Death of a Salesman (1949)
by Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
This epilogue is not limited to the tragedy that was the life of Willy Loman or even to the tragedy of post-modern humankind but the unrelenting tragedy of unconscious Homo sapiens since the dawn of civilization. An exaggeration? Has the experience of humanity been that bad? These types of questions can only be answered by other questions of a more profound nature. The history of humanity must be evaluated by those who understand what really happened rather than the historians who are mouthpieces of the false self.
Focusing on that aspect of theatre called tragedy can shed some light on the deeper truth of Simple Reality. There are those, most of humanity really, who want to stick their heads in the sands of time and deny the tragedy of the human experience. “The critic George Steiner declared ‘The Death of Tragedy’ in 1961, but tragedy thrives today. Indeed, these days, any event that causes suffering or distress earns tragedy’s mournful title.”[i]
We would agree with Tom Koch’s definition of tragedy that any suffering is tragic especially when we expand on it with the insight that all suffering is unnecessary and avoidable. Now we are getting truly radical—but not for those who have immersed themselves in the content of The Simple Reality Project.
We began this chapter on the theatre looking at the great Greek tragedies. “Since the Greeks first coined the word, tragedy has required not only a calamitous event but one that can be judged as meaningful. It has to matter in some great manner that is, ideally, instructive.”[ii] Sadly, the Greeks were too narrow in their definition of tragedy. All human suffering is tragic and also instructive for any person who lives in the present moment. The chief beneficiary of living in the NOW is not the intellect—it is not the “meaning” of suffering that is the gift of our experience—but it is the soul that benefits, the soul which has been transformed by suffering which then transcends history and meaning itself.
Philosophers too have let us down in their misunderstanding of what constitutes tragedy and what it means. “‘Tragedy is, then a representation of an action that is heroic and complete,’ argued Aristotle in ‘Poetics,’ and of a certain magnitude.’”[iii] As we have already indicated, all suffering whether experienced by an obscure peasant or a big ego like that of Aristotle qualifies as tragedy. The Roman Catholic Church was enamored of Aristotle’s intellect and accepted much of his philosophical underpinning for its doctrines. Perhaps that is why the patriarchal Church is so devoid of compassion for the politically powerless rank and file.
As we sit in the theatre with an open heart prepared to respond to tragedy rather than react to what we see unfold before us we are also ready for transformative insights. But the playwright must have had the courage to look at the truth rather than merely providing distracting entertainment. “‘You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies,’ wrote the playwright Howard Baker in 1989. ‘After the musical you’re anybody’s fool.’”[iv]
An example would be what we might experience in watching Death of a Salesman. “As audience members, we want to say, ‘No Willie, don’t, but we know that his inevitable suicide will be the result not of his failure but of ours, the fault of a society in which employment is a happenstance that can be withdrawn from even the hardest worker. If tragedy is, as Nietzsche believed, about the terrors of reality, then Miller’s tragedy is about not a flaw of character but of our world.”[v] Tragedy is built into P-B, into the beliefs, attitudes and values of every person living in the global village.
One of the many collective “fatal flaws” in P-B is our belief in the existence of the Other. We can address the universal tragedy that we have all chosen and continue to perpetuate by ceasing to demonize those who are in some way different from us. We can do this by simply choosing to respond with compassion rather than to react with fear when we encounter that which stimulates our prejudice—whether in the theatre or on the greater stage of life itself. If we can choose to do that then the word tragedy will no longer be needed in our vocabulary.
[i] Koch, Tom. “What’s Worse Than Sad?” The New York Times. January 25, 2015, page 9.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.