Illusion on the American Stage

Death of a Salesman (1949)
by Arthur Miller

Willy cannot face reality, and since he can’t do much to change it, he keeps changing his ideas of it.
        Arthur Miller

There are critics who think that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the greatest American play of the past 100 years. The play couldn’t have dealt with a more profound human dilemma. What is the difference between reality and illusion? The Loman family faced the universal tragedy inherent in the human condition. Where are we and who are we? How should we behave to survive and be successful? What was difficult for Willy Loman was not that he couldn’t face reality but that he did not know what it was; nor did Arthur Miller.

When Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) wrote the Oedipus plays dealing with human conflict, he wrote in the context of P-B and like Miller did not know why his characters behaved the way they did. Religion and the behavior of the gods (God) gave Sophocles and modern playwrights a pseudo, but ultimately unsatisfying explanation. After 2,500 years of theatre, we still see characters on stage lost and bewildered. We are still made uncomfortable with portrayals of human suffering. Therefore, we can often leave the theatre anxious and confused.

For centuries audiences have watched the stories that they assumed were based on fundamental human truths acted out on stage. It seldom occurred to most of them that perhaps the human behavior they were seeing did not reflect the truth of what it means to be human, did not portray reality. Sometimes the events on stage were meant to be supernatural or fantastic but even in those dramas humanity’s worldview was revealed. In other words, for centuries few theatre audiences have deeply understood what they have been watching.

When a shift in worldview occurs (from P-B to P-A) all knowledge will have to be re-evaluated because nothing will mean the same as it used to. Theatre critics from the time of ancient Greece until today have argued about what a given play meant. Because these critics were contained in P-B, they were unable to comprehend what they were seeing.

The tragedy in a man’s life is what dies inside of him while he lives.
      Henry David Thoreau

The story of humanity could be said to be an unfolding tragedy. Life is suffering. Aristotle believed that tragedy on stage should arouse both fear and pity in an audience. The human condition today is based on beliefs, attitudes and values that are rooted in fear. What we naturally see on stage then is some version of P-B. What we also see is some version of the delusional survival strategy of the characters seeking to create an illusion that will give their life meaning. This is the challenge faced by Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

At the time he was writing Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller was sympathetic toward Communism and as the play reveals, no lover of capitalism. “Willy Loman, however, is an Everyman, someone who believes all the lies that are fed to us—the ones about success and self-realization, the ones about consumerism, the ones about the necessity of being, as he puts it, ‘well-liked.’”

The American version of P-B found in Miller’s play had its origin, in part, in the so-called Protestant Ethic. “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance (1842) fits into this pattern; [success] was taken to be the sign of God’s blessing and the reward for virtue.” In Horatio Alger’s rags to riches novels read by Americans in the 19th century, poor protagonists became successful through persistent hard work.

Emerson’s friend Thoreau wrote in Walden that if one dreams of success, a kind of positive thinking, then that dreamer would experience that success. The American delusion, currently often referred to as “American exceptionalism,” began before there were any Americans. In 1630 on the voyage to the colonies, John Winthrop gave his “city on a hill sermon” to his fellow Puritans. He was foreshadowing both Willie Loman and Dale Carnegie. Willie was constantly giving sermons throughout Miller’s play on How to Win Friends and Influence People, pep-talks directed at his sons on the subject of American exceptionalism.

We’re exceptional all right, in that we can’t summon the will, discipline or character to fix even those problems that most of us would like to see addressed.
Frank Bruni

The fear and pity that Aristotle wanted to see in a play are there in Salesman because the P-B context is driven by fear. What we in the audience can see is that the advice Willie “feeds” to his sons is poisonous. The critic Richard Schickel also sees that P-B values can be toxic. “We don’t live in an Aristotelian age, we live in the age of Donald Trump. And Willy, trying to pass on his false values to his sons (and incidentally destroying them as a result), has become an ever more poignant, and prescient figure.” Willy is certainly a poignant figure, prescient he is not.

It is the clueless human false self that strides across the stage in the actor’s words and body language in the history of western theatre. The importance of being “well-liked” to Willy Loman is an expression of his affection and esteem (sensation) energy center. This need comprises virtually his entire identity and when he believes he has failed in this goal his false self collapses. He can no longer prop up the persona, fill out the costume or maintain the illusion required for his character on the stage of P-B.

Willy was doomed from the start when he bought into the dominant male identity in America. Competition, survival of the fittest, being among God’s chosen “favorites” and watching out for the other lurking just around the corner drives Willy’s behavior. We can hear Willy’s survival strategy as he voices what he is thinking “in his head” (the original title of the play).

Even the actors who have played Loman see him as a hero, an archetype which doesn’t exist in P-A. “The original Willy, Lee J. Cobb, made you think of a giant in chains. Dustin Hoffman made him a little guy who wasn’t going to take it lying down. In his comments on the play, Miller defended Willy as a genuine hero, a man who measured his fate and stood up to it.” The playwright, the actors playing Willy, and the directors, including Miller’s good friend Elia Kazan, all projected their own delusions upon the Willy Loman character.

“Willy believes himself a successful salesman, an ideal father and a perfect husband until he finally must face reality.” The American Dream is a “set up,” a mirage that ensures all of us are the protagonists in a melodramatic tragedy. The failure to find the courage of an authentic hero and be able to “face reality,” will ensure that most of us are heading for a tragic “last act.”

Returning to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, we can dig up another insight related to Salesman. “There should be a “peripeteia” or turning point when a character produces an effect opposite to that which he intended to produce, while an “anagoris” is a change from ignorance to knowledge producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.” These events combine to arrive at the final curtain.

If we could inhabit our True selves on the P-A stage we would experience peripeteia and produce the effects that we intend to produce. An anagoris or change from ignorance or unconsciousness to knowledge of the truth and awareness of the nature of Simple Reality would empower us to avoid what we all know is an approaching final tragic scene.

He never knew who he was.
        Biff speaking of his father Willy

And finally, we know about the importance in a classic tragedy of a once powerful or successful protagonist having a “tragic flaw” that brings about his/her downfall. The universal tragic flaw, many of us can intuit is our identification with our body, mind or emotions, and our reliance on a false-self survival strategy based on the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. Self-transformation replacing reactions with responses will gradually eliminate our tragic flaws.

As long as we choose an identity that feels it is fighting dragons every day, we will continue to see Willy Loman’s blunder across the stage, unconscious and lost in a tragedy of their own making. And that character will, of course, be us.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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