'Death of a Salesman': meant for you?
If you've ever rued your job or made a mistake with your child, 'Death of a Salesman' is your play.
“He works for a company thirty-six years this March, opens up unheard-of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away.... For five weeks he’s been on straight commission, like a beginner, an unknown.”Skip to next paragraph
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That’s Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, enlightening and admonishing her irresponsible and inconsiderate sons. Their 63-year-old father, who has worked for the same company all those years, is about to be terminated. One termination leads to another.
Tragically, in addled desperation, Willy Loman drives himself to bequeath a death benefit to his irresolute sons. Dramatically, with the text of “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller set up what might well be thought of as a literary inter vivos trust – and a gift in perpetuity – with millions of theater-goers and script-readers as beneficiaries.
“Death of a Salesman” debuted at the Morosco Theatre in New York, February 1949, with Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman; with direction by Elia Kazan. The play has been translated into more than 29 languages and has been performed throughout the world (including China) with a resonance and impact transcending cultures and borders.
In 1975, the play was brought to Manhattan’s Circle in the Square with George C. Scott in the lead.
In 1984, the play returned to Broadway, at the Broadhurst Theatre, with Dustin Hoffman as Willy.
In 1999, the play had still another Broadway revival, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, with Brian Dennehy in the lead.
This month, Philip Seymour Hoffman is delivering Willy’s sorrowful and sorrowing self-doom at the Barrymore Theater, under the direction of Mike Nichols.
In January 1999, before a standing-room-only audience at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, Arthur Miller responded to a question about the state of the theater by observing that a play’s chance of success can turn on a casting decision. A finely-crafted work, thoughtfully-staged, deftly-directed, and brilliantly acted may nevertheless disappear (if it appears at all) if the lead performer is not a hot young property, or at least a notable marquee name. My recollection is that Miller rued that, “We’re always discovering new people; we’re never discovering old people.”
That concern would not seem to apply to the various high-profile stagings of “Death of a Salesman.” But, the lament surely does apply to Willy Loman’s employment plight – and to the plight of thousands and thousands who (at least in some respects) feel Willy’s woes. In the play, we fear the worst; we see it coming. Nevertheless, the delivery is crushing:
Employer: Willy, you can’t go to Boston for us.
Willy: Why can’t I go?
Employer: I don’t want you to represent us. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now.
Willy: ... are you firing me?
Employer: I think you need a good long rest, Willy.
That most unsettling exchange speaks to so many of us who, tired as we may be, cannot afford to take a rest.
The play can be a preview; serve as a simulation, a crystal ball, a premonition, or a mirror for those who: