Prior to writing my stage play in December, I took a trip to the library and revisited Death of a Salesman, in addition to other plays. I needed to get back into the theater swing, and the best way I knew how to do that was to immerse myself in reading great plays. I had read Arthur Miller’s play when I was a teenager, but it was a whole new ball of wax to read and interpret it at as adult. Here are a few thoughts.
Death of a Salesman is not merely a play written by ‘the man who married Marilyn Monroe’; it’s a standalone masterpiece that brilliantly depicts the inner turmoil between parents and children. The psychological underpinnings which dwell beneath the ideal image of the perfect family is often the opposite of what actually goes on. Death of a Salesman captures that essence in a singular, timeless way. The moral of the story; all families are messed the @#%! up. And that’s perfectly okay. Arthur Miller poured wisdom and neurosis into his characters until they were so alive, they practically materialized off the page. This play stands alone in its brilliant trajectory of parent/child relationships.
Told from Willy’s point of view, the play shows previous parts of Willy’s life in his time shifts, sometimes during a present day scene. In an almost complacent fugue dance, Willy’s daydreams symbolize his emotional and mental state (almost to the point where he resembles a schizophrenic); he begins hallucinating about both the past and present, until the two merge and he can’t tell which is which anymore, then ultimately at the end of the play, he commits suicide, just as he and his wife, Linda, are about to pay off their house.
The whole yearnsome gist of the play is put into perspective by Happy: “My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women, and still, goddamit, I’m lonely.” A silent generalization exists amongst most families that after being nurtured and raised, the son/daughter should eventually surpass the parent(s); to the point they can return the care they were supposedly given. And as a mother, this was an eye-opener. Through our children, we have the psychological pleasure of giving them what we (ourselves) did not have and, by so doing, vicariously healing the wounds or gaps from the past.
Willy’s long-suffering wife, Linda, dutifully fulfills the docile role of homemaker and obedient wife, but at the root of their relationship, she holds Willy up and is the one ally he will always have, though he has betrayed her numerous times. Willy’s first thwarted suicide attempt to her sons; “He’s just a big stupid man to you, but I tell you there’s more good in him than in many other people.” An enduring quality of long-term relationships is the ability to forgive one another and see someone past their faults and shortcomings. As someone who’s been married for a long time, I think Arthur Miller captured this painful truth in spectacular fashion; “I love you, but I’m going to hurt and continually use you.” Linda truly loved Willy. And therein lies his tragedy, because he still felt like a failure for not living up to the “American Dream” they are all so desperately trying to reach, though love has always been at his doorstep.
As children, we want to measure up to our parents’ expectations. As parents, we want our children to succeed, but although there is an unspoken taboo not to compare your life (or success) to your children’s, everybody does it on some level or another. No matter one’s experience or circumstance, you always continue to find yourself. It’s both brilliant characterization of Willy and a statement about the different interpretations of life.
Biff and Happy, dissatisfied with their lives, fantasize about buying a ranch out West, and Willy becomes immersed in a series of daydreams about his past, watching the boys grow up, laughing with his coveted lover, and then stemming on to the moments where regret seeps through like water running through his fingers.
Many years ago, when I worked “graves” in the ER, I saw a lot of death pass through the ER doors, and I had to get up and personal with it; as in yes, I put blue, plastic nametags on ice-cold, deathly pale wrists and feet so that they could be identified. Every year, over the winter months, many people either attempt or are successful at committing suicide. The majority of the time, the reason they did it was because they felt they were losing something or had lost something; they were unfulfilled, living with regret, and standing beneath the cloud of despair. In their wake, family and friends are punished with the emotional guilt and loss.
In an amazingly simple way, Death of a Salesman manages to encompass all the true angst and tumult between parents and children, giving us an intimate look into the mechanics of relationships; even to the extreme of suicide. It is a brilliant work of literature that is singular and, indeed, timeless.