Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

I want to start this with a dream that plagued me for most of my marriage. I never talked about it with my spouse, but in hindsight, and the fact that I haven’t had it since my divorce close to five years ago, it is so obvious as a metaphor – a metaphor that is so beautifully spelled out in Miller’s Death of a Salesman. 

In my dream, I would be home alone in the house, usually in the basement. It was one place in the home that was relegated to being my space, however, it was unfinished and cold. In my dream, I learned there was an entire other sub-basement that was separated by wood flooring I never noticed before. There were lights down there, and a bonus basement that was warmer and completely unused. I would shut the lights off and go upstairs, and looking in the backyard I would be reminded that the three acres we owned were being made into a subdivision, and I would see people driving their trucks, cutting our trees down, and beginning to build homes back there and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. In some versions of the dream, I would be walking the neighborhood and finding it completely built up and new highways and offramps being built to accommodate it. But I would see the headlights, the mud, and the dirt completely uprooting the solace of the forest I had at the back of our property. When I reentered the house, friends of mine I wasn’t allowed to see or speak with would be there, in secret. Nothing nefarious was happening, but panic ensued as my wife pulled up the driveway. I didn’t know where they would go, where they would hide. We weren’t doing anything wrong, but the simple act of having a relationship with someone other than my spouse and the uncovering of this as a result of her insecurities and the resulting ire was so terrifying that I never knew what to do. 

That is usually where the dream would end. A metaphor of what any human would want had been invaded and bulldozed, and the only salvation was a sub-basement no one knew about. A room of one’s own after being alienated from loving familial and platonic relationships, a complete invasion of independence and personal sovereignty, nothing that reflects what one’s real dreams even could’ve amounted to… Not love, but business, and one being run into the ground at that. It was a metaphor for everything I experienced in my adulthood. What was meant to bring security brought a fear, irrational sacrifice of basic needs, loneliness, and disappointment in everything that is supposed to bring such emotional wealth and joy. The center of it? The desire for control and manipulation I couldn’t have imagined, especially when I didn’t even see it happening… for what? 

I don’t think I have read or seen this play since I read it as a teenager in high school at some point… And here I stand as a middle-aged man teaching it to my own acting and theater arts classes this past April, hardly able to contain my own understanding of where my personal life and career took so many major turns based on the expectations and ability of others to project their needs onto me without providing for anything that they were responsible for and making sure I met the needs of all of their desires. It was always what I wasn’t doing, and sacrificing, and how I was supposed to behave to suit some American con that always ends the same no matter what money you have or where you end up. A trail of breadcrumbs, a thousand paper cuts until you bleed to death. Someday is always a day, a week, a career away, never now. Now isn’t the time for joy, it’s for making sure everyone can see what the real good housekeeping seal of approval looks like in action no matter the cost to even those you love the most. A cardboard façade of happiness on a pile of junk. The dunes of trash at the end of Labyrinth, a bag-goblin carrying her material burdens on her back, tricking Sarah into thinking she’s back in her bedroom.

Death of a Salesman is about these very themes, and reading it now reflects how this very conceit was present in my frustrated, dark dreams for so long. Where do you go when no matter what you do results in being perpetually disappointed in the uselessness of your life? Why did Willy choose not to go to Alaska, to stay on top of Biff’s grades until it was too late, to stay loyal to his wife and stop making so many compromises for his happiness? Why do so many people still buy into the American Dream when joy and success and making it – truly making it and being happy with one’s life – has nothing to do with material possessions and recognition and what anyone else thinks? Willy’s sanity in many ways hinges on realizing that the answers to the questions of life aren’t even the correct answers to the correct questions… That the answers for the life he had always wanted were always right in front of him, happiness within reach, but with his house literally surrounded on all sides by new apartment buildings and he tries for the first time to plant a little garden in whatever small dusty plot of land that is left might bring the answer of something he finally has control over for himself and his own joy… But in the end, because there is truly no path to his reward, there is only one way he can finally prove to himself he does in fact have control over something in his life. 

This play is a gorgeous American Nightmare, and one that I believe hasn’t truly disappeared from American culture since its release in 1949. What is even more depressing, however, is that Miller held a mirror up to a society that reflected the very essence of this play… But perhaps he never could have imagined that it would devolve even further into a sea of unrealistic expectations and impossible relationships. After reading Nomadland, and understanding that so many people are still on the track to do whatever it takes to achieve these very same unrealistic goals over seventy years later in an era where it is absolutely impossible to achieve them. And for what? We have elderly adults living in RVs and shooting themselves in the head in the desert, and I ask again, for what?  

Our expectations of what makes us happy are so completely out of touch with reality that so many more humans sitting on deathbeds suffocated of resentments, regrets, anger, and the desire to inflict as much pain as possible that the true meaning of a good, kind, rewarding life seems not only be in a completely different universe than this one but is entirely not within the realm of consciousness and awareness to the brainwashed. Technology isn’t helping – the hours and years lost to the screen, let alone the dissolving of already fragile relationships based on bizarre social rules that aren’t even real as they entirely hinge on the use of the subtext of a comma or the vitriol spurned by capitalization that intends aggression. Who would even want a relationship like that? 

Willy became sick once his eyes were opened, and he relived and relived and relived the moments when he made the wrong choice or his boundaries were trampled or he was disrespected and ignored… There was truly only one way out. Willy suggests that “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive,” and Charley responds, “Willy, nobody’s worth nothin’ dead… Willy, did you hear what I said?” 

He didn’t. 

And so, the wheel of a dysfunctional family in denial turns and turns to the play’s inevitable, tragic conclusion. 

It is a magnificent play that, save for the complications of a globalized world with a raging pandemic, is certainly just as relevant today as it was when it came out (if not more). What we do to one another, based on such ruthless expectations and fantasies that have entirely no purpose besides making our lives more difficult for no reason, is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.  The American Dream is dead forever. Death to material things and the public performance. Long live love. 

Photo Credit: Fredrick Kearney Jr fredasem, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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