Left to right: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Finn Wittrock, Andrew Garfield, Elizabeth Morton, Stephanie Janssen in Death of a Salesman, directed by Mike Nichols. (Brigitte Lacombe)
Was I a “glutton for punishment”? That’s what Mary McCarthy called theatergoers who subjected themselves to plays she called “sadistic fantasies in realistic disguise.”
Mary McCarthy hated Death of a Salesman. I did, too.
So, I thought about her as I watched Mike Nichols’revival of the 1949 iconic drama, currently at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, that critics have long called Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, his finest play, indeed, an American tragedy.
There was much to praise in Nichols’ rendition of Death. But despite his brilliant direction of a gifted cast, superb sets, lighting, and music, my aversion to this play could not be denied: Salesman is awful.
To begin with, Death of a Salesman is melodrama, not tragedy, as the old chestnut about the play asserts. Two men are discussing the play after a performance. “Such a pity!” one says to the other. “He had the wrong territory.”
The dialogue of this ostensibly timeless American saga is dated, clunky, and artificial. Consider the play’s emotional climax—long-suffering wife Linda’s impassioned defense of her husband, who has descended into suicidal dementia even before being fired. “Attention must be paid,” she says. And in case you missed it the first time, Linda repeats her shrill command: “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
Who talks like that? No one. Who ever did?
The words ring false because they are false. And this artificiality underlies the play’s essential flaw—its absence of real characters. Willy Loman is, as Linda needs to remind the audience, a person. Or make that a Person. For as McCarthy wrote in Sights and Spectacles, 1937-1956, Willy is a “capitalized Human Being without being anyone.”
Although Willy seems to be Jewish, judging by his speech cadences, he could not be Jewish because as McCarthy observed, he had to be “America.” “Wholly conceptualized,” she wrote, the play is filled with stereotypes, with “cut-out figures.” Willy Loman is not a man, but a “type.”
Miller’s own stage directions make that clear. Willy’s mistress is called the Woman. Willy is called the Salesman.
Miller’s ambitions were obviously huge. By erasing Loman’s specificity as a human being—as a Jewish salesman—Miller undoubtedly thought he was creating something grander and more enduring. But as the Greeks surely should have taught us, tragedy is universal only when those experiencing it are seen as flawed individuals, not merely stand-ins for the “common man.” Miller’s desire to erase Loman’s specificity to give him universal resonance created an abstraction, or as the (Jewish) joke suggests, a salesman with rotten territory.
Miller, of course, was not the only writer of his era who sought such universal resonance in assimilation. The promotion of “humanist” politics was characteristic of many liberal and leftist Jewish writers of his generation. But just as McCarthy was astonished by the play’s popularity at the time, its endurance—its performance at every high school, college, and regional theater company, not to mention at least four revivals on Broadway—attests to the flatness of the dramatic earth around it, the relative paucity of great tragedy from American playwrights, then and now.
Most critics, of course, did not share McCarthy’s view. As the hosannas piled up, Miller became a celebrity, and his sense of his worth and work grew as well. In an interview with Christopher Bigsby in 1990, he compared Death—favorably—to King Lear. The problem withLear, he says, is that the gloom is “unalleviated.” Setting aside “the beauty of the poetry,” Miller observes, “Learis unredeemed; he really goes down in a sack, in a coal chute.”
McCarthy, too, compared Miller’s play to Lear. Both plays, after all, deal with “an old man, failing powers, thankless children and a grandiose dream of being”—as she put it—“well-liked.” But Lear was not just any old king. “He is Lear.”