By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 1998, and reprinted in Where I’ve Been, And Where I’m Going
“He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back that’s an earthquake. and then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”
Death of a Salesman
Was it our comforting belief that Willy Loman was “only” a salesman? That Death of a Salesman was about—well, an American salesman? And not about all of us?
When I first read this play at the age of fourteen or fifteen, I may have thought that Willy Loman was sufficiently “other,” “old.” He hardly resembled the men in my family, my father or grandfathers, for he was “in sales” and not a factory worker or small-time farmer, he wasn’t a manual laborer but a man of words, speech, what his son Biff bluntly calls “hot air.” His occupation, for all its adversities, was “white collar,” and his class not the one into which I’d been born; I could not recognize anyone I knew intimately in him, and certainly I could not have recognized myself, nor foreseen a time decades later when it would strike me forcibly that, for all his delusions and intellectual limitations, about which Arthur Miller is unromantically clear-eyed, Willy Loman is all of us. Or, rather, we are Willy Loman, particularly those of us who are writers, poets, dreamers; the yearning soul “way out there in the blue.” Dreaming is required of us, even if our dreams are very possibly self-willed delusions. And we recognize our desperate child’s voice assuring us, like Willy Loman pep-talking himself at the edge of a lighted stage as at the edge of eternity “God Almighty, [I’ll] be great yet! A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!”
Except of course, it can.
It would have been in the early 1950s that I first read Death of a Salesman, a few years after its Broadway premiere and enormous critical and popular success. I would have read it in an anthology of Best Plays of the Year. As a young teenager I’d begun avidly devouring drama; apart from Shakespeare, no plays were taught in the schools I attended in upstate New York (in the small city of Lockport and the Village of Williamsville, a suburb of Buffalo), and so I read plays with no sense of chronology, in no historic context, no doubt often without much comprehension. Reading late at night when the rest of the household was asleep was an intense activity for me, imbued with mystery, and reading drama was far more enigmatic than reading prose fiction. It seemed to me a challenge that so little was explained in the stage directions; there was no helpful narrative voice; you were obliged to visualize, to “see” the stage in your imagination, the play’s characters always in present tense, vividly alive. In drama, people presented themselves primarily in speech, as they do in life. Yet there was an eerie, dreamlike melding of past and present in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s “present-action” dialogue and his conversations with the ghosts of his past like his revered brother Ben; there was a melting of the barriers between inner and outer worlds that gave to the play its disturbing, poetic quality. (Years later I would learn that Arthur Miller had originally conceived of the play as a monodrama with the title The Inside of His Head).
In the intervening years, Willy Loman has become our quintessential American tragic hero, our domestic Lear, spiraling toward suicide as toward an act of selfless grace, his mad scene on the heath a frantic seed-planting episode by flashlight in the midst of which the once-proud, now disintegrating man confesses, “I’ve got nobody to talk to.” His salesmanship, his family relations, his very life—all have been talk, optimistic and inflated sales rhetoric; yet, suddenly, in this powerful scene, Willy Loman realizes he has nobody to talk to; nobody to listen. Perhaps the most memorable single remark in the play is the quiet observation that Willy Loman is “liked . . . but not well-liked.” In America, this is not enough.
Nearly fifty years after its composition, Death of a Salesman strikes us as the most achingly contemporary of our classic American plays. It has proved to have been a brilliant strategy on the part of the thirty-four-year-old playwright to temper his gifts for social realism with the Expressionistic techniques of experimental drama like Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude and The Hairy Ape, Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, work by Chekhov, the later Ibsen, Strindberg, and Pirandello, for by these methods Willy Loman is raised from the parameters of regionalism and ethnic specificity to the level of the more purely, symbolically “American.” Even the claustrophobia of his private familial and sexual obsessions has a universal quality, in the plaintive-poetic language Miller has chosen for him. As we near the twenty-first century, it seems evident that America has become an ever more frantic, self-mesmerized world of salesmanship, image without substance, empty advertising rhetoric, and that peculiar product of our consumer culture—”public relations”—a synonym for hypocrisy, deceit, fraud. Where Willy Loman is a salesman, his son Biff is a thief. Yet these are fellow Americans to whom “attention must be paid.” Arthur Miller has written the tragedy that illuminates the dark side of American success—which is to say, the dark side of us.
Posted on By Randy SoutherEssaysPosted in EssaysTagged #Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, Joyce Carol Oates
For an essay in the magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of the first production of “Death of a Salesman,” I visited Arthur Miller at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1999. With his wife, the photographer Inge Morath, we went to the cabin in the woods that Miller built in order to write the play. (Morath herself had never seen the cabin in all the years they’d been living in Roxbury.) The following is selection of some of the things Miller said about the play during our day together. The newest Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, and Andrew Garfield, directed by Mike Nichols, with the original stage design of Jo Mielziner, opens at the Barrymore Theatreon Broadway on March 15, and continues through June 2.
LAHR: Did you know you had a great play?
MILLER: I felt I did the day I finished it.
I’ll never forget what Kazan said when I sent it to him. He called me up, and I was up here at this house. And it was his first reading. He said, “I read the play.” Pause. “God, it’s so sad.” I thought he meant it’s too sad, see. He says, “I want to do it in September.”
So we were off to the races.
And I remember an old buddy, Jimmy Proctor, who had done publicity for “All My Sons.” He came up here because we were now set that we were gonna do the play; he wanted to read it so he would know what he was publicizing. He was up in that studio that I’ll show you, and an hour went by, two hours went by, about three hours went by, and, finally, I went up to see how he was. He was sitting there, the tears were all over his face. He was staring like he had been hit in the head with an instrument. Then he started to talk, and he couldn’t talk. He said, “I don’t know how you’re gonna do this.” He says, “It’ll just wipe them out.” He was staggering around for half an hour after that.
Then I realized that it had the potency that it did. From Jimmy.
LAHR: It’s completely inside the shared dream of the culture.
MILLER: I was originally gonna call it “Inside of His Head.” That was at a time when I thought of staging it where the curtain would go up, and you’d see the interior of the skull. And they would be walking around inside of him, all these people. But it seemed so mechanical that I gave it up.
LAHR: Can you recall the first time you saw your play hit an audience?
MILLER: When we opened the show in Philadelphia for the first audience, the curtain came down and nothing happened. People sat there. I think it was a good two or three minutes, then somebody stood up with his coat. Several men—I didn’t see women doing this—were helpless. They were sitting there with handkerchiefs over their faces. It was like a funeral. Then they began wandering around and talking to each other in the theatre.
A man who turned out to be Bernard Gimbel, who apparently lived in Philadelphia, he was being helped up the aisle—he was well along in years—by somebody. I’ll never forget it. He had a long handkerchief in his hand. And then I heard, two or three days later, that he issued an order that in all his stores nobody was to be fired for being overage.
People came from all over the place in the next three or four days. Lotte Lena showed up, whom I didn’t know, and said, blithely, “This is the greatest play ever written.” She was weeping.
LAHR: Tell me about your family friend Manny Newman.
MILLER**:** Well, Willy Loman was based on him…. I was standing in the lobby of the Colonial Theatre in Boston in ’47—a matinee of “All My Sons,” I guess that would have been, and I hadn’t seen him in, oh, fifteen years maybe. I saw him coming out of the theatre at the end of the show, and I was delighted to see him, because I always loved to see him. And he had tears in his eyes at the end of the play. He saw me. We confronted one another. And he said, referring to his eldest son—out of the blue, now mind you I haven’t seen this man in all those years—he said, “Bobby is doing very well.” That was the name of his son. Manny was living in two places at the same time. And I thought, Wouldn’t it be marvellous to be able to do a play where somebody is in two or three different place concurrently. That’s when the penny dropped.
Manny lived in his own mind all the time. He never got out of it. Everything he said was totally unexpected. People regarded him as a kind of strange, completely untruthful personality. Very charming. I thought of him as a kind of wonderful inventor. For example, at will, he would suddenly say, “That’s a lovely suit you have on.” And for no reason at all, he’d say, “Three hundred dollars.” Now, everybody knew he never paid three hundred dollars for a suit in those days. At a party, he would lie down on his wife’s lap and pretend to be sucking her breast. He’d curl up on her lap—she was an immense woman. It was crazy. At the same time, there was something in him which was terribly moving. It was very moving, because his suffering was right on his skin, you see.
LAHR: What was the suffering you saw that you wanted to dramatize?
MILLER: Failure in the face of surrounding success. He was the ultimate climber up the ladder who was constantly being stepped on. His fingers were being stepped on by those climbing past him. My empathy for him was immense. And I mean, how could he possibly have succeeded? There was no way. Excepting that he’d been a pretty decent salesman in his young years. You know, he brought home enough money to raise a family of several boys. He had two daughters as well. And they lived reasonably well…. He committed suicide. That helped confirm my feeling that this man was always half in darkness. The darkness split him in half. The play was basically looking from the edge of the grave at life.
LAHR: Was that implied in the name you gave him? Loman. Low man.
MILLER: I’ll tell you exactly where it came from, because it surprised me. I picked that out of the air. It was always Loman. But I would say roughly ’53 or ’54, I’m walking down Forty-second Street, where all these old movie houses were. And I see the “The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse,” Fritz Lang’s picture.
Well, I had seen that in the thirties or early forties sometime. Way back. I thought, gee, boy, remember that picture was a marvellous movie. I’m gonna go in and see it again. I went in. Briefly, the story is of a detective in Paris—well, a lot of fires are going on in Paris. The chief detective of Paris is bewildered, because they cannot find a profit motive in any of it. An orphanage is burned, a hospital. So on and so on.
So he goes to see the greatest psychiatrist in France, Dr. Mabuse. He describes what’s happening, and Mabuse says, No, you’re looking the wrong way. He says, The people who are doing this, are not interested in profit at all. They want to destroy the world. The detective’s name in the movie was Lohmann. And the chief, he sends detectives out all over Paris. Wherever there’s a fire, they go quickly to see if there are the same people witnessing the fire. And this guy calls, sees the same guy at three different fires. So he tracks him into a printing plant in the middle of the night. And it’s marvellous photography, through the printing machinery. A door opens, the guy goes down through a passageway and into an auditorium, where sit about a dozen people separated from each other. One guy’s a butcher, obviously, another guy’s a businessman, another guy’s maybe a bohemian. And he sits down, and, from behind the curtain, a voice begins to say, “Now, on Tuesday, we’re going to burn down this church, and we want you to be there at five o’clock.” And he runs up to the curtain and separates it, and it’s a phonograph. A record playing. The other guys see him do this, and the chase is on. So he’s running all over this building, runs into a room, turns on the light, shuts the door, and calls on the phone. And by this time, one is terrified, because it’s marvellously done. And he says, “Lohmann.” And the lights go out on him. The next shot, he’s in an insane asylum, hysterical. And he’s saying, “Lohmann? Lohmann?”
I’m now in ’53. I’ve written the play three or four years earlier. And I said, My God, that’s where I got that name. It surprised me when people said “low man.” It had no such thematic origin. Nothing like that. Came out of Fritz Lang.
LAHR: Why did you focus on a salesman as your protaganist?
MILLER: I came out of a culture in which my uncle, my father—they were all salesmen of one kind or another. My father was a manufacturer. He also, in effect, had to sell that stuff. And if he didn’t literally do it, his men did. So, selling was in the air through my boyhood. The whole idea of successfully selling was very important.
LAHR; What was the origin of the play?
MILLER: The first image basically was of a man alone in his little car, travelling up through New England, and what was going through his head. Actually, the play can be said to have begun around ten years before I started writing it, when I was still in college. I later discovered an old notebook, which to my surprise had in it about twenty pages or so of sketches of scenes involving these same people. It was the same family. I had finally given it up, probably because I was unable in that form—which would have been a straightforward, realistic form. I wouldn’t have been able to contain what I thought of as the man’s poetry, the zigzag shots of his mind in all directions. I wanted that structure for this play, and it couldn’t be contained in a normal play that pretends to be following normal chronological time.
LAHR: How did you arrive at a form for the subject matter?
MILLER: After I’d done “All My Sons,” which was, of course, in a straightforward, realistic form, I got the feeling that I could start to tread new territory, that here was a kind of play which would allow me to treat time concurrently. I think we all think on two, three, or four different levels at the same time. There was no way that I knew in a realistic way to do that. So what I needed was a form that would allow me to, for example, have him talking to a friend, or one of his family, and at the same time. We should literally see, or be conscious of, his mind working elsewhere, with other people.
LAHR: When did you start writing?
MILLER: It was the early spring. I came up here alone. I already had a wife and children. Before writing the play, I intended to build that cabin first. I don’t know why. I think it was very instinctive. It was the feeling that I would keep the world completely out. I would be totally immured. Away. It wasn’t rationalized the way I’m rationalizing it now. It was a purely instinctive act. And I had never built a building in my life. The impulse was to build some place and then sit in the middle of it, shut the door, and let this thing happen.
LAHR: The characters just came to you? You had a sort of model in Manny.
MILLER: Yeah, but he was only one strand of it. It’s hard to put a finger on it. The only words I had were the first lines: “It’s all right. I came back.” That’s the whole disaster in a nutshell. And I also knew he would die.
LAHR: If you came back, you’d screwed the pooch.
MILLER: Right. It’s denial. I mean, imagine a salesman being unable to get past Yonkers. It’s the end of the world. It’s just like an actor who starts to get on the stage, backs up, and says to his partner, “It’s all right. I can’t speak.” There’s another element I should mention. See, in those times, any play worth talking about had a certain continuity, which was what I used to call a “daylight continuity.” Things happened “naturally.” I wanted to start every scene at the last possible instant, no matter where that instant happened to be. Just before the dramatic encounter. Right on the moment: “It’s all right. I came back.”
LAHR: The day you set off to start “Salesman.” What was it like?
MILLER: A morning in the spring. And everything was starting to bud. Beautiful weather. Like this, except now it’s fall. And I just felt, if I can get that building up, the quicker I get it up, the quicker I can start.
LAHR: So you built the cabin and then…
MILLER: I started writing in the morning. I went through the day, then had dinner, and went back there and worked till I don’t know what, one or two o’clock in the morning. It sort of unveiled itself. I was the stenographer. I could hear the characters. I could hear them literally. I’ve always said since that playwrighting is an aural art. You write, but you’re really hearing it.
LAHR: You just heard the voices.
MILLER: If you can’t hear it, the actor won’t say it.
LAHR: Did the characters in your head look like the characters who finally played the roles?
MILLER: The original idea for Willy was a guy like Ernest Truax. Little guy. With a big wife. We ended up with Lee Cobb, who weighed about two hundred and thirty pounds and was six feet two. And Mildred Dunnick, who weighed twelve pounds.
Lee was Willy. When Lee laughed at something, you were inclined to weep. There was a sadness in him that was so profound. Also, he couldn’t help himself, he was always, so to speak, on the make. For example, you’d sit down in a cafeteria to get a sandwich, and he would have to romance the waitress. As though it was only by her favor that she could be induced by her attraction to him to bring him his corned beef. And the day I met him, I thought, “Well, he’s a massive man.”
I brought him home to Brooklyn once, and my son was then about five years old, or less, sitting on the floor. And I’ll never forget Lee laughing at something the kid did. And in that laughter was a Weltschmerz that was powerful. In addition, he had enormous straight-out power. When he started to belt out some of those lines, your hair stood up. It was an immense power. He had anger that had real size, it wasn’t a pipsqueak complaint. It was a profound insult that he had felt in life. It was marvellous. It was quite marvellous. And, of course, he went from there to being a sheriff in cowboy pictures. I tried to convince him that he was much better than he thought.
LAHR: You haven’t talked about Elia Kazan’s directing.
MILLER: Well, he was great then. I’ll tell you what his method was—I only realized it later, after working with other directors: he let the actor talk himself into the part. He told me that once. When we got to the performance level, he used to walk around with a little stick, which he hit against his calf, and playfully call himself The Ringmaster. When we got into the area of timing and performance, he was terrific.
I remember once he talked to Millie Dunnock. She has a long set of speeches in the second act when she’s telling the boys finally that he’s suicidal. And Kazan said, “Okay, now do it again, half as fast.” And she did. He said, “Okay. Now double it.” Then he said, “Okay, now how do you feel about it?” She said, “Well, it doesn’t make any sense this way.” He said, “Okay, back off then, to where it starts to make sense.” And he got the thing so that it was on springs where, as before, it felt like narrative exposition. He got the panic and the pain in it. This is not something you’re telling them for their amusement. It’s emergency speech. Something is gonna happen at any moment. There is no scene in the play that can be played in a flaccid manner. You can’t do it. It’s all a locomotive going down that hill. Kazan was terrific about teaching them how to pace those speeches so that they had that anxiety behind them.
At some point during the afternoon, Miller, Morath, and I drove over to forty-four-acre plot Miller had bought with the profits of “All My Sons,”situated on the corner of Tophet—the hottest part of hell in the Old Testament—and Gold Mine. We walked up behind the main house, to the knoll where the cabin nestled in a thicket of birch trees.
MILLER: In those days, I didn’t think this hill was quite as steep. I always thought I was walking on pretty flat ground. I have memories here. I kind of enjoy seeing it and thinking, Gee, I really did something there.
MORATH: I’m so glad I’ve seen it. I didn’t know it was so tiny.
MILLER: It’s six by ten. I’ll tell you about the windows. I didn’t know how to make windows, how to frame them. I was in town, and there were two young carpenters, itinerant carpenters. I met them in the grocery store. And we got talking. I said, “Would you guys frame out some windows for me?” So they came up here, and they did this in a day. Made the window frames. You can take out the windows in the summertime. It’s all open. See, this whole thing lifts out.
MORATH: There’s no electricity up here now.
MILLER: I had it—electricity must have come out from the house. I learned a lot building this place. See, the big problem was getting the rafters of the roof up there alone. See that triangle? I finally built it on the ground, then swung them up. Until I confronted the issue, I had no idea how I was gonna do it—a bit like writing a play, you know. You get to a certain point, you gotta squeeze your way out of it.
John Lahr’s essay on Arthur Miller, along with a profile of Mike Nichols, who is directing the current Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” appear in his book “Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles” (Overlook Press).
Photograph by Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.