By Jerry L. Crawford
February 10, 1949: a landmark date in the history of the American theatre. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller opened on Broadway. It won the Drama Critic Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Later an international success, the play has been translated into nearly every language and produced in nearly every country on the globe. A universality in character, language, and theme make the play continually pertinent and valued. It ranks with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as true “classics” from the arena of American plays. Additionally, each of these plays focuses upon the family and the relationship of parents and children.
The central character (protagonist) role of Willy Loman has joined the ranks of major acting challenges. Similar to wanting to play Hamlet or Oedipus, most good actors want to perform Willy Loman. Originally portrayed by the late Lee J. Cobb, the gallery of great actors in the role of Willy Loman include, among others, Thomas Mitchell, Frederic March, Hume Cronyn, George C. Scott, and, most recently, Dustin Hoffman. Remarkably, one of the reasons Willy attracts actors is not the tragic dimension of the role, but the comic dimension. Willy is often laughable in his inconsistencies; in fact, he is so consistently inconsistent, he is comic. That complexity of persona also makes Willy at once likeable and unlikeable. His values are at best, corrupt; yet, his passion for life, family, and his dreams are pure. He is indeed common, yet somehow magnificent. All great actors will always seek this role as a crowning career challenge.
Death of a Salesman successfully weaves time present and time past. Willy Loman naively capitulates to the worship of success, to the substitution of likeable personality in place of solid accomplishment.
However, it is a mistake to view the play as social criticism. In fact, it is a great character drama, so well drawn from life that many people, from every walk of life, identify themselves or their relatives with Willy and have been touched by his common, yet grand, passion of recapturing the lost love between him and his eldest son, Biff. Seen as the “tragedy of a common man,” as Miller labeled the form of the play, few people can remain unmoved by Willy’s fight for his family, carrying on a struggle for sales long after he has lost his skills and his welcome, holding desperately to an impossible dream for his son.
At the least, Willy is tragically impassioned as a father. Perhaps he is a suburban King Lear, with sons rather than daughters breaking his heart. With his reliable, loving, but helpless wife (Linda) by his side, haunted by a ghost in the form of an uncle (Ben), who promised success, and supported by an ordinary, practical neighbor and friend (Charley), Willy engages in an intense conflict with his son and dies in order to realize his hopes for Biff, refusing to concede defeat. Since he gave his life after discovering his own responsibility for Biff’s failures, perhaps Willy enables himself, or, as critic John Gassner once noted, Willy’s final act is sort of an expiation Willy dies as a father, not as a salesman. Willy is a man who might easily have been dismissed as a cheat and a fool; regardless, he transfigures himself and is endowed with some of the magnitude expected in tragedy, be it “classical” or “modern” (“common”).
There may be a bit of Willy in all our fathers, a bit of Biff in all our sons.