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'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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–   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

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“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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