Monday, May 28, 2012

"Attention Must Be Paid": The Continued Relevance of Death of a Salesman

I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person. – Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
The Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman has once again brought to light the hopes, dreams, and frustrations of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s representation of middle-class life in postwar America and the harsh things that can happen to ordinary, under-achieving Americans. It is a critical story about what can happen to those who buy into the American dream without considering the cold realities of competition. Willy was a lifelong salesman who had sold himself on the American dream and the need to be “somebody”; yet he was blinded to reality and the characteristics needed to achieve that dream. He was filled with false hope and unwarranted optimism, a belief in the future with no basis in fact. He believed that success in life came with being well-liked and popular, and he deluded himself into thinking that all of the people to whom he had sold and tried to sell liked and respected him back.

The play, which Andrea and I saw in New York on Saturday (a spectacular production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Loman), is in part an indictment of the harsh realities of capitalism, and in part an expose on the false hopes and dreams of the American middle class. In Death of a Salesman, Miller exposes the perils of embracing a romantic, mythical notion of the American dream. Willy devoted 36 years of his life to one company, traveled thousands of miles and worked long days and nights, only to be fired when he got older and frailer and could not endure the burdens of incessant travel. He no longer met his quota and, rather than find a place for him in the home office, he was regarded as an unneeded drag on its success. His devotion and loyalty were in the end not reciprocated.

But Miller’s play also recognizes that much of the fault for Willy’s predicament is his own. In contrast to Willy is his friend, Charley, a successful businessman and the father of Bernard, a childhood friend of Biff’s who becomes a prominent lawyer. When Bernard was young, Willy mocked and ridiculed him as a studious nerd. Bernard was a good student, responsible, and often helped Biff with his homework, but he was not the well liked, popular football star that was Biff. To Willy, Bernard was not made for success. Later in the play, when Willy must sheepishly approach Charley for yet another loan to help him make ends meet, Willy runs into Bernard, who is preparing to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Willy asks Bernard what his secret is, and why things didn’t work out for Biff. Even then, Willy failed to see that education and intellectual achievement could keep the American dream from being a complete illusion. It is in the complex recognition of why some succeed while others fail that makes Death of a Salesman such a remarkable and enduring American classic.

Willy is a man of contradictions. He is exceedingly optimistic about the future, despite his muddled track record and his consuming nostalgia for the past. He repeatedly boasts about the days when his sons, Biff and Happy, breezed through life on their good looks and athleticism, and were the adored stars of their high school football team. But it becomes clear that Willy’s sons peaked at 17 and, though well into their thirties, had yet to find their place in life. Although Happy bought into the same delusional dream as Willy, he putters along as an assistant to an assistant buyer and seems unlikely to ever achieve the mythical success he imagines is possible. Biff, who never held a steady job, finally attempts to address the deception and lies on which his family’s life was grounded. He recognizes his father as a fraud and blames Willy for always making Biff believe that he was better than everyone – Biff Loman, the well-liked, good looking football star. This is why, Biff reasons, he is unable to play second fiddle to anyone and cannot hold a job.

But Willy loved his sons and believed in his country. He was devoted to his company and the life of a salesman. When he finally realized in the end that the dream was a lie, that his firm did not return the loyalty and devotion; that he was not as well-liked as he had led himself to believe; that he actually had no friends, and that 36 years of smiles and bluster in trying to make a sale had amounted to little substance or meaning in his life, he commits suicide. Although he talked of how every town he visited on sales trips welcomed and opened doors for him, in the end no one attended his funeral, save for his wife, sons, and Charley. His deceptions and lies had finally caught up with him. He died the death of a salesman.

There is, of course, much about Death of a Salesman that is disconnected from today’s realities. The American middle class, for one, is nothing like that which existed when the play first appeared on stage in 1949. The American industrial base no longer dominates the world economy, the ravages of competition having gone global. We now compete on a world stage and contend with cheap labor in India and China, the technological efficiency of Korea and Japan, and the engineering prowess of Germany. But as was clear on the afternoon we attended, audiences continue to respond to the emotional power of Death of a Salesman. For all his flaws, we identify with Willy’s search for humanity in an unfair world, his quest for an ounce of love and respect in his profit-driven job.

Willy is a lot like us. He talks a big game about his plans for success, but longs for a quiet life in the country, where he can grow some vegetables and raise some chickens, a life far removed from his confined, populated Brooklyn neighborhood and the competitive environs of the American workplace. The story surrounding Willy Loman and his sons resonates as well, I think, because most of us feel we are unable to control our fate and are destined to a life on the hamster wheel. As Biff explains to his brother Happy early in the play:

Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still – that’s how you build a future.
Contrast the struggles of the Loman family with the rise of today’s private equity firms and investment banks, which buy and sell companies, firing workers and gutting their pensions along the way, as they reap enormous profits. Those who are left behind and trampled are the Willy Lomans of today, while a small few are rewarded to excess. It is why some people do not trust Mitt Romney and his Bain Capital comrades, who believe that once upon a time the golden boys of finance rescued a languishing American economy and imposed financial discipline, resulting in a great economic revival that benefitted everyone. Unfortunately, the imagined productivity surge never occurred, the financial whiz kids did nothing to improve the economy, and the benefits of their massive wealth did not trickle down. Indeed, the only wonder is why, exactly, these paper capitalists made so much money when the results of their wheeling and dealing were so ambiguous.

Lost in most discussions of business and economics are notions of kindness, fairness, and a recognition that the lives of everyday people are affected and hurt deeply by the growing inequalities of American life. Theologian and author John Thatamanil, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has contended that “we get what we deserve when we configure public life as a value-free realm in which the unfettered pursuit of profit, power and private interest are invited to reign without regulation.” When the market is left alone and society neglects its collective responsibility for those left behind by a ruthlessly competitive economic system, Thatamanil says, the results are alienation, despair, and injustice. “The poor go hungry, children live on the streets or in our subway tunnels and the fabric of our common life is torn asunder. The very idea that the citizens of a country might owe each other anything at all, that there may be priceless public goods that cannot be rendered into marketable commodities, is regarded as tantamount to socialism.”

The tragic plight of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman reminds us that we are all vulnerable and exceedingly fragile. When societal systems and institutions have no humanity, no heart, and no accountability, the results are often unfair and cruel. Such is the reality of the modern marketplace. Paternalistic companies of the mid-20th century, when the middle class thrived in this country, once had lifetime workers, pensions, and loyal consumers. These same companies tended to engage in long-term planning, investing large amounts of money into research and development and the welfare of their workers. Today’s private equity investors, by contrast, are interested only in short-term gains and rising stock prices; notions of employee satisfaction, the fair distribution of compensation, and intangible quality of life issues are meaningless and, indeed, often run counter to the near-sighted pursuit of short-term profits.

Willy’s notion of the American dream, that one can attain dignity through work, is a distant remnant of a nostalgic past. Today’s hedge fund managers and speculators care nothing about the people who actually do the work that make their companies profitable; their interest lies solely in a growing bottom line and an upward surge in the stock price to match their five-year plan, which often means more productivity from fewer workers. Traditional middle class aspirations of working hard for a modest income and secure benefits to attain a comfortable existence, is virtually non-existent in our fast-paced, short-term economy. Everyone, it seems, wants immediate pleasure and excessive wealth.

Through the struggles and conflicts of the Loman family, Arthur Miller wished to expose the inhumanity of a capitalist system that mangled the spirit and suffocated the dreams of its willing participants. By exposing Willy and Happy as delusional dreamers, Miller attempted to bring some perspective to the American tendency to think that things will always work out in the end. Willy’s dreams of success and a bright future, even when all the evidence pointed to the contrary, made him a deluded loser, the victim of a system that, while offering riches and success for some, can be harsh and cruel to others. But like all of us, Willy at heart was a decent person who wished to leave something behind and dreamed of his children’s bright future. His contradictions and failings in the face of his un-abiding belief in America as the land of unlimited opportunities, allows us to recognize ourselves in him; to hope that someday we will collectively find a way to restore humanity and kindness to our social and economic structures.

1 comment:

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