Arthur Miller’s great American tragedy, Death of a Salesman, is a moving testament to the fact that even salesmen have feelings. Although it is a legendary script, Miller’s masterpiece of the American stage is not an easy script to bring to life. Most of its scenes take place in the house, among family members. This is potentially mundane stuff, and building a dramatic arch from such simple ingredients is no easy feat. But if the company can pull it off, then simplicity becomes elegance, and the cast creates a work of art that opens up to the universal.
The production of Death of a Salesman, by the Montana Repertory Theater, does pull it off. It is a top-notch production indeed.
Nobody believes in the American dream as wholeheartedly as Willy Loman. But despite years of hard work, that dream has eluded Willy all of his life. Still, his faith remains pathetically strong. Broken, discouraged, and nearing retirement, Willy begins having hallucinations of earlier times, when he had real reason to hope for the future. Willy’s loving wife, Linda, begins to worry.
These visions intensify when Willy and Linda’s grown sons, Biff and Happy, visit the house, staying upstairs in their old beds. Willy’s mind whirls around the past glory of Biff’s football career, back when colleges were fighting over him. But instead of going to college, Biff inexplicably passed up a scholarship to the University of Virginia and began drifting around the West, working on ranches and ignoring his father’s ideal of the American dream.
An important part of the experience of watching a tragedy is keeping tabs on the tragic cycle: A tragic hero has a tragic flaw, and because of this flaw, makes a tragic mistake. What is the secret cause, the mystery of the relationship between the hero’s life to a hero’s death? Death of a Salesman manifests Arthur Miller’s belief that tragic stories need not be limited to nobility and gods. Commoners can be tragic heroes too.
The story pivots on one scene near the end of the play, when Willy remembers something that happened years ago in a hotel room in Boston, when the audience learns how deeply intertwined are the fates of father and son. As we learn more about Willy and his two sons, we see how the father’s traits were divided between his spawn. Happy, clearly the more successful of the two sons as measured against the American Dream, has inherited his father’s womanizing tendencies, while Biff, whom Happy calls a “poet,” leans to the outdoors, wide-open spaces and physical labor. Willy criticizes Biff for such tendencies, but we often glimpse similar tendencies in Willy himself, as he complains about the cutting of trees in the neighborhood or rhapsodizes to Linda, “Look at the moon coming up between the buildings.” Throughout the play are references to how good Willy is with his hands at carpentry projects around the house, and his second-to-last act is one of planting a small garden in the yard. Ironically, Willy praises Happy, the son who inherited Willy’s self-gratifying side, while denigrating the one who inherited his wholesome qualities—all because Willy Loman’s ultimate benchmark of success is earning money.
Death of a Salesman explores the dark truths behind the veneer of the American Dream of “making something of yourself,” while reinforcing the haunting message that things are not always as they seem. Despite the conventional wisdom that hard work pays off, we see that the straight shooters are not always the most successful. The ghost of Willy’s brother, Ben, who struck it rich in the jungles of Africa, observes, “Never fight fair with a stranger.”
As great and timeless as the story is, the gender roles in Death of a Salesman are obviously dated. Women are rarely more than loyal homemakers, sex objects, and fatal temptation. Though stuck within these cliché gender ruts—what should we expect from a guy who married Marilyn Monroe?—Miller finds ways to point out that these classic roles, like the classic American Dream, are, in a sense, tragic figures themselves. Happy describes the empty pursuit of womanizing as “just like bowling. I keep knocking them over and it doesn’t mean anything.” And “babes” are inextricably linked to the American Dream, as Happy attempts to lure Biff into the business world by promising him “any girl you want.” But ultimately, Biff’s loyalty to his mother, in the context of what we learn in the back story scene at the Boston hotel, is what prevents Biff from adopting his father’s patriarchal American ways.
As sad as the play may be, Death of a Salesman is not without hope. Miller himself said that “tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, [and its] final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.” In this play, the vehicle for Miller’s optimism is Biff, the man who could not sell himself on the American Dream.
Don Dolan turns in a stellar performance as Willy Loman, with a convincing Brooklyn accent that doesn’t waver. In fact, all of the cast, leading and supporting, turn in top-notch performances, creating convincing characters in service of the message. Scenes of discomfort on stage are contagious, and spreading to audience members of and making them visibly uncomfortable too. Even if you don’t buy into his philosophy, you certainly feel for Willy Loman.