Review of “Death of a Salesman,” by Arthur Miller
I didn’t know this was a play when I bought it. It’s the original version, with stage notes throughout and even a list of characters and the actors who played them at the beginning. It also turned out that two-thirds of the book consists of analyses of the original play by a number of literary critics, including the playwright himself. I’m writing my review before reading any of that so that I can compare my comments to theirs. Should be fun.
The play was written in 1949. The vocabulary is awkward even for that era. I’m not sure why Miller wrote it this way, but I guess he wanted to convey the image of the Loman family without a narrator. He had to use dialogue. Thus, my review will focus on the dialogue.
A lot of the dialogue is clumsy, I guess because the actors are supposed to say the words, rather than a reader using them to get the gist of the conversation. This is pretty realistic, with sentence fragments and misspeaking throughout. I got a good sense of these people, what motivates them, etcetera. The Loman family is not well educated and it comes across clearly. I didn’t like any of them, but I guess that was Miller’s purpose. The play reveals the inner workings of a dysfunctional American family and its patriarchal basis. As the title suggests, Willy Loman is going to die. The story is a series of flashbacks of his life, his two boys (both of whom are having trouble getting ahead or being honest) who are in their thirties. The flashbacks are all completed on a set that doesn’t change, so it was a little confusing when movements on the stage were described.
There isn’t a whole lot to say since the story consists of dialogue only. The characters are simple people without depth, no growth being revealed in the flashbacks. A bunch of one-dimensional people who ended the same as they began, except for Willy’s oldest son, Bif, who realizes what he is and insists on being honest at the end of the story. I guess one could argue that the story is really about him, if one assumed it had a plot, which it doesn’t. This is a character study.
The best aspect of this story is how Willy is showing signs of dementia and begins thinking about suicide. Very well done. The flashbacks slide in whenever he’s having a fugue episode. When the story ended, I had a pretty good idea of what made this family tick. I guess that was Miller’s objective, so he succeeded.
I don’t recommend it as a reading exercise but I’ll bet the play was good because there are a lot of emotional scenes, which always look good on stage.
I watched the 1951 film production. Fredric March deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The movie followed the play to the word except for several missing scenes, those where his sons were too young to use the adult actors to play them. It was fine without them. One problem I had was that the movie didn’t improve on the confusion created by the frequent flashbacks. The movie was black and white and the actors’ makeup wasn’t different enough for the memory scenes to be easily identified. Willy was shown over a fifteen-year period and there was no noticeable increase in gray hair (he was 63 in real time). This may have been a problem with the time transitions, which were smooth in the play, too smooth for the production techniques of the time. It left me a little disoriented, my confusion reduced because I’d just read the play.
The film gave me a greater appreciation of the play however. The director was also nominated for an Oscar and it was well deserved. He turned a confusing play script into a coherent story, which I’m sure the original play director did as well. I would love to see this on stage. The problem was the swiftness of emotional scenes, brought on by mental illness, turning into memories. This is a very difficult transition to do under any circumstances.
So, whereas I can’t recommend reading the play, I give the 1951 film a very positive review as an accurate and excellent presentation of the original play. My only regret is that Lee J. Cobb, who played Willy Loman in the original Broadway production, didn’t play the role in the film; however, he reprised the role in a 1967 made-for-TV film production.
I’m also going to comment on the literary analyses that made up the bulk of the book. Several essays by Arthur Miller (the author) and an interview give some insight into how he perceived the story. What is most telling about these commentaries is how they reflect societal views of cognitive degeneration (e.g., Alzheimers Disease). The author’s view is evident in the play itself; Willy’s sons comment that people think he’s crazy because of his increasingly eccentric behavior. In one commentary, Miller refers to Willy Loman as being the kind of person who would speak to himself on the subway. Maybe, but that’s not what he did in the play or the movie.
Here’s a quote from a 1957 commentary by Miller: “He [Loman] is literally at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present.”
Wow! The author didn’t even realize that he had to create a terminally ill man to create the kind of emotional violence he desired, so that he didn’t have to have a plot but only reveal the elements of Loman’s destruction. He refers to Loman as “Mad” at one point. That is how these people were treated when the play was written. In his essays and interview (included in the copy I have), he makes vague references to integrated or disintegrating personality, popular terms from psychology in that era.
Other reviewers seem unaware of Willy’s cognitive decline. His bizarre behavior is referred to as “fatigue” of his mind by one, written in 1950. Another reviewer refers to Willy “losing his mind.” I have no idea what one reviewer means when she says that “…most of us have experienced delusions wilder…than this.” Is she kidding? He’s in the front yard yelling, planting seeds at midnight…I’ve never had a delusion like that, or met anyone who did.
There’s even a review by a psychoanalyst who wrote popular books. This guy’s gotta nail it. He refers to “insanity” and a “disintegrating mind.” Getting close. He refers to Willy’s hallucinations in psychological jargon, even referring to the “Oedipus complex.” He drops the biggie (for the era): Willy is “Mad.” He never gets past “Exhausted” in recognizing what’s wrong with Willy Loman. Not even a practicing mental health professional recognized cognitive deterioration in 1950. One analysis, from 1958, actually refers to the “advance of modern psychology” and then talks about Freudian concepts which the author (Arthur Miller) explicitly denies in his essays. Go figure.
A critical essay written in 1962 by Joseph A. Hynes refers to Willy’s “Dementia.” Finally, someone at least acknowledges a neurological illness, rather than just “madness.” But even here, it is treated as being nothing more than a point of view, which Willy can change at will.
Some excerpts of stories about salesmen were appended as part of the literary context of Death of a Salesman. One was from 1915, a lot of anecdotal comments suggesting that a salesman has to be more committed to his work than himself. The author felt that too many salesmen were blow hards and mediocre at selling things.
There was a short story written in 1941 about a salesman who gets lost on a country road in Mississippi and is helped by a couple subsisting in the woods. He’s been sick with the flu for a month and is still tired. The author spends a lot of time discussing his heartbeat, using metaphors. He feels strange and decides to leave in the middle of the night, despite being given dinner and a place to sleep. It turns out that he has a heart attack and probably dies in the dark. Nice lead-up to the tragedy.
There’s a one-act play about a 78-year old traveling shoe salesman (same as in the previous story) who has heart problems (another curious similarity). It was written in 1945 by Tennessee Williams. He’s complaining about changing times but doesn’t die in the play.
The last, analogous story (published in 1941), is the best because it focuses on a man in his thirties who had reached the pinnacle of his life in college, as an athlete. Willy Loman’s son, Bif, had been a football star in high school.
These stories/plays are all older than Death of a Salesman. It is very likely that Arthur Miller had read them because they were by popular writers. The common theme between them and DOAS is the past that led to the present, which in every case was not where the protagonist had expected to be. Overall, they are a bleak collection of rusty lives with very little to show for them.
The play script is confusing because of the flashbacks, which are presented in continuous dialogue, and movements on a stage set that isn’t available to help. To be newer than the examples, I find the language of Salesman clumsy and incomplete, not even up to the standards of the 1915 story. Maybe Miller was trying to show how illiterate and ignorant the Loman’s are. Maybe. The reviews varied from adoring to bored. Remembering that the reviews are based on viewing the play performed by actors, the range of responses makes perfect sense. The positive critiques focused on the innovative stream-of-consciousness approach used, which was easier to see in the movie. The negative reviewers acknowledged this clever technique, but pointed out all the inconsistencies and irregularities in the play.
I guess I’m on the fence.