Death of a Salesman' message hauntingly applicable now
Death of a Salesman' message hauntingly applicable now
NEW YORK – On stage recently at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York, a 4.8-mile cab ride from Zuccotti Park, the symbolic birthplace of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Willy Loman, the aging, broke and down-on-his-luck salesman introduced by playwright Arthur Miller in 1949, is howling in protest about just how hard it is to get ahead in America.
"The competition is maddening," Willy, played by Academy Award-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, rails to his supportive yet worried wife, Linda, in the current Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Death of a Salesman. Maddening indeed. The 60-something salesman, after being on the road for more than 35 years, yet still unable to keep up with payments on the refrigerator, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, roof and life insurance premiums, is later fired by his boss, Howard, who simply tells him: "Willy … there just is no spot here for you."
Death of a Salesman, circa 2012, is very much about the here and now, director Mike Nichols says. Willy, he tells USA TODAY, is still with us.
"There are many parallels to today," says Nichols, whose career highlights include eight Tony Awards for his theater work on Broadway, as well as an Oscar for The Graduate. "There is only so much to go around, as we are discovering. Everyone can't make it."
Including Willy and his sons. A suddenly jobless Willy must also confront the reality that, despite his lofty expectations, his adult sons, ex-high school football hero Biff and younger brother Happy, are also finding it difficult to gain a foothold in the tight job market and build successful careers. Biff is unemployed, confused and sees little future for himself. "I don't know what the future is. I get the feeling that I am not getting anywhere," he admits to his brother. Happy is stuck in a dead-end clerk's job.
Miller's portrait of economic insecurity in postwar America more than 60 years ago is eerily similar to the economic angst now being felt coast-to-coast today in the U.S. after the Great Recession. The play's themes of dashed dreams, economic inequality and the brutally competitive capitalist system that creates a society of haves and have-nots are no doubt the No. 1 topic of conversation today in middle-class living rooms across the country.
If Willy Loman were alive today, he would be one of the "99%," a modern-day middle-class working man wondering if it's still possible to get ahead. Willy would probably be protesting across the land, picket sign in hand, clamoring for a bigger piece of the economic pie, a better job, a fatter paycheck and a fairer shot at realizing the American Dream.
Nichols, who saw the first Broadway production of Death in 1949 starring Lee J. Cobb as Willy, says that as he dove deeper into Miller's powerful work after agreeing to direct the latest revival, it quickly became clear that the play was "more and more about the moment" and less about the late 1940s.
The director says many Americans can relate to the Loman clan's troubles, such as Willy's wife rattling off the suffocating debts due each month when money is tight and jobs are disappearing.
"Well," Willy's wife informs him, "on the first, there's sixteen dollars on the refrigerator … there's ninety-six for the washing machine. And for the vacuum cleaner, there's three and half due on the fifteenth. Then the roof, you got twenty-one dollars remaining."
The American dream, as Willy's wife suggests, is just that: a dream — for a growing number of Americans today.
"There is not enough work for working people," Nichols says. "They have a hard time paying mortgages, paying rent, keeping their jobs, getting jobs. All the simple things. It leads to less and less."
Having less also leads to a loss of hope in the future, which comes through clearly on a current website, WeAreThe99Percent, which chronicles the current struggles of ordinary Americans in their own words. One young woman posted a poem on March 29 that said: "I can't find my future. I looked in college. I found debt. I looked to my parents. I found debt and heartache. … I'm taking my future back. (It's Mine.) I am the 99%."
Hitting our hearts
In an essay, the novelist and chronicler of the human condition Joyce Carol Oates once said of Death of a Salesman: "Willy Loman is all of us."
"There is a reason, why it is the central American play," Nichols says. "When Salesman first opened in 1949," he continues, "there were fathers for who the doctor had to be called because they couldn't stop crying. It was like an explosion. The show's effect was people seemed to see themselves. And that seems to be what is happening today at the Barrymore — how personally people take it. They break down sobbing when they come backstage."
Just as it did to Willy Loman in 1949, economic fear still twists the stomach into knots and eats away at the confidence of American workers today. Speaking at Willy's funeral, the pipe-dreaming one-time salesman's friend, neighbor and financial lifeline, Charley, sums up best the timeless fear of not being able to control one's economic destiny: "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine," says Charley. "And when they start not smiling back — that's an earthquake."
'Death of a Salesman' message hauntingly applicable now ? USATODAY.com
Death of a Salesman is a wonderful play and unfortunately...it's timeless.