Sledgehammer of a Salesman

deathsalesmanLet me frame this one a little bit before diving in.

I read a lot of plays. More than I ever see. Where I live the opportunities are limited.

I’ve never been very well tuned to Shakespeare, although the recent Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Henry V was a stunning wake up call to what I’ve missed all these years.

I have never been able to get through any of Eugene O’Neill’s work. Still trying though.

I haven’t read Our Town either. I’ll get to it.

In fact, I’ve mostly tended toward modern angsty, or at least toward emotionally exhibitionist, works. I’d rather read Nicky Silver, Tracy Letts, David Lindsay-Abaire, or John Patrick Shanley than I would Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, the aforementioned O’Neill…

Or Arthur Miller.

Yet I recognize that these, and others, such as Chekhov, Wilde, Ibsen, Pinter, Brecht, and so on, are the foundation upon which the plays that speak to me are built on. I felt bereft of some element, some ingredient, some depth of field in my own artistic reserves. Clearly I needed to fill those reserves.

If you randomly asked 25 people on the street what is the greatest American play, I will bet that among the Our Towns and Streetcars, Miller’s plays will get the most nods – specifically Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. So I thought I must start with Miller.  As I’m middle-aged, and a salesman by trade, and having never been a witch or hanged one, perhaps Death of a Salesman was the place to start.

I approached the reading with great anticipation. One of THE great works of modern theater.  One of the greatest plays of the 20th century.  I already wanted to play Willy Loman (hey, in 10 years, damn it) and I hadn’t even read it.

Arthur Miller’s writing is electric. It is full of vigor and snap and wind:

Linda:  … I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person…

Willy Loman’s insecurity is palpable. His bullying of his wife and sons to protect his ego is heartbreaking and terribly accessible, at least to me. You can feel the chill of his oncoming dissolution and failure, that unavoidable collapse into powerlessness seeping in, page after page.

Linda’s codependency is frustrating and stifling, and you yearn for her to tear herself free from it – not from Willy necessarily, but from his emotional domination. You feel that it would actually help him if she did, as well as her. Biff’s purposelessness, the way he wanders unmoored, reaching for smoke rings, hits close to home.

The entire play crackles with power.

There is, of course, a big “BUT” coming.  Before I get to the “but” – this is sounding worse every minute – I want to say that I tend not to be contrary. If anything, my friends think that when it comes to theater, I’m not selective enough. They accuse me of loving everything under the lights.

Now that’s not true, not at all.

I didn’t care for Grand Hotel. A Chorus Line also didn’t do much for me.

I hate Oklahoma.

So now that I’ve cast myself the heathen, I’ll share the one big problem I had with Salesman.

(By the way, I don’t really have to worry about spoiling a 65 year old play, right?)

The play leads up to the big reveal, the one that is, to me, too telegraphed to begin with. True, he was Arthur Miller and I’m not. Still, it was obvious what was going to happen.

And I get that finding out the dad you idolize is just another traveling schlep who cheats on mom would be heartbreaking.

But it just seems to me that Miller drew that one *way* too on-the-nose, as it were. Not the dialogue itself, of course, but Miller seems to have drawn a huge, thick black line from this affair to Biff’s aimlessness, to Linda’s codependency, and to Willy’s self-destruction.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being an asshole. Of the people I know who’ve had affairs, the process and its effects are far more subtle. The spouses wrangle and either deal with it or break it off. It’s variable, it’s convoluted, there are lies and denials, arguments and fights, highs and lows, hopes for a solution, despair at the end, all sorts of things. They affect all the lives around them. Yet the gravity of this one affair, and it’s overtly central place in the individual’s lives, didn’t strike me as quite as honest as the rest of the play. Yes, it destroys a family, or at least changes it drastically, and surely it changes people, but to be so thermonuclear in its effect, to lose the other subtleties and dynamics of such a situation left me wanting.

In truth, it probably it means I need to read it again. I have a very good actor friend, just about the right age, who is determined to play Willy Loman.  Maybe I ought to direct him. Maybe I just haven’t got underneath it enough.

After all, attention must be paid.

About Anthony

An aspiring playwright/screenwriter, ex-Christian Humanist who has a few things to say now and then :)
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6 Responses to Sledgehammer of a Salesman

  1. Paula says:

    Yay, a Looneyblog! I haven’t seen DOAS, but I always thought plays were meant to be seen. That is, a good cast plus good directing could turn what sounds here like meh into something full of subtlety and meaning. Or even that bad + bad could wreck a Shakey play. It’s hard for me to get anything out of reading a script ~ there have been a few given to my writing group for crits over the years and I can’t really deal with them. Scene: early mornning, in a car. Mom is driving kids to school. Boy forgot his math book. Argument commences. Wtf? I don’t know how to critique this! Maybe it would be a fab sitcom. My inclination is generally: shitcan. But absent other info, I would have to agree that your analysis of the simple A causing B C and D in this particular play seems spot-on.

  2. Don says:

    I had no idea you were on the stage, or just off-stage directing, and writing plays. I wish you all your desired success.

    I’ve only attended a handful, and enjoyed them greatly. But somehow my creative ambition remains in standard purpose (e.g. novels), and art of the experiential kind a la Burning Man. And also music, but I’ve proven myself completely unable to commit there. It’s interesting, anyway, how each person gravitates to specific arts for self expression.

    Plays are unique, as I ponder it: Everything is in the dialog, the human interaction, and in a few spare movements. Hmm. OK, it’s two thirty in the morning and I’m thinking out loud.

    • Don says:

      Prose, not purpose. Silly Swype.

    • ToonForever says:

      Thanks for reading, Don 🙂 I’m still working on that novel and dabbling with some short stories, but I find the script format to work much better for me. Even when writing novels, I find I gloss over necessary exposition and short shrift the action to get to the personal interaction and dialogue.

      Screenplays I have an easier time with, because I can describe the action in concise terms, knowing a director will flesh it out their way. But I still sometimes struggle with sequences that would be better shown without dialogue.

      A play, however, is just as you point out – about the dialogue and interaction. I believe that writing dialogue is what I’m best at. I hear it better than my other writing, and I enjoy trying to craft it to be genuine quite a lot.

      Best of luck on your writing as well 🙂

  3. David Norum says:

    You Ninny, Death of a Salesman IS the GREATEST American play ever! And YES in today’s world if the discovery of an affair brought down a whole family it would seem to be a bit heavyhanded BUT this was written in the late 1940’s a more innocent time, at least in our minds. Having read the play at least a dozen times, seen it on stage in wonderful production at least 4 times and watched the classic Lee J Cobb TV play version a half dozen times and the Dustin Hoffman one a couple times, I have to say there are many more subtleties. The relationships between Willy and Linda and the boys , as well as Charlie, Bernard and Ben and each of their intersecting relationships all feed into the destruction of Willy. SO rather than blowing them up, the destruction is dependent on all of the subtleties of all the intersecting relationships. SO get your head outta your bum, and hey, come see me and Jill do it in Cambria in June! Love ya babe.

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