A revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, is currently playing on Broadway to packed houses. Tickets for this play about economic calamity are going for as much as $800. If Willy Loman, the play’s tormented protagonist, is an archetypal representative of the 99 percent, it seems that only the 1 percent can afford the luxury of weeping over the ruin of the “common man.” 

The play is a dramatic rendering of how our lives are lived out somewhere between dream and reality—between the misremembered past and the elusive present. It is also a penetrating exploration of a particular kind of American aspiration and the character it forges. There is a nobility to Willy Loman’s desperate longings—as his adoring wife famously beseeches the couple’s feckless sons, “Attention must be paid.” But that nobility is shadowed by a terrible self-delusion and spiritual emptiness. Willy worships material success as perhaps only striving Americans can, but success divorced from any moral good is finally a phantom.

Willy is a failure. He can’t pay his bills; he can’t provide for his family; he comes to see himself—and to damn himself—as a superfluous person. He has spent a life spinning fantastical tales of his achievements, but those stories have been little more than a salesman’s pitch, patter intended to convince himself even more than his customers. “The competition is maddening,” he remarks after thirty exhausting years on the road. Pleading for some accommodation from his longtime employer, he is told, “There is just no spot here for you.”  “It’s a business, kid,” says his boss, “and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight.” Without a job, Willy faces not just financial ruin but social oblivion. “They just pass me by. I’m not noticed,” he confesses to his wife. In the shattering confrontations of the play’s climax, Willy is offered something “success” cannot buy: love from his family and charity from his only friend. He is too proud to accept either. One last, delusional scheme beckons. Lack of money is not the real problem. What Willy craves is the regard success is supposed to ensure. “No man only needs a salary,” his friend explains. Dreams, Death of a Salesman reminds us, often shape reality in far more powerful ways than do brute economic facts.

Much has been written about the timeliness of this revival. With tens of millions of Americans looking for work and little sign the economy will begin creating large numbers of jobs in the near future, the specter of economic stagnation dominates the nation’s politics. Miller’s play exposes not just the material deprivations of economic insecurity, but the high personal and social costs for those who have no place in the economy. Leaving millions of Americans out of the work force for years is just as serious a problem as the nation’s long-term debt, and a more urgent one. In times like these, not everyone can pull his own weight. The ethos of business, with its bottom line and balanced budgets, is no substitute for the ethos of mutual responsibility and the actions only government can take.

One striking aspect of Death of a Salesman is how the language and assumptions of the market pervade and destroy family life. No other institution or set of values—certainly no religious community—mediates or shelters the Lomans from the relentless intrusion and demands of the money economy.  Director Nichols commented on this stark reality in a number of interviews. “Everybody’s a salesman. We’re a nation of Willys,” he said of the unforgiving logic of the market. “Tocqueville saw ahead—he predicted this in 1840, for Christ’s sake. That sentence of his, that if American democracy continues in the way in which it’s going it’ll become, eventually, pure market forces.... We are pure market forces. It’s happened. And of course, that’s what Salesman is about.”

Tocqueville saw the triumph of pure market forces as a great danger, one in which economic coercion and majoritarian enthusiasms would drive out every other human connection and value. There is little doubt that the past forty years have seen a concerted effort to elevate the vocabulary of self-interest and economic efficiency to the center of American politics and life. Talk of common goods and common sacrifice has grown fainter and fainter. Yet as Death of a Salesman shows, the modern economy is no engine of justice or fair outcomes—or even of broadly shared prosperity. For those values to prevail, the countervailing forces of social solidarity, democratic governance, and religious witness are needed. Without brakes on the maddening competition, we are condemned, like Willy, to lose touch with reality.

May 15, 2012

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Published in the 2012-06-01 issue: View Contents
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