'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.

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    Since 1949 Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' has been serving as a mirror for all of us who believe we still have something to prove at our workplaces.
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“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.”

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.

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“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:

–   believe they still have something to prove at their workplace
 –   thought they had already proved, at their workplace, everything that had to be proved
 –   have fallen victim to the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” way of thinking
–   have been passed over in the awarding of perks and promotions
–   weren’t able to see things at work as they really were, or as they really are
–   held on to understandings that weren’t to be honored or even understood
–   hold on to “what ifs” and “what might have beens”
–   haven’t been honest with themselves
–   haven’t registered reality
–   have had to absorb the frustrations and disappointments, exhaustions and indignities of a job search

“Death of a Salesman” also speaks to anyone who has ever:
–  doubted a dream they held dear, wondered if the dream was the wrong dream, and wondered what the right dream would be
–  dreamed of a better way of making a living
–   missed a good career opportunity
–   “lost” a job
–    had to prepare for a job interview
–    left a job interview regretting what he said, how he said it, and how he conducted himself
–    left a job interview disappointed
–    left a job interview humiliated
–    wondered if there would ever be another job interview
 
 Willy, himself, is beyond resurrection, but the unsentimental, close-to-the bone account of his final 24 hours (laced with revealing flashbacks and telling hallucinations) can be revived on stage, and screened via videotape (Fredric March in the 1951 film) and DVD (1985, Dustin Hoffman; 2000, Brian Dennehy) – and can be refrained from the shelves of any public library or book shop worthy of being called a library or a bookshop.In the family realm, Arthur Miller’s gift speaks to parent-child alienations, depicting the strains and stresses of:
 
 –  a parent whose labors, efforts, endeavors and struggles have not been sufficiently appreciated, a parent who has suffered a child’s ingratitude
–  a child who did not appreciate a parent’s predicament, when it would have been helpful to recognize that predicament
–  a parent who has a hard time abandoning a special hope for a child’s future
–  a child who has had a hard time living up to a parent’s very special hopes and expectations
–  a parent who can’t relinquish a dream even though it does not square with reality
–  a child who hasn’t been able to get a parent to pull back from exaggeration, and relinquish a fantasyFor those of us who have the great good fortune to be lovingly appreciated by our children – children who have done so nicely by us and their respective communities – the Loman family’s disappointments, dysfunctions, and despair provide a stark contrast.  And much cause for gratitude.
 
 Like banks, families are subject to stress tests. “Death of a Salesman” reminds of how much human capital we have in reserve – and how friendship, self-awareness, and good fortune keep us mentally and emotionally solvent.
 
 Without shame or embarrassment, we can admit that the missteps and misadventures, the embarrassments and shame of others can serve to make us all the more grateful for what we have and what we have been spared.
 
 Reading Willy – reading the Lomans – can serve as a cautionary tale for anyone harboring regrets, resentments, reservations. The play is a reality-based fable for anyone who doesn’t want to live a life of regret.

Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996.  He teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.

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