Irish-American childhood from Hell and the standard repressed American Protestant childhood from Hell, and will probably remain so. [↩]
- Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, offers a strikingly similar foursome, based explicitly on O’Neill’s own family. O’Neill wrote the play well before Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, but did not allow it to be produced until after his death in 1953. [↩]
- Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge all turn on adultery. [↩]
- I saw this film on black-and-white TV forty years ago and still remember being amazed by the passion emerging from the 19-inch screen. [↩]
- Hoffman has a terrific time playing Willy, but physically he seems all wrong for the role. How could Ratso Rizzo father two Adonises? [↩]
- Yes, this is only my opinion. Miller is taken very seriously in Europe and in some parts of the U.S., and a fair number of his plays are available on video. Miller discusses his own career extensively in Timebends. [↩]
- In 1956, after he had written The Crucible and after he had married Marilyn Monroe, Miller was hauled up before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The McCarthy era was effectively over and the committee was desperate for publicity. Miller refused to answer questions and drew a two-week suspended sentence. [↩]
- The Jewish writers who more or less took over American literature after World War II had a very assimilationist, Anglophilic style. In Death of a Salesman, we’re expected to admire Bernard because he plays tennis and has a friend with a private court. [↩]
- The Crucible is available on video in two versions. The first is Les Sorcières de Salem (1957), released on video in the U.S. as The Crucible, translated by Jean-Paul Sartre and starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. Les Sorcières de Salem is a fascinating film that deserves to be seen. Sartre turns The Crucible into a terrific assault on 17th-century religious hysteria in America (Voltaire would have loved it). Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with 20th-century political hysteria in America. Thirty years later, Miller got the chance to write his own screenplay for the 1996 version, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Schofield. Even with Wynona Ryder as bad girl Abigail Williams, the film is a crashing bore. [↩]