Analysis: Death of a Salesman

I just watched the 1985 film adaptation of Death of a Salesman directed by Volker Schlöndorff. It’s a very lightly adapted version that mostly attempts to do the play line for line as Arthur Miller wrote it in 1949, but with 360° sets. The sets aren’t trying to be any more realistic than a theater set and early on deliberately call attention to themselves as a set. There’s minimal cuts, giving it more of the feel of a theater performance. The acting is truly superb. Possibly some of Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich’s greatest work. But I hadn’t heard about it until tonight.

I last read the play in high school nearly 20 years ago, but it stuck with me pretty intensely. I wanted to revisit it, and happened upon this version. The combination of a lot more experience with the world and the superb acting made me understand this story on an entirely new level.

Death Of A Salesman is about how the delusion of what we think we can do crashes into the reality of what we actually can. What people promised us vs. what’s really achievable.

We love telling the story of when people triumphed & achieved dreams others told them were impossible. We don’t want to hear all the stories about times people failed, when they couldn’t actually live up to their dreams of who they were and how things would all work out. When their dreams poisoned everything around them instead. People who thought they’d found the magic antidote to everything, and missed every sign of danger and ineffectiveness until it destroyed them. The people who refused to acknowledge the misery they caused those who relied on them, and were failed in return because no one understood how to help them.

That is ultimately what tragedy is, and something modern tragedy often shies well away from, at least on film. We focus so much on sensational tragedies now. Theater has traditionally had more room for stories about how private tragedies are also devastating. The tragedy of just trying to survive the mundane & failing. Losing better days and then losing everything. Making bad choices.

It feels like so much of our culture has lost the ability to distinguish the protagonist from the aspirational hero. Sometimes stories don’t have heroes. Willy Loman is a warning. A warning about what his actions did to other people, and what other people’s actions and the system did to him. He bought into the biggest hype in front of him all of the time, especially his own.

Willy sold himself to others, he sold products to customers, and he sold his dreams to himself and his family. He believed it all, so people believed him a long time. Until they realized it was all a pack of lies, and it didn’t matter if he believed them because they still caused harm. He emotionally abused his family because he refused to distinguish what he wanted to be true from what was true. It’s hard to say how much was gaslighting (which requires malice), and how much was just him constantly deluding himself as a maladaptive comping mechanism.

Willy was too scared to face reality. He was angry about what that reality and thought he deserved it. So he just kept telling himself it was one lucky break away from happening. One deal away that he could cut because it was owed to him. He believed in capitalistic meritocracy as long as it said he wasn’t mediocre. He thought he was the best and deserved tremendous privilege over everyone else.

But everyone else saw through Willy. He did nothing real to achieve those dreams. Caduceus Clay would say plant green beans, but all Willy did was buy seed packets, lay them unopened on top of bad earth poisoned by capitalism, and then wonder why they never thrived. Biff and Hap tried to grow in that soil the best they could. Willy imagined he was growing prize winning giant pumpkins, but he had a garden variety pumpkin in Hap, and a green bean in Biff. It wasn’t until Biff saw his father in Boston that he realized he wasn’t a pumpkin plant at all, and it was all a lie his father kept telling all of them because Willy never paid attention to what was growing.

There’s a trivially easy reading here where Biff and Bertrand are queer and Biff’s internally battling heteronormativity and erasure when dealing with his father. It requires no line changes at all, just a different subtlety on how those lines are delivered and the characters physically interact. Which has some interesting parallels to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof where Brick is Biff, Gooper is Hap, Big Mama is Linda, and Big Daddy is Willy Loman if he’d got everything he thought he wanted. But Big Daddy was just as tragic as Willy Loman.

Even at face value in the story, Biff realized he’s just a mediocre white man from a mediocre white family who’s in complete denial about that. Biff realized he’s fine with being mediocre because it’s better than tormenting himself trying to be someone else’s dream that he never could be. He’s watching his father literally kill himself trying to be more than he is, and he desperately wants to stop it but he can’t.

Biff’s tragedy is that the Loman’s have been shackling each other in Plato’s Cave so long they’re the one’s making shadow puppets and putting on the show. When Biff saw Willy in Boston, he realized none of those shadows were real, and his whole life had been a shadow, and there must be a light that’s casting them. The light he found was doing hard but tangible work for enough pay to be content with his own simple pleasures instead of big elaborate dreams. In the scene toward the end where Biff says he’s leaving and tries to call bullshit on all the lies, he’s trying to return with the knowledge of the light. But no one believe him. The next scene is Willy doubling down on his biggest shadow being real.

Hap and Linda’s tragedies are that all they could imagine for themselves was attempts to be what Willy wanted. To just keep up the pretense of all the things Willy wanted when it was clear they couldn’t make them reality. Fake it ’till you make it. But they never made it, so it kept getting faker and faker.

Willy was a warning against influencers and hustle culture. He was the more realistic version where it all goes wrong. He’s the guy trying to flip NTFs by hyping crypto without having any idea how it really works, what the scam is, or the damage it’s doing. Willy Loman is a Main Character Of Twitter waiting to happen with one son begging him to log off and the other retweeting every post.

Then factor mental illness into all of that. Since we only have what Willy remembers now to go on, it’s hard to know if he was dealing with undiagnosed mental illness all his life. But it’s pretty clear he’s suffering from dementia now that’s getting progressively worse. It’s amplifying the delusions society taught him, in a culture that had no idea how to handle that well, and among a family already primed to keep telling him only what he wanted to hear no matter how divorced from reality it was.

When read the play in high school with my class, I did not really understand how unreliable a narrator Willy is. The play was mostly from his extremely flawed and selective point of view. His memories of the past have been completely flattened into either nostalgia for his dreams and an overinflated story about how good he had it, or his persecution complex when it didn’t. If things worked out, it was because he was the hero. If things didn’t work out, it was because other people were trying to spite him to deny him his due. Now those warped memories have become completely fluid with the present. The only person still buying his pitch is himself. He’s even conjured a fantasy version of his dead brother to pitch him back his own proposition.

So much of this play could be avoided if men got therapy, dealt honestly with mental health as a medical issue, examined patriarchy, worked to unlearn toxic masculinity, and understood how privilege and hierarchy trap everyone. And if everyone learned how the greed and excess of capitalism are at the expense of human misery. We don’t have to live this way trying to exploit each other for the ideal that some people deserve more. Biff was the only one who actually came to understand that, but too late and too exhausted from the abuse to save Willy.

Willy sold one last delusion to himself about how he could make the nightmare end for everyone. Be the hero who saves the day one last time and rescues his damsel wife and his boys. He couldn’t understand that none of the assumptions in his plan were true, nothing works the way he wants it to, no one was buying into it, and all that was created was a new nightmare everyone else had to face.

To me, this play walks the very difficult line of asking how much of this is Willy’s fault, and how much of if happened because the people around him fed into it instead of getting him help. Which begs again if Willy would have accepted that help or been able to follow through on it precisely because of his cultural programming combined with mental illness. Arthur Miller doesn’t try to answer that because there is no binary answer. Willy was a product of his toxic culture, his mental illness, and the social dynamics he cultivated. None of them are independent and there’s no clear distinction between what he was and wasn’t in control of. He’s a victim as much as he is a perpetrator.

I didn’t really understand that when I was a teenager. I didn’t understand the nuance or the complexity of holding both of those true simultaneously. It’s why Biff could yell at his father, and still hug him and beg him to be okay. It’s all true at once and there’s no separating that through denial just to get an easy answer about how everything’s going to be okay. That’s precisely what Willy Loman did. Arthur Miller knows better. Willy was a warning about all of it.

One we didn’t listen to, and in fact made the world so much more unbearably awful that we elected Willy-Loman-Failing-Upwards as President of the United States. Now we’re two years into one of the worst pandemics in history with 5.16M dead as of writing this. In not just the US but globally, we needed leaders to respond with caution and aggressive concern, but they were Willy Loman levels of delusional about how somehow it would just magically sort itself out and everything was going to be fine. Well, it’s not fine now. It’s terrifying on the daily. As famous a play as Death of a Salesman is, most people never understood it well enough to heed its warning. In a way, the play itself is Biff. What a tragedy.

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