It must’ve been sometime early high school when I saw my sister finish the last moments of Death of a Salesman (1985) starring Dustin Hoffman. After all these years the ending still lingers in my memory like impressions on soft clay: he grabs his fedora, mumbles to himself, quietly blows a kiss goodbye to his wife, closes the door behind, and stands his famous silhouette. I didn’t know the context, but the scene felt hopeless and tragic but not completely defeated. I thought to myself: what a sad movie—why watch it?
After having finally read Death of a Salesman, now I kind of want to watch it.
William “Willy” Loman is a born salesman. In his prime he was bringing hundreds of dollars a week (a substantial sum during the late 1940s). He had buyers in the palm of his hand in New England. He bought a mid-sized home with satisfactory mortgage for his tirelessly loyal wife Linda and two boys, Biff and Happy. He was a valuable asset to his company and was adored by his family. He had it all.
Twenty, thirty years later, he was on the brink of losing it all. After working relentlessly for 40 odd years, he is still on the road and on commission barely making it. His sons are estranged or aloof to him. His wife worries for him constantly—just the other day he dazed while driving and nearly hit a youngster. He’s schizophrenic: he loses himself between talking in the present and in his memories, and he takes advice from his dead brother.
Eventually, he loses it all and ends up dead. Linda sums up the vanity of it all when she says before his tombstone that on the day he died she made their last mortgage payment.
Willy is a troubled man, and his delusion in old age has roots in his young adulthood. He thought all one needs to be successful is to be well-liked: that’s how you land a job or make a sale. And well-liked people don’t receive help or pity; instead, they’re the ones who pity and help others. He droned this life-principle to his sons, particularly Biff. Don’t worry about grades, don’t let that smarty-pants Bernard and his nosy father Charles who live across the street bother or help you—they’re not popular. Make a good impression: smile and be forward. And remember: you’re Willy’s son. But such a life-principle makes for shaky relationships.
Willy’s estrangement with Biff was years in the making. A bloated sense of self-importance and a lack of responsibility built Biff’s house of cards. All it needed was one fatal mistake or event to bring it tumbling down. And refusing to admit fault, Willy nor Biff acknowledges each’s mistakes to the other’s face. Instead they strongly voice disappointments and frustrations. Eventually, visiting home becomes tiresome, and it’s easier to stay away.
Alongside the often painful dynamics of parental expectations and the child’s individuality, Death of a Salesman touches on working and living in America. All his life, Willy is hustling, then suddenly the roof needs fixing, the refrigerator’s fan is broken, the pipes are busted, the insurance’s premium is due. All the money earned is money spent, and the bill paid is replaced with new ones. Though set in late 1940s, the despair of making ends meet is just as alive and tormenting today.
I don’t read plays much. Actually, this might be my third (I never finished a Shakespearean play; maybe I should). Besides stage directions and the barest setting description, plays are dominated by dialogue, which makes reading more interesting than seeing and hearing the play. Often I reread lines in different tones to sense if the feel of the play becomes more natural or forced. It’s hard to imagine Willy not yelling at every point besides his mumbles. His boisterous attitude reinforces his defensive and unstable nature. But what if some lines are calm, collected statements? How does that change the flow of the play? I feel as if I’m a director trying to capture the best reenactment. Plays feel like undiscovered tastes: I can’t wait to feast on more.
The Hoffman/Malkovich version you’re referring to is very good! It’s definitely worth checking out if you haven’t seen it. It’s available for free via the Hoopla library app but you might find it on YouTube as well. My mother had an old LP recording of the original Broadway version starring Lee J. Cobb (Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist) as Willy Loman which I listened to repeatedly. Such a tragic story. Ecclesiastes 2:11 comes to mind. And you are right about parental expectations, they can often do lasting harm. If you are interested in exploring more plays I would recommend early Harold Pinter (The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter, The Room) or David Mamet (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glenn Ross). Sam Shepard’s True West or Buried Child are also great – the latter explores themes similar to Salesman. Thanks again for a great review!
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Thanks for the suggestions, Mike! I’ll definitely try to get my hands on these plays (not sure how readily I can access them…).
Poor guy. I want to read this play now. But haven’t finished sapiens yet.
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Poor guy, indeed… You should definitely read it! It’s feel like an old classic.