Death of a Salesman

I hadn’t read this play since I was a junior in high school.  I didn’t remember much about it, but it seemed like the right play to begin AP Literature and Composition.  We usually read plays together in class while novels are completely read outside of class and discussed in-depth together.  Many a great play has died an ignoble death because it was read silently and alone.  Even the worst reader acting a part is better than reading the play alone.  You have to HEAR it performed.  As a teacher, I like hearing the different interpretations.  And my students didn’t disappoint.  The play was loads better than what I remembered.

Everyone in the play has super big dreams, except the mom – Linda.  Her dream of a happy family is the simplest yet least likely to happen.  Willy constantly talks big and acts like he’s the toast of the town.  Miller plays Dr. Who with the space-time continuum, messing with our sense of reality.  At one point, he has the whole Inception thing going on when he has a memory within a memory.

Long story short, salesman has elaborate dreams of striking it big and becoming filthy rich.  He knows enough people that it’s happened to that he’s confused at to how in the hell it has missed him all these years.  It’s missed him and his sons, specifically the oldest one – Biff.  Biff comes across like he just doesn’t give a shit at first, but we later find out he’s more realistic than the rest of the family put together, except maybe Linda.  The younger brother, Happy, is the family doormat but likes making his lady friends doormats in turn.  One student described the brothers’ conversation on women as “Dude-bro” talk; that’s about as accurate a description as I’ve ever heard.  I give her full credit for that one.  Linda is the only one in the family trying to maintain stasis.  In some ways, she’s the most down to earth, the mediator, and the pillar, but in others ways she becomes the main enabler.

Yes, she’s an enabler – as in dysfunction.  A psychoanalytical take on this play is inevitable

This family is so terribly dysfunctional that people can’t help but humor them.  Willy is delusional and possibly a once high-functioning borderline personality disorder, but he’s no longer high-functioning by the time we get to the end of the play.  His numerous suicide attempts and musings on getting the final word on Biff, and thus his respect, all come together in a huge confrontation.  Biff does what no one else in the family is willing to do; he tells the honest and brutal truth.  Except he doesn’t.  He doesn’t tell Linda about his discovery of Willy’s mistress.  Everyone else is frantically trying to cover up and amend and repackage the truth however they can in order to hide.  To face the void on which they perch is too terrifying for Willy.  He cannot cope.  So the family does what any dysfunctional family does – they resent the truth-teller who doesn’t play along.  Biff is rejected and cast out.

We do get this weird circle of defense.  Linda wants to protect Willy against getting hurt by Biff.  Biff wants to protect his mother against his father’s disrespect.  Willy wants Biff to step up and be the man he thinks he can be.  Linda tries to shield Willy from the disappointment therein, etc.  Ad nauseam.

In all, this play had some fantastic family dynamics going on, and it was much better as an adult than when I read it as a 16 year old.  Saying it’s about the decline of the American Dream is selling it waaaay short.  It’s about that and about what we perceive as success and how we deal with disappointment.  It’s about family dynamics and the pressure to perform.  It’s about fallen idols and the general disillusionment of growing up.

Lots of famous faces have portrayed Willy Loman. Here’s the late Philip Seymour Hoffman playing him in one of the Broadway productions.


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