1990s >> 1997 >> no-1109-january-1997

Theatre Review: ‘Death of a Salesman’

Venal system under scrutiny

‘Death of a Salesman’, by Arthur Miller, National Theatre.

In the best television, cinema and theatre we can often observe people living out their lives in contemporary capitalist society, and sometimes we can learn lessons, vicariously, from their experiences. Nowhere can we see the process at work better than in the great plays of Arthur Miller, of which Death of a Salesman is perhaps the peerless classic.

Willy Loman is a salesman possessed of “the American Dream’. While some of the early settlers may well have had a heroic vision of a free and just society, “the American Dream” has, for most citizens, become a tarnished nightmare. But Willy is still a subscriber. Intent on becoming “number one”, his vision infects not only his relations with his clients but also those with his family and friends, perhaps especially his two sons. The two acts of Death of a Salesman chart his fall and register its impact on those around him.

There is not a single explicit reference to capitalism in the play but everywhere the venal system is under scrutiny, and its dehumanising impact registered. Miller recalls in his autobiography Timebends that at the first night in 1949 an outraged woman called it “a time bomb under capitalism”. And Miller adds, “I hope it was, or at least under the bullshit of capitalism, this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.”

The play’s greatness lies in its ability to present us with real people with whom we can identify, not to say emphasise. Willy’s collapse envelops others in its wake, and we are all engulfed in the tragedy. Capitalism has claimed yet more victims.

There are some memorable lines—lines which bear witness both to the viciousness of contemporary capitalism and the triumphant ability of humanitarian feelings to survive and flourish, come what may. Willy’s friend, Charley, remarks icily, “All you’ve got is what you can sell”, and yet it is the self-same Charley who gives Willy money each week and observes on another occasion, “No man just wants a small salary on which to survive”, the implication being that money is a counterfeit coinage for things that really matter.

The present production at the National is excellent. It is difficult to imagine anything better. At the end I cheered through my tears.

Michael Gill

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