I've never liked Death of a Salesman, but I figured that maybe I'd just never seen a really first-rate production. With their current production, the Denver Center Theatre Company and director Anthony Powell have fielded the perfect cast: Mike Hartman — whose performance as the ethically compromised protagonist of All My Sons caused me to re-examine all of my ideas about Arthur Miller — plays Willy Loman; the wondrous Lauren Klein is his wife, Linda. There are also strong performances in the crucial roles of the Lomans' sons: John Patrick Hayden as Biff and M. Scott McClean as a fluid, superficially charming Happy. And yet, more than ever — and despite the excellent acting — Salesman strikes me as a terrible play.
Start with the iconic opening image of a weary Willy Loman coming home weighed down by his heavy traveling cases. He's a symbol rather than a specific human being, and we're never told exactly what he sells. The vagueness is deliberate, because Miller was looking to communicate overarching truths and create a lofty commentary on the human condition in mid-twentieth-century America, when marketing and salesmanship were beginning to secure their death grip on the culture, and everything, including human beings, was becoming a commodity. Loman believes that the way to success is to sell not a product, but himself, and in order to do that, he has to be liked. This idea was very much in the air in 1949, when Salesman was written — some thirteen years after Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People influenced pretty much the entire nation. The idea seems quaint these days, though, when the titans of industry are praised for aggression rather than affability, and niceness is of no help at all to the underpaid folks working under them.
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Miller's reach for some kind of profound truth results in a murky plot and a lot of equally murky language. Willy Loman isn't the traditional tragic hero — he's not wise, strong or powerful, nor brought down by a single flaw. Poor Willy is nothing but flaws — so many that it's difficult to determine exactly what's wrong with him — and this despite Hartman's subtle, honest and transparent performance. He bullies and complains, boasts and apologizes, flies into rages and suddenly crumples. He's clearly delusional, and perhaps succumbing to dementia. Except that in the many first-act flashbacks, when he's supposedly younger, he's just as irrational as in the apparent present — which means that either he was somewhat demented all his life, or his memories are colored by his current madness.
Whichever, Willy Loman isn't really brought to his knees by a corrupt society — tossed aside by the march of progress like an orange peel, as he complains to his boss. His mortgage is almost paid off; he's offered a job by a friend, which he unhesitatingly turns down. In the real world, Social Security would soon have kicked in for this man. And no one in the family ever suggests that Linda get a job — as tens of thousands of American women did in the post-war years — instead of slopping around in her slippers doing endless loads of laundry, making sandwiches and fawning over her husband.
Denver Center Theater Company
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 20, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.
Miller's impulse was to elevate and celebrate the lives of ordinary people, but the Lomans aren't ordinary; they're toxic. Willy and Linda have wrecked their two kids, over-favoring Biff and neglecting Happy. As a result, Happy, who has completely bought into his father's salesman philosophy, lives a booze-filled, dishonest, womanizing life, while Biff has destroyed the idyllic — if underpaid — ranching life he once led through petty thievery. You'd like to feel sympathy for these nurturance-starved, over-aged boys, but you can't, because they're as awash in self-pity as their parents.
If the language were strong or beautiful enough, it might ransom all faults, but much of it feels emptily portentous. Miller is often listed among the great English-speaking dramatists, but listen to any well-known speech by August Wilson, Beckett or Shakespeare — Mercutio describing Queen Mab, Vladimir's "They give birth astride of a grave" — and whether it's delivered badly or well, you'll hear something rich and new. But when Charley eulogizes Willy at the play's end, saying, "Nobody dast blame this man" and describing the salesman as "riding on a smile and a Shoeshine," the "dast" feels pretentious and the rest as worn as Willy's down-at-the-heels shoes.