Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester

Oct-Nov 2018.

 reviewed by Alan Dent

            Minimally staged, this production of what is arguably Miller’s best play, is superbly acted. Don Warrington is a thoroughly convincing Willy who captures his on-the-edge imbalance, his oscillation between grandiose, saving dreams and emotional impoverishment through controlled, intelligent acting which never either underplays nor overstates. There are moments when in Willy’s straining to believe in what is just not true you can hear a distant echo of the stretched-to-breaking-point rhetoric of the current President of the USA.  Maureen Beattie is an excellent Linda who captures what Miller says about her in a stage direction: that she has developed an iron repression in response to Willy’s odd behaviour. In spite of his weakness, his contradictions, his childish expectations, she loves him and Beattie conveys the strength of character, the selflessness and the adherence to a set of demanding values necessary to go on loving a man like Willy. Ashley Zhangazha and Buom Tihnang are excellent as Biff and Happy, confused young man adrift in an America which has lost its way and a family collapsing under the pressure of deceit, delusion and sheer exhaustion. The supporting roles too are graced by acting of  high accomplishment. 

            Sarah Frankcom’s decision to stage the play with a minimum of props may disappoint Miller purists or those who have seen productions where the house, kitchen, bedrooms and the surrounding, looming apartment buildings are represented as in Miller’s directions, but she pulls it off. It’s a good decision because in the round the original directions don’t work, but also because the audience has no difficulty in filling in what is implied by the sparsity.

            The programme includes a fascinating piece by Sarah Churchwell: Death of a Salesman and the American dream. She is informed and original. In her final paragraph she observes that it’s a fair bet that even audiences who know the play well don’t recall its sub-title: “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem”. The requiem, she argues, is for the American dream, that is, the founding dream of a democracy in which the common folk can fulfil the best in their natures regardless of money or birth and where all citizens shall meet on grounds of equality; a dream displaced by its ugly successor: the purblind pursuit of money and material goods in which identity itself is measured by income, wealth and possessions and a vicious culture of winners and losers replaces the high intention of equality of citizenship.

            Her little essay rehearses the standard interpretation of the play. Yet there is, perhaps, something missing. What destroys Willy? Why are relations between him and Biff so tense? The clues come early. From the start Willy is anxious about Biff. He isn’t getting anywhere. He’s a lazy bum. In Biff and Happy’s first conversation, the elder brother says: “There are one or two other things depressing him, Happy.” It’s easy for the audience to miss the significance of this. In the same way, when Willy, in one of his lapses into a fantasied past, tells Biff to be careful with girls, not to make any promises, the full meaning of this can’t strike the audience till much later in the play. That Willy has been unfaithful to Linda is revealed early in a fantasy memory of an encounter with The Woman. That Miller introduces this so soon in the play can’t be nugatory. Again, the audience can’t work out its proper import, however, till near the end. Willy is disturbed by Linda mending stockings. This seems to be simply a matter of not wanting to be reminded of how little he earns, but there is more to it than that, as his encounter with “Miss Francis” in another past fantasy later shows. When Biff says to his mother in Act One that Willy has always wiped the floor with her, never had any respect for her, it’s impossible to understand fully, until virtually the end, what he’s alluding to. Shortly after, Biff reminds her that Willy threw him out of the house and she asks: “Why did he do that? I never knew why.” She never does. A few lines later Linda is explaining that Willy’s car accidents are in fact deliberate attempts to kill himself and says: “It seems there’s a woman…” Biff can’t help himself: “What woman?” Linda almost twigs but the conversation swings back to her explanation before she can permit her son’s panicky intervention to penetrate. There are other examples. In fact, it is only in the light of the fantasy recollection of Biff coming to find his father in a hotel room to tell him he has “flunked” math, and finding him with Miss Francis that everything that has gone before falls properly into place. In the same way, when Linda stands by his grave and says she can’t understand why he killed himself “I search and search and I search and I can’t understand it, Willy..” she is still in the dark while the audience knows what he has to feel guilty about.

            The love Linda feels for Willy is remarkable. She rises above all petty resentments and irritations to love him because he’s a human being who deserves it. She has endured years of his strange behaviour. She has not received in kind. Yet she refuses to descend from her ideal: she is his wife and she must love him in spite of everything. She doesn’t know, however, that his has sunk to the level of passing, meaningless sexual encounters while away on business. Only he and Biff know that.

            When Willy meets Bernard in the second Act, his son’s neighbour who Willy disdained as “anemic” says he’s mystified as to why, after his trip to New England to see his father, Biff burnt the sneakers on which he’d printed “University of Virginia”, why he seemed to give up on life. Bernard doesn’t know, but the audience does after the encounter with Miss Francis.

            In short, Miller has made sexual deceit central to the play. Such a conscientious dramatist wouldn’t do so unless he meant it. Willy’s betrayal of Linda’s love is not peripheral, it is the heart of his tragedy.

            Willy is a salesman who can’t make sales, as Clifford Odets has a character say in Rocket to the Moon. He is sixty-three. Taking the date of the first production as the year he reached that age, he was born in 1886, in the middle of the so-called Gilded Age. He was young during the Progressive Era, and a grown man by the time of the Roaring Twenties. His early life would have witnessed the USA overtaking Britain in industrialisation, the rapid growth of incomes (and also inequality), the period of the fastest economic growth in American history and the heady boom of the 1920s. However, from the age of forty-three he would have lived through the Wall Street Crash and its consequent depression and the Second World War. By the time the play opens, America is an economy in decline, needing to adjust socially and culturally.

            Willy lives in the past. He regrets “old man Wagner”, his former boss and disdains his son Howard who is an unsentimental profit-seeker. The world has changed fast. Willy has been unable to keep up. He exaggerates how good he used to be, but he is now part of a system impressed by Taylorism, convinced everything valuable can be measured, obsessed with youth, vigour and dynamism. Clearly, a significant part of his problem is that he can’t bring in sales any more. He needs the money. He is letting his family down. Yet, they are on the verge of making the last payment on the mortgage. The day he dies, the house belongs to him and Linda. He is coping on the fifty dollars a week he borrows from Charley. His situation is not lost. He could try to find work that would bring in the few dollars on which he and Linda could manage.

            Yet, from the outset, what bothers Willy is not just his own decline, but Biff’s failure to make a start. He’s thirty-four and working as farmhand. In the early exchange with his brother he says:

            “Hap, I’ve had twenty or thirty different kinds of jobs since I left home before the war, and it always turns out the same….I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life.”

It’s easy for the audience to see him as  a typical lost young man, an overgrown “crazy mixed-up kid” as they were called in the 1960s. Maybe he is victim of the economic system, maybe his parenting has been lacking, maybe he has made the wrong choices. It is only late in the play, despite finding out much earlier that he has been involved in theft, that the audience discovers he has spent three months in prison for stealing a suit; and only in the scene in which he suffers the devastation of discovering his father with his floosy, that it can start to make sense of everything that has gone before.

            “You fake ! You phoney little fake! You fake!” he cries.

            Biff has been halted in his effort to grow up by his knowledge, which he shares with no one, that his father is a cheat. Like Hamlet, he has been shown the truth and he doesn’t know what to do with it. Biff and Willy are the casualties in the play. Linda is remarkably strong. She is able to endure in spite of the breakdown of the relationship between Willy and Biff and her husband’s fantasies, contradictions and inconsistencies. That she goes on dispensing love in the face of impossible circumstances is heroic. She stands for sanity and hope in a world collapsing into madness and despair. Biff and Willy are conjoined. Biff knows the truth about his dad and Willy knows he knows. Willy knows what has robbed Biff of his chance of growing up, and Biff knows he knows.

            Willy is heartbroken. It looks as if this is because he can’t do his job anymore. When we have no more evidence to go on, this is the sensible conclusion; but after he is caught in the cheap, adulterous liaison, it’s impossible not to change perspective. What is really eating away at Willy is guilt and what Biff can’t live with is that his loving mother has been betrayed and knows nothing about it.

            The customary interpretations of the play, make little of Willy’s sexual deceit. It is the failure of the American Dream, the rise of a vulgar pursuit of possessions, an unhinged consumerism and the decline of the sturdy values on the Founding Fathers, that are deemed to be the cause of Willy’s despair. If the sexual deception is mentioned, it is sometimes seen as a symptom of his collapsing sense of self, a desperate attempt to escape a crushing loneliness. Yet a dramatist of Miller’s stature doesn’t include such material unless it has real significance. The corruption at the heart of the Loman family is the result of Willy’s unprincipled behaviour. Further, the one truly valuable thing he has in life is Linda. Were he able to recognise its value, she could save him, in spite of his problems at work.

            Willy’s complaints about Biff are a means of deflecting his guilt. His wild expectations for him perform the same role. Of course, he has always entertained exorbitant ambitions, in keeping with his culture’s go-getting. Biff was never going to match them. Willy ruined his sons by a curious kind of neglect: a failure to meet their real needs masked by extravagant ambitions for their futures. Perhaps this is typical of parenting in go-getting cultures: the children can’t be loved for what they are, they must be valued only if they “make it big” in some way or other. Willy was destined to be disappointed by his sons because he couldn’t see what they were. The conservative strain of American culture, with its vicious attribution of the status of “loser” to anyone without money and status, has infested Willy’s mind. It destroys his sense of selfhood. He has to talk himself up and he can’t accept that he’s growing old and slowing down. Go-getting cultures are by definition cultures of youth. It’s hard to be a thrusting go-getter with a bad back, high blood pressure and macular degeneration, and such cultures are future-oriented: past achievements quickly fade. It destroys the possibility of love, which values the other in spite of their failings.

            Biff was certain never to measure up in Willy’s eyes. He was doomed to be lost because of his father’s unhinged pushiness. Yet what really dooms him and shreds the relationship  is his discovery that Willy is a cheap adulterer. He betrays Linda’s long-suffering love for the sake of an egotistic thrill. Crucially, only Biff and Willy know this. Every time Willy laments Biff’s failure to get on in life, he is reviving his guilt. When Biff stands at Willy’s graveside and says, “He never knew who he was”, Charley responds:

                                    “Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman there is no rock bottom to life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut…A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”

Biff replies:

                                    “Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.”

            Are they both right? Did Willy not know who he was because he was a salesman? He was selling himself, as everyone must in a capitalist economy. This is the essential feature of his self-destruction. Yet Miller has made his sexual deceit central. The phoniness of the culture permeates every relationship. Willy can’t be a husband and father, he can’t make love prevail, because Biff is right: he doesn’t know who he is. Who can, when we are supposed to mistake money and “success” for selfhood?