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by Joel Shatzky
WHEN ARTHUR MILLER wrote Death of a Salesman, the United States had recently emerged victorious from the war on fascism. However, from November 1948 to October 1949, the country suffered a recession, and in February 1949, when the play was first performed, unemployment was at 7.9 percent. Death of a Salesman, with a plot harking back to the Great Depression, was an enormous success and ran for 742 performances, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Play of the Year. Unarguably Miller’s best-known play, it has been revived four times on Broadway, most recently in a production starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Ben Brantley noted in his review of Death of a Salesman in 2012: “You leave the [theater] feeling that you have learned something of worth, dutifully noting the parallels between Miller’s portrait of failed American dreams and our own disenchanted times. It’s all rather like visiting an important national landmark” (emphasis added).
It is unlikely that Miller could have imagined that his portrayal of the salesman Willy Loman, created nearly seventy years ago, could have the resonance it does today. In his play, Miller avoids any obvious criticism of “the system” or giving a didactic tone to the characters. He goes so far as to portray Willy’s boss as sympathetic to Willy’s job insecurity — but “business is business.” Willy is even given an opportunity to work for his friend Charlie, but Loman’s pride prevents him from accepting it.
Yet Willy Loman’s dilemma has become more the norm than the exception for many lower-paid workers. “Fewer Americans now than at any time in the past half century (2008) believe they’re moving forward in life,” according to a Pew Research Report. Willy is the lost American male whose loyalty and hard work have not spared him from being expendable in the contemporary corporate world. At the time the play was written, however, it was not unusual for the average wage-earner to expect annual increases in pay and the ongoing ability to support family of four on a single salary. Now, such single-income households for the lower-wage earner have become much more rare.
MILLER DRAMATIZED five related issues that expose serious flaws in the economic system we are still faced with today — but he did so without the ideological declarations of a Clifford Odets or John Howard Lawson.
1. Impact of Technology. Miller anticipates the negative impact of technology on today’s labor force which for the last few decades has been losing good-paying industrial jobs to “outsourcing” and “robotizing.” Willy Loman, a child of the Depression, becomes lost when he cannot adjust to modernization and is fired from his job. This loss of connection to his means of earning a living is symbolized in a key scene in which Willy is baffled by the latest technology: a wire recorder. This novelty — in which his boss’ son recites the names of the states — terrifies Willy, who doesn’t understand how it works. His employer’s reaction to Willy’s confusion is to dismiss him.
2. Loss of Identity. The loss of identity that often follows from joblessness makes Willy feel “temporary” about himself. Just prior to his firing he reminisces to his boss about the “Old Days.” “In those days there was personality in it . . .there was respect and companionship and gratitude in it. Today it’s all cut and dried. There is no chance for bringing friendship to bear or personality. . . . They don’t know me anymore.” The same can be said about many workers today. As he explains to his successful brother, Ben, Willy now feels he could have had a better life if he had gone off to making his fortune in exploration as had Ben.
Throughout most of the play, Willy tries to find some solace in the past to which he might connect, such as when his son scored the winning touchdown in a championship football game. But Loman’s world becomes increasingly delusional, resulting in a tragic car crash. At Loman’s funeral, his son, Biff, says: “He never knew who he was.”
3. Effects of “urbanization.” The more recent phenomenon of “gentrification” which began in Willy’s time as “urbanization” further disorients him, as he sees its effect on the old neighborhood that he fondly remembers from the prewar era. One of Willy’s few comforts is the backyard garden where he plays catch with his sons. However, he feels overwhelmed by the new high-rise apartments that blot out the sun in the backyard, and angrily declares: “They’re massacring the neighborhood!”
4. The impact of “corporatization. ”The trend in the corporate world today is “maximizing profitability” at the expense of the wage-earners, which normalizes and justifies the harsh ways they are treated when fired. This leads to Willy’s further alienation from the workplace, although his boss is far gentler than many employers can be today.
(Almost forty years ago, when I was living and teaching in Cortland in upstate New York, the principal manufacturers were leaving the area for greater profits in low-wage areas. The most notable of these was Smith Corona, which had been one of the most reliable employers in Cortland for over one hundred years. The plant was sold to a venture capital company that relocated to Mexico, where the business went bankrupt in two years. The announcement of the closing was made when the workers were herded into the main plant and the CEO told all of them they were fired. Conspicuous at the scene were a number of armed guards “to keep order” since management was convinced that there might be trouble from their employees; there wasn’t.)
Miller argues for compassion for the salesman, both empathy and sympathy. This is plaintively expressed by Linda, Willy’s wife, who cries that “Attention must be paid to such a person” — but she speaks in the passive voice, with no clue as to who will care to give attention to a middle-aged “loser.”
5. The rise in suicides. The recent rise in the suicide rate among white, working-class, middle-aged men is a sign of a seriously troubled society. Feeling the world he knew crumbling around him, Willy ironically chooses to end his life using the tools of his trade — the traveling salesman’s automobile, which Willy smashes up at the end of the play.
The play concludes on the ironic words, the last words, spoken by his long-suffering wife, Linda: “We’re free!” She has made the last payment on their mortgage. But now Linda laments that Willy won’t be there to enjoy his “retirement.”
Arthur Miller both detected and reported the connection between alienation and suicide decades before it has become so clearly expressed in today’s society. In the character of Willy Loman, he brilliantly anticipates a contemporary social malaise that is characteristic of a deadly trend that could threaten the stability of American society. The warning signs are here. It is more than time enough for us to address them.
Joel Shatzky has written frequently for Jewish Currents on education and culture. He is the author of Option Three: A Novel about the University, published by our magazine’s imprint, Blue Thread. Shatzky taught at SUNY Cortland for thirty-seven years. His books include The Thinking Crisis (with Ellen Hill), Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists, and Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets (with Michael Taub).