Photo Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Death of a Salesman – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our Death of a Salesman episode cover the title of the play, the real life salesman in Miller’s family, why Happy likes bowling, more on fathers and sons and on the fluid form of the play, and Willy’s pastoral dream.
The play’s title and the name ‘Loman’
When Willy Loman asks his boss Howard to take him off the road as a salesman and give him an office job, he attempts to reclaim some of the dignity and respect that he believes a good salesman deserves by telling the story of the death of the greatest salesman of them all, Dave Singleman, who he claimed made all his sales by telephone while sitting in his hotel room in his “green velvet slippers”. Dave Singleman died “the death of a salesman”, still on the road at the age of 84, and remembered by “hundreds of salesman and buyers” at his funeral. An honourable end that we and Willy know is a fantasy.
Arthur Miller ascribes the Loman family name to a scene in a film by Fritz Lang called The Testament of Doctor Mabuse in which a man in fear for his life is shouting the name Lohman down the telephone. The man ends up in a mental asylum in the film, and Miller said that he had a subconscious association with the name: “a terror-stricken man calling into the void for help that will never come.”
The salesman in the family
During the podcast Steve talked about Arthur Miller’s uncle Manny Newman as one of the original sources of inspiration for the character of the salesman Willy Loman and his family. In his autobiography Timebends Miller shares several illuminating details about the Newman family who lived near the Millers in Brooklyn that could just as easily be describing the Lomans in the play. First is his description of the general air of hopeful energy that he says he sensed in the Newman household: “something good was always coming up – not just good but transforming, triumphant”, which sounds like the grand hopes that Willy continuously conjures. Like Willy, Manny was “lyrically in love with fame and fortune.” The endemic unpredictability of the salesman’s fortunes also “wove a romance around his life – the hope of making a killing” was always possible.
But Miller also admired the “intrepid valour” of the salesman who endured the long journeys through New England winters and withstood the put downs and failures. Salesmen he said lived “like artists, like actors, whose product is first of all themselves…imagining triumphs in a world that ignores them.” Manny Newman was a great talker apparently, always seeking like Willy to be “well-liked”. But Miller also saw the pain behind the performance, observing that “with no audience to confirm his existence his agonising uncertainty of identification flooded him with despair.”
And the echoes with the Loman family extend to Manny’s wife, who like Linda Loman “bore the cross of reality for them all…keeping her calm, enthusiastic smile lest he feel he was not being appreciated.” How often has this been a wife’s role?
Fathers and Sons
Arthur Miller said that at its heart Death of a Salesman is “a love affair between Willy and his son Biff.” A love-hate affair perhaps. We talked during the podcast about the defining moment when Biff discovers that his father is having an affair, and how that changed his view of his father forever thereafter. Biff’s subsequent estrangement from his father is easy to understand, as one can imagine how his having to disguise his father’s deception in front of his mother and witness his continual hypocrisy must have been intolerable. Willy also cannot escape the import of Biff’s discovery – the knowledge they share tortures them both. Much of Willy’s anger and anguish must be fueled by his guilt, which is so painful that he daren’t admit it most of the time. Willy wishes he could turn the clock back to a time of innocence and promise before he ruined everything. His profound plea is to “not have him hate me.” Biff’s final reckoning is a form of forgiveness and Willy’s reward is the understanding that despite it all Biff loves him.
One of the most challenging aspects of the father-son relationship is the inevitable realisation on the part of the son that his father is fallible, and is subject as any human being to weakness and mistakes. Given the precedent of unquestioned authority in the early years, a father may naturally expect to receive continuing respect, even perhaps some payback for his sacrifices in supporting his children. Miller himself experienced such a challenge when dealing with is own father’s fall from grace as a business tycoon. Miller tells of his father coming to him in 1947 to ask him for money as his business was struggling, based on Miller’s assumed financial success from All My Sons on Broadway. He describes the discomfort that he felt in response to his father’s need and justification for asking him, and he confessed that his view of his father cooled forever thereafter. Only a year later he would write a piercing portrait of a father in decline and a son breaking free.
Happy likes bowling
According to the stage directions that introduce Willy’s second son, Happy, he “like his brother, is lost, but in a different way, for he has never allowed himself to turn his face toward defeat, and is thus more confused and hard-skinned, although seemingly more content.” Despite occasional doubts Happy is much more able to find escape in the pursuit of pleasure, one of which is women with whom he is notably successful. Miller’s vivid stage direction paints a potent portrait: “Sexuality is like a visible colour on him, or a scent that many women have discovered.”
Hap himself confesses to having an “overdeveloped sense of competition”, which compels him to conquer the fiance of a colleague who’s edging ahead of him on the career ladder just for the sake of winning. His success is coloured with a twinge of disgust, but only a twinge: “It’s like this girl, see. I hate myself for it. Because I don’t want the girl, and, still, I take it and – I love it.” He has his own graphic metaphor for these easy, hollow victories: “The only trouble is it gets like bowling, or something. I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything.”
Fluidity in the Form
Miller set out to write a play “that would cut through time…displaying past and present concurrently with neither one ever coming to a stop.” He said that he had “known all along that this play could not be encompassed by conventional realism, and for one integral reason: in Willy the past was as alive as what was happening at the moment, sometimes even crashing in to completely overwhelm his mind.” He wanted “the same fluidity in the form.”
There is a clue to how he would achieve this fluidity of form in the opening stage directions where he explicitly describes the layout of the stage, defining an empty space in the foreground on which all of the scenes outside the house as well as Willy’s imaginings of the past would take place. Characters would effect their entry into the imaginary world by literally stepping through the invisible front wall of the house into the foreground, maintaining a seamless conjoining of present and imagined reality.
One of the effects of the juxtaposition of time is that it creates an immediate ironic distance between the family’s naive hopes of the past and the reality of the unrealised promise in the present. Of course it also literally represents the disjointed flow of Willy’s mind, and creates a sense of hyperactive intensity that conveys his rolling anxiety.
The urban and the pastoral
The story of the Lomans trying to forge their lives in American capitalist society is set against the backdrop of the expanding urban environment they inhabit. As we noted when talking about the stage directions before the opening of the play, the Lomans’ house is surrounded by apartment blocks. It was not always like that. Willy remembers when they first moved in there were “two beautiful elm trees” and “lilac and wisteria” in their yard. “And then the peonies would come out, and the daffodils. What a fragrance in this room.” Now the “street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighbourhood”. With the new buildings around them blocking out the light “the grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard.” Something good has been lost. He hearkens back to an unspoiled world that he longs to return to. Just as the house is boxed in by the inexorable expansion of the city, fueled by the fervour of the capitalist economy, so Willy is trapped in this life. He has a dream to “get a little place out in the country, and… raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens.” The futility of his pastoral dream is made heart-breakingly clear in the final scene of the play. Willy is out in the yard in the dark trying to plant new seeds; seeds of hope that we and he know won’t grow in the overshadowed city plot; and that he won’t be around to witness the failure of, or of his plan to leave the family the insurance payout.
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