Several times during the new production of Death of a Salesman at the Belvoir theatre (soon to transfer to the Theatre Royal), I glanced at the audience. In the darkness, stricken faces looked on at the desperate plight of Willy Loman (Colin Friels), one of theatre’s most iconic characters. The audience seemed pinned to their seats in anguish and when the play ended, with light fading slowly into blackness, the theatre burst into applause. Perhaps the play no longer has quite the incisive, self-diagnostic effect it had at its premiere in 1949, when according to Miller, people ‘sat there a good two or three minutes’. Several men were helpless and ‘sat there with handkerchiefs over their faces. It was like a funeral. I didn’t know whether the show was dead or alive. The cast was back there wondering what had happened. Nobody’d pulled the curtain up. Finally, someone thought to applaud, and then the house came apart.’
Miller was one of the first to dissect the delusions of American individualism, with all its emphasis on ‘making it’, as an internal psychological journey. In the Belvoir version, the play opens with Willy sitting in his car, listening to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Promised Land’ a song also about a man who believes in the American dream, only to find that he’s been chasing a ‘mirage’. (Later, as if to reaffirm the point, Hamish Michael’s Happy drunkenly sings Springsteen’s sad epic, ‘Atlantic City’). Like the hero of Springsteen’s song, Willy Loman has spent his life chasing the mirage of success. He has not only accepted the key aspects of American individualism, but integrated them into the very structure of his psyche. He is obsessed with being a great man; he wants his sons to be magnificent successes. He wrestles with questions of individual effort, of presentation, of being ‘liked’.
At the age of sixty, with little money and a firm that has forced him from a wage back to selling for commission, the fatal disjuncture between Loman’s self-image and reality has come to weigh upon him. No longer can he hold the façade of success against the cruel reality that he is a ‘little man’, a salesman whose dreams of success have come to naught. Perhaps there is some secret he has missed, he wonders, for he can make no sense of his place in the world. Caught in this terrible cognitive dissonance, Willy Loman is breaking down under the pressure of having to maintain an illusory self-image in the face of the truth.
In a series of structurally ingenious sequences, Loman’s internal dialogue and his memories take to the stage and co-exist with present-day events. To those around him, Loman seems to be talking to himself, but the audience sees these remembered characters manifested on stage as Loman relives these decisive moments, argues plaintively with them, justifies his past actions, is caught in webs of his own creation.
Miller is not one to deal in too much subtlety or complexity: just as the Loman family shout their recriminations, we can practically hear Miller shouting his. Early in the play, there’s an interaction between Willy and his wife, Linda (Genevieve Lemon) about their wandering and unhappy elder son Biff (Patrick Brammall):
WILLY: Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such – personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.
WILLY: [with pity and resolve]: I’ll see him in the morning; I’ll have a nice talk with him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time.
Already we know that there is something wrong with this unquestioning belief in the American dream that ‘anyone can make it’ and that Biff could be ‘big in no time.’ We sense, again and again, that it is in this unwavering ideology, which requires deceit to keep it afloat, that much of the problem arises. Deceit and self-deception are essential to the functioning of the Loman family. As if to ram the point home, later Biff explains: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been.’
In the work of a Chekov or Tennessee Williams there might be more space for ambiguity, but in Death of a Salesman we know exactly what is at stake here, and we know from where each of the characters’ problems arise. It is a play – like Miller’s first success, All My Sons – of the gradual unveiling of secrets. But once the secrets are out, we have no doubt about the clearly established lines. There is no room for uncertainty in Miller’s stark portrayal. For this reason, Death of a Salesman occurs in the high-register so characteristic of the American culture it critiques.
If there are places where the play feels dated, in more important ways Death of a Salesman seems more relevant to Australia than ever. While once the notion of the Aussie battler was closely allied with campaigns for social justice by the Left, and in particular the union movement, the neoliberal employment of the term, led by John Howard in the 90s, reconfigured the term to mean any hardworking Australian. In a 2004 interview, Howard explained:
[I]t’s not an exclusive definition, the battler is somebody who finds in life that they have to work hard for everything they get … normally you then look at it in terms of somebody who’s not earning a huge income but somebody who is trying to better themselves, and I’ve always been attracted to people who try to better themselves.
This reconfiguration fits nicely into neoliberal individualism, a more contemporary permutation of the ideology behind the ‘American Dream’, and an ideology that holds fast to the notion that anyone can make it and, as a result, that those who don’t are themselves to blame. This deployment marked a significant shift in Australian culture, to be found not only in the success of the Liberal government, but in the adoption of these ideas – bound together with a virulent nationalism, as neoliberalism invariably is – among much of the broader population. If the discourse of personal responsibility might be of some value to the Left (and is emphasised in, say, the existentialism of Sartre and De Beauvoir), here it is posited without any kind of structural constraint.
Nowadays this ideology can be found in most organisational management and personal success books (many of which find their inspiration in Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic of voluntarist idealism, Think and Grow Rich). It can also be found in some of the new mega-churches. In many of these cases, the ideology has been given a postmodern cast – you ‘create your own reality.’
Hence Death of a Salesman retains its vitality, for it turns these deluded elements in our own culture inside out, revealing their emptiness within. It shows us that to hold such beliefs requires a crippling and destructive self-deception.
The Belvoir production has been receiving rave reviews for good reason. Not only is it finely staged, but as Willy Loman, Friels excels. Age has leant his eternally boyish features a new gravitas and he spends almost every moment of the two-and-a-half-hour play on stage, raging desperately, imploring the universe for the answers that his world-view can barely formulate. The supporting cast and direction are excellent, as is the stripped down set that does away with Miller’s staging and replaces it with a lone car sitting ominously on stage. In the end, it is the production’s ability to capture the play’s central themes that is affecting. They bring to life the disintegration of Willy Loman: a man whose life has been based on an illusory vision of the world. Their production of Death of a Salesman remains agonising to watch, for it still speaks so much to our own times.