16 July 1975: Miller, Death of a Salesman

Circle in the Square, New York. Matinee.

Sherlock Holmes. Royal Shakespeare Company (evening; not reviewed here)

An unfair comparison, if these two productions are to be compared at all, since Salesman is so incomparably well acted. Yet, curiously, I came away from this spare, essential Circle in the Square production (advertised as a twenty-fifth anniversary production but off by a year: 1949 + 25 = 1974) saying to myself, What a marvelous theatrical experience. That is what Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be, but wasn’t really.

The other idea in my mind — which I seem to have picked up from Brendan Gill’s review in the New Yorker several weeks ago — is that this production ignores, or perhaps deliberately sets aside, whatever specific or general “social significance” may be found in the text or may have been present for the play’s first audience a quarter-century ago, a time when anyone in the audience, almost, would have known about crank-open windshields on automobiles and known also that they were passé.

Because the fact is that Miller is being as precisely historical as possible, in writing this play, in order to trade on his audience’s sense of a double, or rather a duplicated, time scheme. In its smaller magnitude that scheme shows us Willy Loman’s present inescapably spread out against Willy Loman’s past. The tenacity of that past in its hold on his subjective present represents the force, so to speak, that gives momentum to the play and the impetus to its theme, the fall of a man of no particular account to whom, nevertheless, “attention, attention must finally be paid.” Or, as Linda also puts it, in another phrase made expressly for our mental files by the Ibsen-like craftsman playwright, “Life is only a casting off.” The reference can be construed as utterly personal, a homespun platitude typical of Linda’s habit of desperate rationalization; or as inescapably general, a door onto general philosophical implication. The alternative glimpse of a greater magnitude beyond Willy’s house, garage, and yard, beyond Brooklyn, beyond the New England territory that Miller overheard someone say was never any damn good, is of course one of many in the play. Miller in fact systematically builds into the structure of this Ibsenesque retrospective action a series of “glimpses” that amount to a vista on our common past, the one that Americans hold in common and that can perhaps be indexed well enough by the familiar phrase “the myth of the frontier.”

In the lonely, haunting flute at the beginning of the play with its message of grasses and open sky, in the phantom brother Ben who walked out of the jungle rich — “By God, I was rich” — at twenty-one; in the analogous myth of Dave Singleman, ancient warrior of the asphalt jungle; even in Bernard, the smartest kid in the class who grows up to become a lawyer and argue a case before the Supreme Court, the myth is there. One man against the wilderness, never fighting fair with a stranger; ruthless, driven, knowing of his territory, yet (paradoxically) an effortlessly social creature, “well liked,” always out there with a smile and a shoe shine, knowing the value of the strong personal impression.

It seems clear enough, then, that some sense of history is required to make us privy to the play’s secrets, to find the diamonds in its darknesses. To use a phrase relished by the hideously amoral Uncle Ben, the play itself is “a remarkable proposition.” On the one hand, in the personal history of Willy Loman, than whom no man can be lower, the playwright asks us to see real tragedy, for Willy is to be understood as the classic modern case of someone whose plight is to grip us all. Within this personal framework, we are made to understand how the past of this family determines its present, and when there is no more past to illuminate, the play ends, like Hedda Gabler and Rosmersholm, with a final, inevitable, catastrophic reflex: into death.

On the other hand, Miller has never been one to concern himself solely with the personal. He is comfortable only with large themes that beg leave to transcend the purely personal and yet have a special tie to his contemporary audience, whom he views as essentially a social entity. When he turned to a specific historical subject in writing The Crucible, he only made his methods, historical from the start, more explicit. Even when he deals with the contemporary moment, as in All My Sons and A View From the Bridge, Miller imposes a sort of historical identity on his unsuspecting audience. That is, he fixes them, binds them into a structure which it is the purpose of the play to describe implicitly and castigate for its faults, its rigidity, its obtuse selfishness, mendacity, vulgarity; its guilt, finally, for living the American dream. Seen in the perspective that history affords, Willy in his plight must indict us all.

Or so, one might argue, the fabric of the text would seem to indicate. What is — to use Willy’s term this time — “remarkable” is that the play can be done with all glimpses of greater magnitude deeply obscured behind a curtain against which we see simply, and brilliantly, the persons of the play. Given the right cast, it is a marvelous acting play, and this is the right cast. There is no toying with deep social significance here; no nonsense of that sort. George C. Scott, who directs with wonderful verve, and whose sense of pace and careful placement of movement and vocal range, of the scene, is nearly miraculous is also a superb Willy. Physically exhausted yet movable to great heights of frenetic enthusiasm for ideas whose times will never come, Scott sets the rhythm of the play. I don’t recall ever seeing a first act as good as this one, and the only thing wrong with the second was the second intermission, which seemed intrusive and ill-timed. No matter.

These are all finely crafted performances, Teresa Wright’s, as Linda, especially so. All are works of pure substance, unalloyed with larger meaning, since Scott refuses to trifle with Miller’s historical preoccupations. It is a cinematic rendering of the play, one might say, in view of the “closeness” of its characterizations. There are no human infidelities for any camera to betray. All the tendencies toward stock character — Miller’s stock in trade as a dealer in myth and history — are rendered with a complete lack of self-consciousness. Teresa Wright’s Linda can utter the most thunderous banalities (except for the one about Willie as a little ship, looking for a harbor, which no one can blame them for cutting) and they come out as unremarkable as lines in a weekly television series. All the banality is there, preserved in neat detail, but signifying nothing beyond the circle of lives represented on the stage.

How can one complain about a play so consummately well performed? Is it Miller’s fate that his plays will survive their time, but that their time will not survive along with them? The late forties now seem so very distant, a distance neatly demarcated by Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, each in his way a literalist of the American imagination, each a ruthless salesman with a dream, all smiles and shoeshine. Not so distant after all, one may say; but this play, pre-McCarthy as it is, exposes the tawdriness, the sham, the hollowness of the common dream that we still dream, exposes it by using the period of the forties as frank pretext for approaching a universally American situation. If, in present-day performance, the socialization of the audience implicit in that rendering is ignored or cast aside — as this production does ignore it and cast it aside — the result is … Well, not exactly a classic performance, but something close to it. Classic, perhaps, in the sense of something nicely, even beautifully, circumscribed, and almost palpably clear within its scrupulously well-defined limits.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book