Death of a Salesman (1949)
by Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
The playwright Arthur Miller is in thrall of his false self as we all are and operates within the illusion of his/her own life. The art of the theatre involves creating an illusion on stage and hence we have a double illusion on stage, an illusion created within an illusion, if you will. We find an example in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “The central character, Willy Loman, has succumbed to popular notions of success as a husband, provider, and father, which have proved false for him and have caused failure as a human being.”[i] In truth, Willy Loman had not failed as a human being, he had simply failed to respond to the actual opportunities life offers to all of us.
The “popular notions of success” that influence Willy Loman’s behavior would be Jung’s collective unconscious, those hidden determinants of behavior that operate below the level of our awareness, causing illusion and suffering and distorting the true nature of reality and our true identity. Willy Loman is also simultaneously dealing with the demands of his own false self which is the very definition of universal failure since no one ever succeeds at acquiring enough security, sensation and power. Loman is simply trying to cope with the universal human condition and has few if any strategies for dealing with the appearance of failure that surrounds him. What we then see on stage is Arthur Miller’s illusion growing from his own P-B story creating a central character living within a similar illusion—a double illusion—and good entertainment.
Willy Loman’s sense of isolation and estrangement has been a favorite theme for playwrights in the twentieth century. “In a civilization that has obsessively pursued a perfected means of human communication, William Inge, Lanford Wilson, and Marsha Norman have written of Americans who cannot connect. Their journeys through time, through ordinary places where ordinary people congregate reveal lonely souls striving hard to reach each other in a loveless world. Of all recent playwrights, Sam Shepard expresses best—if that is the word—the communal rage of the post-1960s generation. Shepard vents his rage through powerful characters in perplexing, messy plays. The plays are painful yet mesmerizing because they focus at last on an American society that has lost its romanticism, the historical antidote to its violence.”[ii] All of this loneliness, estrangement and violence is not about defects within the people themselves, that, of course is again an illusion but it is fundamentally about the failure to grasp reality.
Romanticism is a form of denial, an illusion. Theatre itself is a form of escape, an illusion. The narrative that we all live in (P-B) is a figment of our imagination, an illusion. Our very identity is composed of conscious and unconscious psychological drives based on goals that prove to be very much like mirages or, you guessed it, illusions. Illusion, illusion all is illusion. Until, that is, we awaken from the melodramatic drama of P-B and find ourselves in the present moment, back on the street outside of the theatre in the sunshine of the real world.
[i] Henderson, Mary C. Theater in America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986, page 79.
[ii] Ibid., pages 84-85.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.