‘I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid’
One of the proudest moments of this writer’s life was shaking Arthur Miller’s hand. He was one of the world’s greatest living dramatists, a seer and for many, a hero for standing up to McCarthy and HUAC. This brief encounter was a huge honour; meeting Miller will always be a fond and proud memory. This great American writer made a gargantuan impression in person as well as on the page. Since his death, his voice and passion for the little man in society has become even more relevant in an age with fewer heroes and less certainty than when Miller was writing in his prime.
Death of a Salesman still has the power to move audiences to deep reflection on the iniquities of capitalism and hold a mirror up to contemporary society. The current production in Dublin’s Gate Theatre reminds us, that in these times of financial and existential angst, we need to keep going back to the wisdom of artists to interpret our increasingly paradoxical Western lives. We are free to buy, when we have money, and to vote, when there are genuine alternatives offered, but we feel increasingly trapped in a punitive, unfeeling financial system. We have liberty but feel confined and powerless in a rudderless universe. Only art can anchor us – only our imagination can guide us to what is real.
Miller does not judge Willie Loman, for how can he? We are Willie and he is us; the western consumer terrified of looking outside accepted commercial and economic theory and practice. Willie spends all his life working for the Man convinced that the same Man will live up to his side of the bargain. When this covenant breaks down, Willie is traumastied; he simply can’t comprehend how the system let him down. This trauma has spread around the globe as corporations have slashed benefits and cut costs to a decimating effect. The fear of ending up being cast off by faceless imposers of a pseudo-Darwinian creed is pervasive. There is no hiding place from this catechism, repeated daily in op-eds and talking heads shows; we are where we are and this is how we get out of it, you can sink or swim.
‘After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.’
The ‘shock doctrine’ espoused and adopted since a few thousand testosterone-fuelled, mathematically bright but emotionally highly unintelligent young men bankrupted the world, has stunned many into paralysis. It is a messianic mantra, brooking no other course, allowing for no dissent and marginalising opponents as either misled fools or dangerous radicals. They have co-opted many ragged trousered philanthropists just like Willie Loman, terrified of what will happen if the system leaves them behind.
One of the more alarming aspects to Miller’s play is that we are in many ways in a weaker position today than when the play was written in 1949. The atomised society, the decline of community supports and the erosion of welfare safety nets all point to a world of less security and more fear than that in post-war America. ‘Death of a Salesman’ is still essential and compelling viewing. It will, sadly, probably always have a contemporary feel; unless, of course, we change the nature and content of the ‘Dream’.