Death of a Salesman, Life of a Jew: Ethnicity, Business, and the Character of Willy Loman
the greatest American play, arguably, is the story of a Jew told by a Jew and cast in "universal" terms. Willy Loman is a Jew in a Jewish industry. But he is never identified as such. His story is never avowed as a Jewish story, and so a great contribution to Jewish American history is lost. It's lost to culture as a whole, and, more importantly, it's lost to the Jews, its rightful owners. (Mamet is quoted in the Michigan Quarterly Review of Fall 1998 in an interview with Arthur Miller, in which Miller agreed only with Mamet's characterization of Willy as a Jew and of his story as a Jewish one.)
I would like to propose that the divided impulse in Miller-a division immediately noticeable in his choice of first names for his characters -between making his play and his protagonist Jewish, and making them universal or representatively American, was largely responsible for the flaws in the drama that I am now going to detail.
To be sure, Death of a Salesman contains the idea for a great play, and I would maintain that its immense international success comes from the force of that idea prevailing over the defects in execution. The force takes hold with the very title, which is highly evocative-both declaring the significance of a (not "the") salesman's death and finding value in his very ordinariness or anonymity-and is amplified by the opening sight of Willy Loman coming in the door. That sight is a superb theater image of our time, as unforgettable an icon as Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her wagon (another traveling salesman!): the salesman home, "tired to the death," lugging his two heavy sample cases, after having been rejected by the big milk-filled bosom of the nation from which he had expected so much nourishment. What does he sell? The commodity is never identified, for Willy is, in a sense, selling himself, and is therefore a survivor of that early tradition of drummers in this country: men who, viewing their personality-not their product-as their chief ware, claimed they could sell anything.
The force of Salesman's idea, moreover, continues fitfully to grasp at us: the idea of a man who has sold things without making them, who has paid for other things without really owning them, who is an insulted extrusion of commercial society battling for some sliver of authenticity before he slips into the dark. And battling without a real villain in sight. Willy's boss, Howard, comes closest to that role when he fires or retires Willy for poor performance, but Howard's failing is not ruthlessness,- it is lack of understanding (as exhibited in one of the last things he says to his ex-employee, "Pull yourself together, kid," a weakness that links him to Willy himself). The American economy in the late 1940s was dominated not by the Howards of the world, but by large corporations whose charismatic founders, the "robber barons," were long dead. Instead of clear-cut enemies, then, there were vast, confusing hierarchies, and, to his credit, Miller was one of the first writers to comprehend this change. For late capitalism is depicted in his play as having become impersonal and bureaucratic; instead of class struggle, there is simple anomie.
Nonetheless, to read or see Death of a Salesman again is to perceive how Arthur Miller lacked the...