Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"

Reviewed by Martha Nelson

The death of American playwright Arthur Miller in 2005 brought his works to the stage in London and New York with renewed interest. His was not mere entertainment, but theatre with a message or sometimes just questions. "'How can we be useful?" "Why do we live?" He was, he once admitted `in love with wonder… the wonder of how things and people got to be what they are.'"1

"Miller's plays were not conceived as simple artefacts. He meant them to move minds. If they could not do so, there was no point in writing them. His intention was to show the audience, in ordinary characters they might see every day, truths about themselves that they half-knew but would not acknowledge."2

"'There were moments,' Mr Miller wrote, `when an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling.' On the other hand, his characters were seldom that strong. Outside forces -- destiny, law, political authority, sudden catastrophe -- often overwhelmed them. As a child during the Depression, he had seen his father's coat-making business [in New York] destroyed and his mother, whom he remembered in fox-fur and diamonds, reduced to eking out shovelfuls of coal. His father and his colleagues, he noticed, never blamed anyone but themselves for what had happened. Mr Miller, already imbued with his lifelong socialism, tried to persuade his shellshocked father to blame the capitalist system too, and accept that profit was wrong. His father, naturally, could not understand him."3

Death of a Salesman

"Death of a Salesman" brought global fame to Miller in 1949. When it appeared on the London stage last summer I decided to go, though everything I'd heard about the story made it seem a depressing prospect. However, I am a salesperson too, so was also interested to see what Miller would say about a profession I have worked for 20 years. Certainly the selling business has its share of highs and lows—"easy come, easy go."

The story is about Willy Loman, a New York salesman in the late 1940's whose aim is to make a mark on the world through a successful sales career. He has a lot going for him: a loving family, an outgoing personality, experience in the trade, and a boss who Loman believes will reward his loyalty. But as he approaches 60, Loman begins to see the futility of a salesman's life and the unravelling of his dreams. He hits a series of sales slumps but is afraid to tell his wife why they can't pay the bills -- so he borrows from a friend and accumulates more debt. The "big buyers" whose orders he felt depended on his personal relationship with them had retired or were no longer buying. The loyal boss dies and the son taking over the business is not as interested in Willy Loman's contacts as he is in the success of the business -- which Loman is obviously not contributing to. Unfaithfulness to his wife while on business trips undermines Loman's marriage, and when his son finds out, the father loses even the respect of his own boy.

I sat fascinated by the story and the craft of the playwright and actors who portrayed so clearly what many "successful salesmen" face. For even amongst those who outwardly appear successful and rich, many know despair when they face themselves alone in their room at night. As salespeople, we are trained to perform "out of ourselves" to the corporate world. And yet at the end of the day we still must face that Self -- and what we see there may lead us to despair.

While Miller is matchless in his ability to delineate the problem and common experience of many -- he did not or could not provide any answers. Willy Loman's only escape from the hell of his disintegrating life is suicide. The death of a man's dreams sadly often results in premature physical death.

No matter how successful our career or family life may be, none of us can avoid potential crushing financial setbacks, health problems, undependable people or our own frail resolutions to live a "good life." Willy Loman proves at least one truth: the futility of depending on other people or circumstances for a lasting security or happiness. The success of this play is due to the fact that we can all relate to it in some way -- even if we can't see the way out.

Why Do We Live?

To get back to Arthur Miller's own question then: "Why do we live?" Many of us feel we live to work. That may be an enjoyable experience if we like our job and the people we work with. Or it can be a grind if we don't -- feeling trapped on a treadmill — counting down the days until we can retire. We have all known or read about successful businesspeople who were so driven by their desire for success and material goods that they lost everything: marriage, family and eventually their health. So if we live to work at the exclusion of other people and priorities in our lives, work can be a cruel slavemaster. Yet I know families who took steps to downsize their lifestyle and the material trappings that suburban life dictated that they have for fulfilment -- and are happier for it.

Perhaps our ability to survive in this world isn't dependent on us after all, but was undertaken by some greater Mind than ours -- One who has not only created the world we live in but who created us and knows us better than anyone else. And One who loves us more than anyone else ever could -- and who has committed Himself to loving us no matter what we do. Would that make a difference in how we view our jobs as salespeople or parents, cleaners or teachers?

In Ephesians 2:10 it says, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." What if that were true? Not in the sense of predestination (i.e. that we're robots and have no other choice -- it's already been set out and cannot be changed) -- but in the sense of a loving Father who knows us and has given us something special to do for Him.

Choosing that reason to live gives meaning to what we spend 8 hours a day at. What a relief to realize that we were made not to promote our own success and make our own mark on the world, but to be content in what we do and do it with a light heart. It is our Father's approval that we need, not others'. Finally we are free to be what we were meant to be -- and if that is working a difficult or mundane job for the rest of our lives, to do it the best we can. It doesn't matter what we do -- it's why we do it -- that determines our "success" at this living business.

1."Arthur Miller Obituary", The Economist, (February 19th, 2005, p. 92)

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