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There are few dramas that continue to resonate across the ages as ‘Death of a Salesman’. So multifaceted and subtle are the elements of the story as it unfolds, the best advice is to read the play at your leisure prior to attending a stage production. This will ensure a more comprehensive appreciation of the tale. While there are any number of subjects that would be good fodder for an essay, in this composition we will examine the multiple examples of the illusion of the American dream and its folly as they appear throughout the drama.
Let us begin with a brief summation of this classic account of an ordinary American man’s life in the late 1940’s. Willy Loman, his name indicative of something less than a member of the winning inner circle, was naught more than a traveling salesman. One would have to live during this era to understand the near contempt such an employment position instigated from others. Before venturing further into this review, it bears noting that the term ‘traveling’ has a double connotation – first as it indicates Loman’s job but, as well, regarding Loman’s endless search for happiness and success throughout the course of his life. One can feel the urgency and despair wafting from Loman from the opening lines. I daresay that it is human nature to want to distance yourself from an individual who so obviously falls within the ‘loser category’ – even today and despite psychology that claims we should be understanding of others and offer a helping hand. No, like a drowning man it is as much an inclination to avoid him lest you, too, be pulled under. That stench of failure and death emanates from Loman in each exchange and makes it difficult to continue to read the script. For myself, I was in search of the ‘proverbial’ exit with the exhalation of each line. A pall of depression hangs over this dramatic narration from opening to close.
In Act 1 we learn that Loman has poured the realization of all his hopes and dreams into his sons, whose future and success will validate Loman’s own life. Mind you, this is not untypical of most parents, but was likely becoming more pronounced at the time of Miller’s play because the country was on the cusp of prosperity that would allow for this indulgence. In other words, it was indicative of the ‘American dream’ as it was growing and taking shape during this decade. Biff and Happy, Loman’s prodigies, would fall short of his expectations and not only because of their own shortcomings. A life-changing event occurred when Biff found his father with another woman, and this caused a profound change in their relationship – never really to be repaired. We learn that Willy has aged and become less suited to a life on the road. At his wife’s behest he asks his boss for a local ‘gig’ and finds himself unemployed. The story continues down this spiral of depression in relentless fashion drawing the reader or play-goer to experience not only the same despair as Willy, but the poignant pain of each of the other characters, too.
In order to pacify their increasingly erratic father and his complaints of their lack of success, the boys console him with tales that are exaggerations of future career possibilities. Biff, certainly the one whom Loman had pinned his hopes and dreams on, attempts to engage a former boss in a business proposition only to be turned down. His brother, Happy (such a starkly out-of-place name in this dramatic presentation) warns him to shield his father from the truth. Raw emotions complete with flashbacks nearly drown the cast and audience in despondency as the truth is revealed during a restaurant sit-down. We are reminded that Loman had spoken earlier to a neighbor and delivered what was an obvious omen – ‘the writing is on the wall’, claiming he was worth more dead than alive. That is his ultimate fate – as neither he nor the play could be saved from any other outcome. It is the proposition of this writer that the illusion of the American dream drove the events of this story – from Loman’s obvious desire to provide material comforts to his family – all while offering no sense of emotional reliance (a wife who has been cheated on and treated as a non-entity, a son who finds his father with another woman) – never realizing that is the origin of true success, to the references to the trappings of what even then were considered to be evidence of having reached the ‘American dream’ – i.e., Charley’s son a successful lawyer. Time and again, we hear Loman complain he does not have the money to keep his family in the same lap of luxury of possessions as the people around him. He complains of running short of money, and his life’s regret of not joining his brother, Ben, who ventured to Africa in search of a diamond fortune. All of this yearning for material goods has done nothing but bring about an unhappy mental state and an inability to appreciate the true wealth in life. Let us consider at greater length the origin of the ‘American dream’ or its conceptualization as authentic.
According to one source the American dream is ‘the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved’. The concept can be traced to an author named James Truslow Adams who popularized the phrase in a 1931 text titled “Epic of America”. It only iterated the belief held in many corners of the globe that the United States is a land of hope and promise. But, originally, it was the goal of those who were willing to work hard for it, and it did not come as a guarantee along with citizenship. It did not take long for the idea to be reshaped and embraced as a covenant that many believed was prerequisite to adulthood and citizenship. If this were true in the 1940’s at the time of Miller’s premiere, it is only a thousand percent more so today.
The concept lives on in American life today, but a review of the country’s history might confirm the idea is cemented in this era as Loman (and his fellow Americans and family). Perhaps it has been fueled by technological innovations that set into motion the ceaseless quest for material goods that oftentimes cannot be quenched – a phenomenon that has continued to the present day. Or maybe it was Madison Avenue that created this bill of goods and sold it to everyone willing to pay a buck for a glossy magazine that shouted ‘this should be you’ from every page. For the reader or play-attendee, this quest for material goods obviously does not equate to a rich and fulfilling life. We can see it and want to shake Willy Loman into the same realization.
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