By Fred Wistow
A Classic Play Still Casts a Haunting Spell
I am sitting in the balcony of the Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street, watching--for the second time--the Mike Nichols revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the agonizing final 24 hours in the life (and hallucinatory memories) of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman living in Brooklyn. Emotionally drained the first time I saw it, I'm back to unravel the mystery of why this play is so devastatingly powerful--so much so, in fact, that a few friends, familiar with it, have adamantly refused to see it even once. At the climax, when Willy's older son, Biff, crying like a baby into his father's lap, begs him to please, finally, wake up to the fact that they are nowhere near special, that they're a "dime a dozen," I struggle to rein in my silent weeping, certain that if I don't, I will collapse into uncontrollable sobbing even louder than Biff's.
What is it about this play that can produce such a reaction when hundreds, no, thousands of other plays and movies--already in the process of being forgotten even as they are being seen--cannot? Why, I wonder, is this particular play so special when, as Biff says, the Lomans so clearly aren't? Was it because it struck so close to home?
So close to home?
Albert Wistow was nothing like Willy Loman.
For much of the play, Willy, lost in his head, relives the past, trying to solve the mystery of how his life has turned out the way it has. In these hallucinatory flashbacks, the love story of father and son plays out before us. Willy wooed both his boys with tales of his success and fantasies about their own boundless futures. Even as he puffs them up with how they, too, will be successful beyond all reckoning, he is, as his wife well knows, far from the success he's leading his boys to believe him to be: his salesman's commissions are barely enough to scrape by on; he's a struggling little man who stakes his claim for admiration on a tissue of lies.
In his senior year, Biff fails math, putting his high school graduation and college football scholarship in jeopardy. He instinctively takes off for Boston to seek solace from his father, who's there on a sales trip. When Biff bursts into Willy's hotel room, an irreversible fall from grace takes place. Biff has stumbled into a shocking secret: his father has a mistress. The curtain pulled back, Biff grasps the awful truth: Willy is tawdry, small-time, pathetic--most of all, a phony. The idealized picture he'd had of his father, the one on which his world was based, is shattered, permanently.
From that horrible moment on, their relationship and, in a way, Biff's life, go off the rails. Willy refuses to come to terms with his son's decision to live out West because he's secretly afraid Biff's aimlessness is based on "spite"--Biff's way of getting back at Willy for being a cheat and a liar. As we relive his memories along with him, we come to see how Willy's yarn-spinning evolved into self-deception and, finally, hallucinations. Now, during what will turn out to be the last day of his life, he is almost unreachable, adrift in his fantasies, barely able to distinguish past from present, reality from make-believe.
That was not my father.