Let me frame this one a little bit before diving in.
I read a lot of plays. More than I ever see. Where I live the opportunities are limited.
I’ve never been very well tuned to Shakespeare, although the recent Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Henry V was a stunning wake up call to what I’ve missed all these years.
I have never been able to get through any of Eugene O’Neill’s work. Still trying though.
I haven’t read Our Town either. I’ll get to it.
In fact, I’ve mostly tended toward modern angsty, or at least toward emotionally exhibitionist, works. I’d rather read Nicky Silver, Tracy Letts, David Lindsay-Abaire, or John Patrick Shanley than I would Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, the aforementioned O’Neill…
Or Arthur Miller.
Yet I recognize that these, and others, such as Chekhov, Wilde, Ibsen, Pinter, Brecht, and so on, are the foundation upon which the plays that speak to me are built on. I felt bereft of some element, some ingredient, some depth of field in my own artistic reserves. Clearly I needed to fill those reserves.
If you randomly asked 25 people on the street what is the greatest American play, I will bet that among the Our Towns and Streetcars, Miller’s plays will get the most nods – specifically Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. So I thought I must start with Miller. As I’m middle-aged, and a salesman by trade, and having never been a witch or hanged one, perhaps Death of a Salesman was the place to start.
I approached the reading with great anticipation. One of THE great works of modern theater. One of the greatest plays of the 20th century. I already wanted to play Willy Loman (hey, in 10 years, damn it) and I hadn’t even read it.
Arthur Miller’s writing is electric. It is full of vigor and snap and wind:
Linda: … I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person…
Willy Loman’s insecurity is palpable. His bullying of his wife and sons to protect his ego is heartbreaking and terribly accessible, at least to me. You can feel the chill of his oncoming dissolution and failure, that unavoidable collapse into powerlessness seeping in, page after page.
Linda’s codependency is frustrating and stifling, and you yearn for her to tear herself free from it – not from Willy necessarily, but from his emotional domination. You feel that it would actually help him if she did, as well as her. Biff’s purposelessness, the way he wanders unmoored, reaching for smoke rings, hits close to home.
The entire play crackles with power.
There is, of course, a big “BUT” coming. Before I get to the “but” – this is sounding worse every minute – I want to say that I tend not to be contrary. If anything, my friends think that when it comes to theater, I’m not selective enough. They accuse me of loving everything under the lights.
Now that’s not true, not at all.
I didn’t care for Grand Hotel. A Chorus Line also didn’t do much for me.
I hate Oklahoma.
So now that I’ve cast myself the heathen, I’ll share the one big problem I had with Salesman.
(By the way, I don’t really have to worry about spoiling a 65 year old play, right?)
The play leads up to the big reveal, the one that is, to me, too telegraphed to begin with. True, he was Arthur Miller and I’m not. Still, it was obvious what was going to happen.
And I get that finding out the dad you idolize is just another traveling schlep who cheats on mom would be heartbreaking.
But it just seems to me that Miller drew that one *way* too on-the-nose, as it were. Not the dialogue itself, of course, but Miller seems to have drawn a huge, thick black line from this affair to Biff’s aimlessness, to Linda’s codependency, and to Willy’s self-destruction.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being an asshole. Of the people I know who’ve had affairs, the process and its effects are far more subtle. The spouses wrangle and either deal with it or break it off. It’s variable, it’s convoluted, there are lies and denials, arguments and fights, highs and lows, hopes for a solution, despair at the end, all sorts of things. They affect all the lives around them. Yet the gravity of this one affair, and it’s overtly central place in the individual’s lives, didn’t strike me as quite as honest as the rest of the play. Yes, it destroys a family, or at least changes it drastically, and surely it changes people, but to be so thermonuclear in its effect, to lose the other subtleties and dynamics of such a situation left me wanting.
In truth, it probably it means I need to read it again. I have a very good actor friend, just about the right age, who is determined to play Willy Loman. Maybe I ought to direct him. Maybe I just haven’t got underneath it enough.
After all, attention must be paid.