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June 10, 2005

Is Tony Blair our Willy Loman? Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
Lyric Theatre, London
16th May - 5th November 2005

Arthur Miller's most famous play is as much a theatrical landmark as Look Back in Anger and dates from about the same period the post-war moment when large changes in sensibility were moving beneath the surface to bring forth "the sixties". Willy Loman the Salesman is an archetype, which is to say, a caricature. His business is making people want to buy things in order to keep the American economy going, and the American economy is in human terms, the site of the American dream. Without being exactly programmatic, this is a play that dramatises the Marxist conception of alienated man. Is there a human being buried inside Loman? His wife Linda is given a moving speech of reproach to the children insisting that there is, but what we see most of the time is a man given over to dreams and illusions, interspersed with cries of rage, which is really pain, because little bits of reality keep impinging on him.

Here is the Norman Rockwell whimsy of American suburban life played out as pure nightmare. Loman's only asset has been "a smile and a shoeshine", and out he goes into the world hoping that his personality and smart talk will sells things. If he doesn't succeed, he ends up (to use his own idiom) as one great big nothing.

The actual mechanics of the play consist in a family drama interspersed with flashbacks. The cast is magnificent, absolutely living their roles. Critics have rightly singled out Brian Dennehy as Willy and Clare Higgins as the wife who can grasp the human but not the social realities of Willy's situation. Douglas Henshall is wonderful as Biff, the favoured son who rejects the shiny bubble of family life, but Mark Bazeley as the younger son, now a cheap Yonkers Lothario, captures the whole phoney essence of it brilliantly. But praise for some is unfair: they are a perfect ensemble.

Willy Loman a "low-man" if ever there was one - gives a special semantic depth to the word "sales-man" someone whose essence is so completely absorbed by his function that he becomes incapable of doing anything else. His salesmanship seems like a perversion of economics. An economy should respond to demand, but the salesman is there to create the illusion of demand for things people hardly want. The unreality of his trade corrodes everything around him. The real victims are his two sons, endlessly flattered as boys and glad-handed for talents they don't have and encouraged in aspirations that can never be. They learn that anything at all including a failing maths grade can be fixed. But it's all make-believe. When Loman's talent for selling fades as age and exhaustion break him down, he is discarded by his firm in a terrible encounter with his boss, in which Loman learns painfully how large is the gap between his self-image and where he actually stands in the social and economic world around him.

The dramatic problem with Willy Loman is that he never develops. The system has so dehumanised him that no element of reality can long impinge. The result is that the real dramatic centre of the play is the son Biff who breaks out of the family bubble to engage with his father in a painful scene that constitutes the climax of the play.

Juxtaposed against these tragic figures is Charlie the neighbour whose lack of pizzazz is as evident as Willy's command of it. His son Bernard is a nerd who admires the young Biff as a leader of the local fast set, but it is these figures who represent common sense and quiet achievement. Charlie has himself become a boss and can offer Willy a job at the end, and the son Bernard is a successful lawyer off to plead before the Supreme Court. An impressed Willy says in astonished bafflement to Charlie:

He never told me.
Charlie replies in one of the key lines in the play:
He didn't need to, he did it.

Death of a Salesman rises well beyond its context and the politics of its author, because it breaks into the greatest of all dramatic territories: illusion and reality. That makes it just as powerful today as it was in 1950. Where is Willy Loman today? The answer is as terrifying as it is obvious. He has taken over 10 Downing Street, ruined the country's sons, and is busy glad-handing foreign leaders and dreaming of grandiose projects like saving the planet and ending African poverty.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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