Monday, August 26, 2013

Selling the Dream: "Death of a Salesman"

by Kimberly Colburn and Andy Knight 

Charlie Robinson as Willy Loman.
Staging the Salesman at SCR

Willy’s steadfast pursuit of his American dream has compelled audiences and inspired theatre artists for decades. Death of a Salesman is a play that Marc Masterson had wanted to direct for years and hadn’t yet found the right opportunity. He’d flirted with the idea ever since he was once asked to interview Arthur Miller, shortly after Miller directed a production of Death of a Salesman in China in 1985.

Fast forward several decades and Masterson is now the artistic director of South Coast Repertory. He’s reconnected with his old friend Charlie Robinson. The two had worked together as child actors, doing a half dozen or so plays together in Texas. Robinson is an SCR veteran, most recently starring in SCR’s productions of Jitney and Fences. Masterson met with Robinson to see if there might be a project that they could work on together. He asked if there were any roles Robinson wanted to play that he hadn’t gotten a chance to yet, and Robinson quickly responded, “Willy Loman.”

Robinson says he “had never done an Arthur Miller play before, so I was eager to tackle this exceptional, renowned, American legend's dialogue.  Who could resist rehearsing, and finally performing, a play written by this country's most quintessential playwright?”

(Read the full interview with Charlie Robinson)
“With A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams had printed a license to speak at full throat, and it helped strengthen me as I turned to Willy Loman…I 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.”
—Arthur Miller from his 1987
, Timebends: A Life

Willy Loman is a salesman, through and through. He knows to his core that what you need to be successful in life is to be well-liked. If people know you and like you, then you always can count on a sale.

Like anyone, Willy wants to teach his boys, Biff and Happy, to be successful too. They should be able to have it all: the house, the car, and the finer things in life. It’s the American dream.

Willy is seemingly living the dream, and with the help of his wife, Linda, he travels all over the Eastern seaboard to peddle his wares in support of his family. He’s been doing it for years. So long, in fact, that he’s started to notice that he doesn’t know everyone the way he once did. And the drive is getting harder and harder to push through. Linda wants him to ask his boss for a job that doesn’t require travel. Willy’s pride declares him the master of New England, but eventually he must agree with her—he can’t keep up the travelling much longer, and he decides to speak to his boss about it as she suggests.

Charlie Robinson and Marc Masterson
He finds his mind wandering, unable to concentrate on the road. He slips into his own memories, remembering his glory days when his sons were young. Biff was once the captain of the football team with a scholarship to college—how is he now 34 and aimlessly working on farms? What happened to him? What’s happened to Willy? How can Willy get Biff back on track? Willy’s determination to pass on his vision of success becomes his Achilles’ heel and makes this story universally recognizable in his need to pass on a better life to the next generation.

In Arthur Miller’s classic, the play slips seamlessly between the past and present through Willy’s increasingly tenuous grasp on reality. Miller’s original title was actually The Inside of His Head. In Death of a Salesman, we’re never quite sure whether what we’re seeing is what actually happened or Willy’s perception of what transpired. This technique accentuates Willy’s deterioration, and it makes Salesman all the more heartbreaking. As the title of the play informs us, Willy is ultimately destroyed by his reality. But his death is not in vain: Miller tells Willy’s story with vigor and compassion—and gives voice and dignity to the middle class “dime a dozen.” 

The Man Behind Willy Loman

Playwright Arthur Miller uses Willy Loman, famous everyman of dramatic literature, to explore the shortcomings of the American dream and critique what he saw as an unwavering reverence for capitalism. However, to think of Willy as a mere vehicle to expose the country’s failings is to rob him of the complexity that makes his downfall so moving. In the end, Willy’s humanity and need to cover his desperation are palpable. Miller said of his plays: “As a writer….I have always felt that the issue was not to deal with the problem in the abstract, but to deal with the people who are in that problem. The emphasis is on the people.”

Arthur Miller
Miller often turned to his own life and the people in it to create his rich and nuanced characters. Willy Loman is inspired by Miller’s uncle, Manny Newman, a salesman whom Miller described as “the ultimate climber up the ladder” and a man who “lived in his own mind all the time.” Newman was spontaneous and charismatic—and prone to stretching the truth. Miller saw beyond Newman’s tall tales and empathized with a man who needed to invent stories to compensate for his lack of personal success.

In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller described seeing Newman after many years at a matinee of All My Sons. Without any greeting, Newman informed Miller that his son, Bobby, was “doing very well.” For Manny, Miller’s success was an embarrassing reminder of his own failure and only rekindled his need to compete. Newman committed suicide not long after. Miller later spoke of the chance encounter in an interview: “Manny was living in two places at the same time. And I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be marvelous to be able to do a play where somebody is in two or three different place concurrently.’ That’s when the penny dropped.” The result was Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman.

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