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Theatre: Attention!

Harold Clurman reviews "Death Of A Salesman"

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Attention must be paid to such a man. Attention!" The man his wife refers to is Willy Loman, the central figure of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Perhaps the chief virtue of the play is the attention that Miller makes us pay to the man and his problem, for the man represents the lower middle class, the $50-a-weekplus-commission citizen, whose dream is to live to a ripe old age doing a great volume of business over the telephone. It was not unusual to hear of this person in the thirties, but in the theatre of the forties he has once more become the forgotten man.

The play has tremendous impact because it makes its audience recognize itself. Willy Loman is everybody's father, brother, uncle or friend, his family are our cousins; 'Death Of A Salesman" is a documented history of our lives. It is not a realistic portrait, it is a demonstration both of the facts and of their import. "We had the wrong dream," says Biff', Willy Loman's son, and what Miller is saying in terms few can miss is that this wrong dream is one the greater part of America still cherishes.

The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell, the prosperous man next door tells Willy. This is the harsh fact, but Willy, the poor dear fellow, is not satisfied with it. He wants to be well-liked. It is natural and healthy to harbor this desire, but the philosophy of Willy's economic situation denatures this desire to the hope of being well-liked or "known" as a way to security, success, salvation. To be a "personality" is to cultivate those traits which make one sufficiently "well-liked" to do a greater volume of business so that one may achieve a brighter place in the sun.

The competition Willy encounters is too tough for his modest talents; the path he has chosen denies his true being at every step. He idolizes the dream beyond the truth of himself, and he thus becomes a "romantic," shadowy nonentity, a liar, a creature for whom happiness only lies in looking miracles, since reality mocks his pretensions. His real ability for physical work seems trivial and mean to him. "Even your grandfather was more of a carpenter," he tells Biff. From this perpetual self-denial he looses the sense of his own thought; he is a stranger to his own soul; he no longer knows what he thinks either of his sons or his automobile (he boosts and denounces them both in almost the same breath); he cannot tell who are his true friends; his is forever in a state of enthusiastic or depressed bewilderment. "That man never knew who he was," Biff says of him. He never owns anything outright till his death by suicide (committed to give Biff a foundation of $20,000); he has never been free. 

His sons suffer the guilt of the father: Biff, the older, with increasing consciousness; Hap, the younger, stupidly. Hap seeks satisfaction as a course ladies' man. Biff cannot find any satisfaction because, being more sensitive and trusting than his brother, he tries to live according to his father's dream with which he has nothing in common—the boy yearns to live on the land. Only toward the end does Biff discover the spiritual hoax of his father's life, the corruption of heart and mind to which his "ideals" are leading him. With his father's death Biff has possibly achieved sufficient self-awareness to change his course; Hap—like most of us—persists in following the way of his father. He will go on striving "to come out No. 1 man..." The point of all this is not that our economic system does not work, but that its ideology distorts man's true nature. Willy's well-adjusted neighbor "never took an interest in anything" and has no aspiration beyond the immediately practicable.

Arthur Miller is a moralist. His talent is for a kind of humanistic jurisprudence: he sticks to the facts of the case. For this reason his play is clearer than those of other American playwrights with similar insight whose lyric gifts tend to reflect the more elusive and imponderable aspects of the same situation. There is poetry in "Death of a Salesman"—not the poetry of the senses or of the soul, but of ethical conscience. It might have been graven on stone—like tablets of law. "Death of a Salesman" stirs us by its truth, the ineluctability of its evidence and judgment which permits no soft evasion. Though the play's environment is one we associate with a grubby realism, its style is like a clean accounting on the books of an understanding but severe sage. We cry before it like children being chastised by an occasionally humorous, not unkindly but unswervingly just father. "Death of a Salesman" is rational, dignified and profoundly upright.

Elia Kazan's production conveys these qualities with a swift and masterful thrust—like a perfect blow. He has cast the play admirably, and the entire occasion might be cited as an example of real theatre: meaning and means unified by fine purpose. Lee J. Cobb, who plays Willy Loman, is surely one of the most powerful and juicy actors on our stage today. He displays a tendency in this part to sacrifice characterization to a certain grandiosity. Willy Loman's wife speaks of his exhaustion, and Willy himself refers to his having grown fat and foolish-looking. None of these textual indications is taken, into sufficient account, and what is gained in general impressiveness is lost in a want of genuine pathos.

Indeed the tone of histrionic bravura tends to make the others in the cast—for instance, Arthur Kennedy, the beautifully sensitive actor who plays Biff—push a little too hard. The production therefore pays for its virtues by a lack of intimacy, which is the dimension needed to make the event complete. Mildred Dunnock, in her simplicity and delicacy of feeling, is like the symbolic beacon of everything sound in the production. Tom Pedi, as a waiter, is as real and tasty as a garlic salad; Hope Cameron, in the smallest role in the play, suggests a remarkably touching naïveté. Both have a specific reality that I sould have liked to see carried through all the longer parts. But virtually everyone in "Death of a Salesman" is better than good; and the whole marks a high point of significant expression in the American theatre of our time.