I once had a creative-writing teacher who would tactfully condemn a line of student verse by saying, in the long-suffering yet indulgent tone with which a wife might scold her husband for once again forgetting to put the cat out, “It sounds like poetry.” Sometimes, to mix things up—there was much to criticize in our work—he would put it another way: “This sounds like the kind of thing you might find in a poem.” Why this should have been such a defect was not entirely clear to us at the time.
What our teacher was complaining about, it now seems obvious, was the tendency of students to cloak our rather banal thoughts and impressions in a poetical gauze—our tendency, after reading Keats, say, to fill our poems with bowers and nightingales and long, slow vowels. (“When was the last time anyone here saw a bower?” he asked flatly.) The best poetry, our teacher was trying to get us to realize, was that which smuggled into verse things that you would never expect to find there—like the lines, “Goodnight Bill. Goodnight Lou. Goodnight May. Goodnight,” or “She approached me / About buying her desk,” or “Books are a load of crap.” In other words, the best poems are often those that prompt the response: “That doesn’t sound like poetry.”
I thought of this class recently, when I went to see Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” currently in revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, in New York. The new production, directed by Mike Nichols, has been lavishly praised, and it would be miserly to suggest that none of this praise is warranted. Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent as Willy Loman, the unspooling protagonist who, after decades of hard work, realizes (and is destroyed by the realization) that he has built his life on sand; how much strain and disappointment, how much stooped, shuffling anguish Hoffman is able to communicate simply by walking from one side of the stage to the other! Linda Emond, who plays Willy’s fretful wife, Linda, along with Andrew Garfield (their wayward, chronically underachieving elder son, Biff) and Finn Wittrock (Biff’s younger, better-adjusted brother, Happy), all do the work for which Miller intended them, enhancing and complicating the spectacle of a patriarch’s demise.
What I found so disappointing wasn’t the new production, however: it was the play itself. Like many people, I first encountered “Salesman” as a teen-ager, and—as with Steinbeck or Harper Lee—it was encouraging to discover that a supposed masterpiece of American literature could be so direct, comprehensible, and unmissably poignant. Miller’s ironies—as when Willy, on the night he is to commit suicide, goes out into his back garden and plants a packet of seeds—are never so subtle that the reader is in any danger of missing them. “Literature,” I remember thinking, “I could get the hang of this.”
Ten years later, at the Ethel Barrymore, I found myself squirming in my seat from boredom and exasperation, amazed at how much glaringly conventional stagecraft “Salesman” was able to pack into its two acts. The rising action, the dramatic irony, the laborious, grandstanding speeches (“Spite, spite, is the word of your undoing…When you’re rotting somewhere beside the railroad tracks, remember, and don’t you dare blame it on me”)—I kept wanting to exclaim, “It sounds like a play!”
Was I the only one? Perhaps. Everyone else in America seems to have been ravished by the play. Once again: the poignancy of Willy’s situation (to arrive at the belief that, after years of punishing effort, you are worth more to your family dead than alive) is not in question—it is the ten-decibel amplification that Miller uses to deliver it. At one moment, agonized by what he believes to be Biff’s lack of respect for him, Willy fantasizes about the crowds that would turn out at his funeral, were he to kill himself. The contortions of his battered self-esteem are painful to witness: “That funeral will be massive!” he exclaims. “They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the oldtimers with the strange license plates—that boy will be thunderstruck… because he never realized—I am known!”
A word to the wise is sufficient. That Willy’s funeral would not in fact be the standing-room-only affair he fondly conjures up is instantly clear to any audience: this is what moves us. But Miller is not content to let the suggestion percolate. He ends the play with a cloyingly lugubrious funeral, which is indeed sparsely attended. “But where are all the people he knew?” asks Linda. (Biff adds, in case we were in any doubt on this point, “He never knew who he was.”) What was finely implicit earlier on now feels about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal.
Henry James said that in art, economy is always beauty. Miller spends recklessly. Some of the greatest excesses come in the celebrated flashback scenes, which aim to take us inside Willy’s mind as he recalls a time when Biff and Happy were still promising high-school students, his own career seemed to be going well, and life for the Loman family was generally quite nice. More often than not, these flashbacks merely show us again what is already overexplicit in the present-day action of the play. In the second act, Biff is trying to explain to his father that he has just had a humiliating encounter with Bill Oliver, a successful businessman, whom he planned on asking for a loan with which to start his own business. Oliver, for whom he worked briefly many years ago, didn’t even remember Biff, and refused to see him. As Biff and his brother quarrel with Willy on one side of the stage, on the other, we see a moment from twenty or so years in the past (on which Willy keeps harping), when Biff’s classmate and neighbor, Bernard, came to break the news to Mrs. Loman that her son has failed high-school math:
YOUNG BERNARD (frantically): Mrs. Loman, Mrs. Loman!
HAPPY: Tell him what happened!
BIFF (to Happy): Shut up and leave me alone!
WILLY: No, no! You had to go and flunk math!
BIFF: What math? What’re you talking about?
YOUNG BERNARD: Mrs. Loman, Mrs. Loman!
(Linda appears in the house, as of old.)
WILLY (wildly): Math, math, math!
BIFF: Take it easy, Pop!
YOUNG BERNARD: Mrs. Loman!
WILLY (furiously): If you hadn’t flunked you’d’ve been set by now!
BIFF: Now, look, I’m gonna tell you what happened, and you’re going to listen to me.
YOUNG BERNARD: Mrs. Loman!
BIFF: I waited six hours…
HAPPY: What the hell are you saying?
BIFF: I kept sending in my name but he wouldn’t see me. So finally he… (He continues unheard as light fades low on the restaurant.)
YOUNG BERNARD: Biff flunked math!
YOUNG BERNARD: Birnbaum flunked him! They won’t graduate him!
LINDA: But they have to. He’s gotta go to the university. Where is he? Biff! Biff!
YOUNG BERNARD: No, he left. He went to Grand Central.
LINDA: Grand—You mean he went to Boston!
YOUNG BERNARD: Is Uncle Willy in Boston?
LINDA: Oh, maybe Willy can talk to the teacher. Oh, the poor, poor boy!
What do we gain, artistically, from this shrill interpolation? Would we not have believed that such an event took place without it being shown to us? Does Miller really think, as Willy seems to, that Biff’s whole life turned upon this single failure?
Actually, it soon becomes clear—and things are rarely left other than clear in the brightly lit psychology of the play—that Willy resents Biff’s academic failure because it was this that prompted him to travel to Boston. Willy was staying there at the time and, it turns out, carrying on an adulterous liaison (another retrospective scene that Miller needlessly dramatizes for us, complete with tears, recriminations, and stormy exits).
But it is not simply the dramatic contrivance and redundancy of scenes like this that mar the play; it is the crude psychological determinism that underwrites them. In “Salesman” there is always a straight line leading from a harrowing past event to a present neurosis or failure. A small but telling example is Willy’s repeated injunction to Linda not to mend her stockings in the house, the reason being—there always has to be a reason—that this reminds him of the night Biff discovered him in Boston with the other woman, to whom he had made a gift of Linda’s stockings. That probably would play on your conscience.
Thus, the play contains no mysteries, only secrets. Characters are explained, exposed, insisted upon; but Miller rarely allows them to stray into the kind of tantalizing opacity and incoherence that makes the people in, say, Chekhov or Shakespeare seem so real. There are a few welcome exceptions. Early in the second act, Willy comes to speak with his boss, Howard, about the possibility of being taken off the road and working solely in New York. Howard, however, is more interested in his newly acquired wire recorder, which he insists on showing off to Willy. First we hear a recording of Howard’s young son, mechanically reciting the names of the state capitals. Willy pretends to be impressed, but Howard is not done:
HOWARD: Wait a minute! The next is my wife. (They wait.)
HOWARD’S VOICE: “Go on, say something.” (Pause.) “Well, you gonna talk?”
HIS WIFE: “I can’t think of anything.”
HOWARD’S VOICE: “Well, talk—it’s turning.”
HIS WIFE (shyly, beaten): “Hello.” (Silence.) “Oh, Howard, I can’t talk into this…”
HOWARD (snapping the machine off): That was my wife.
Like life, this is both funny and excruciating: Willy, who has come to ask a question of monumental significance, is being made to listen in silence to Howard’s wife, even though she is not present and has absolutely nothing to say. It is also a wonderfully dour appraisal of American infatuation with American technology, the same thing Thoreau was tilting at a century earlier, when he wrote, in “Walden,” “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Sadly, such moments are infrequent, and I left the theatre feeling as though I were leaving a reunion with an old friend with whom I’d realized I no longer had anything in common. I felt exactly how I didn’t want to feel: as though I’d just spent an evening at the theatre.
Photograph of George C. Scott on the set of “Death of a Salesman,” in 1975, by Inge Morath/The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum.
Criticism of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman Essay
1474 Words6 Pages
Criticism of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman I found Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, while a definite classic, not as interesting as other Miller plays. For example, ‘All my Sons' is a story about an unscrupulous businessman who lies in court to save himself from certain imprisonment, sends his business partner to prison, and eventually commits suicide once one of his sons uncovers his devious plot. The intrigue, excitement, and setting were easy to follow, enjoyable and riveting. Conversely, I found Death of a Salesman to be slow at times (particularly the first act), difficult to follow (i.e., when Willy Loman was thinking to himself or reminiscing from memory), and overall less enjoyable. This analysis will cover the six…show more content…
You see, making people believe you are something you are not when you operate from a distance is very easy; the closer to home your actions are, the easier it is to discover your weaknesses. And this becomes quite evident when Willy says to his sons that someday he will take them to New England and show them how important he really is. Willy never does take them because he knows his children are too close to him and they would surely reveal him for the fake that he is. As the play begins, Willy has just come home from New England. The audience believes Willy must have had a tiring day, presumably from the long drive, since he is physically exhausted (carrying those two heavy suitcases I felt as though Willy's life was in each of them, a very heavy and burdensome life). Soon we discover that Willy is physically drained because he was driving aimlessly with no sense of direction; this is the first example of how this play is set partly from the mind and memory of Willy Loman. The difficulty that arises is because the plot fluctuates between the 1940's and 1928. The audience must follow carefully from the past to the present, and I found this to be easiest by watching the interaction between Willy and significant life events (e.g., the