A review of the Ensemble Theatre production of “Death of a Salesman”

Last Friday night, my wife and I went to see the Ensemble Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s iconic “Death of a Salesman” at the York Theatre in the Seymour Centre, Sydney.

As I have gone through my life I’ve come to realise that many classic pieces of literature are justifiably well-known.  I can remember reading Moby Dick, and thinking to myself “no wonder this is so famous”. Melville’s book was not only very well written with an interesting story it also covered a lot of ground, in regards to the human condition.  It’s just like every time I’m exposed to something created by Shakespeare I’m in awe of his consciousness of the multitude of facets of existence.

It would be very easy to dismiss American cultural artefacts as dross, produced by greedy money grubbers for morons, due to the fact much of it is. 

But not all of it is! 

Fifty years ago the protean Arthur Miller stood surefooted and neck deep in the swift current of post-war stupidity and ignorance. Not only did Miller reject the idea that mere self belief and popularity was enough to succeed, he also stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era by refusing to name, names.  Arthur Miller was a freethinking giant whose thoughts were well ahead of their day.

I have to admit that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going to see “Death of a Salesman” as I had preconceived ideas that it would be just a dreary little kitchen sink drama about a salesman getting old and losing his mojo.  Yes, “Death of a Salesman”, is on the surface, fairly much what I thought it would be, but, it is so much more than just that.  It’s all about how our lives are shaped by the architecture of the cultural myths many of us carry around in our heads. It’s a testament to Arthur Miller’s genius that “Death of a Salesman”, still rings true and has relevance 50 years after it was written. It really is a modern classic.

The play is basically about a salesman (Willy Loman) at the end of his life and career as he comes to terms with the onset of dementia, the futility of his life, the estrangement of his eldest son (Biff), and the realisation of how his mistaken belief system has led him from the path to happiness and fulfilment.

The Loman family is held together by Linda, as the conflict between Biff and Willy threatens to tear it apart.  Linda Loman is the loving wife who soothes the troubled spirit of Willy and doting mother who tries to get her two sons to understand her husband and what he is going through.

Without totally retelling the story I would like to discuss a few of the themes that were raised during the play that resonated with me.

Self image, and how it affects the way how we interact with the rest of the world.
I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that I think that Arthur Miller felt that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t accept another person’s love for you.  Much like what Groucho Marx once said, “I would never belong to a club that would accept me as a member”.  The character Willy Loman, whilst occasionally acknowledging his frailties is basically all bullshit and bluster.  Willy may talk up a storm about his popularity, success as a salesman and how he has followed the right track in life, but it’s pretty obvious his self-loathing is interfering with the relationship he has with his eldest son, Biff. The estrangement between Willy and Biff has its genesis in an incident from Biff’s high school graduation year.  Up until the incident in question, Biff had always had a high regard for Willy, and Willy in return, basked in the sunshine of his eldest son’s love and respect.  After the incident, Willy realised he could no longer present himself as an honourable and decent role model worthy of love and respect and this fact, poisoned all his other relationships for the rest of his life.

Delusional self belief.
It has long been promulgated in America that if you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything.  Just follow your dream. It’s only recently here in Australia, that such a proposition has been argued against.  I guess many of us over here have secretly thought that perhaps such hubris was the cornerstone of American success.  It would seem that Willy has a huge amount of self belief in himself and his sons.  The only trouble is reality doesn’t seem to agree.

Happiness through consumption.
The advertising world would have us believe that happiness can be achieved through our purchases.  All we have to do is trade our lives by getting onto the work treadmill and make enough money to buy the products that are offered.  Now that Willy is older, he realises that many of the things that he worked so hard to acquire aren’t providing the joy he had hoped.  All the material things in Willy’s world seem to be breaking down and failing just like his mind. In his pursuit of things material, Willy has neglected his family and his friendships.

The danger of conformity, and the danger of not conforming.
On one hand, Willy (who seems to be the personification of the aspirational American archetype), respects the idea of marching to the beat of a different drummer and going out into the world on one’s own to make one’s fortune.  On the other hand, Willy feels that one has to knuckle down and be part of the system to get ahead.  Willy’s brother, Ben, (who had invited Willy to come along with him, but Willy stayed behind) had gone out and made his fortune in Africa.  Willy had self belief, a wife, family and a stable job and he wasn’t about to put that at risk, much to his regret later in life.  All throughout the play Willy is giving conflicting advice to his sons.  Go out and take a chance to find yourself and your fortune like your Uncle Ben!  Stop being a bum and get a job like me!  Willy’s youngest son Hap (short for Happy) is following Willy’s lead of trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, whereas Biff has been drifting doing odd jobs out west on farms. 

Popularity trumps education.
Willy always had high hopes for his son and Biff, who was very popular high school football star. There are several times during the play, where Willy makes the point that all a man needs to get ahead in life is to be popular and make a good impression.  He takes every chance to pour scorn on his neighbours son’s academic achievements and actually seems to take delight as he retards his own son’s education.

Sex and alcohol are a small man’s sunshine.
Willy’s younger son, Hap, seems to be living the life that is promoted by Willy. As the play progresses Hap’s life is revealed as an empty sham of soulless carousing.  

When the play first started, I found the American accents very jarring and I was wondering why the play wasn’t just performed in the local accent.  That was until I realised that the play was actually set in New York, and refers to many places in New York, and therefore a generic accent couldn’t be used.  Another reason why I found the American accent a bit disconcerting was that I was afraid that the actors wouldn’t be able to pull it off for the whole length of the play, and it would all start to sound a bit lame.  For the most part the accents, while being a little over the top were pretty good and after a while, I didn’t even notice them.  The only actor who didn’t seem to be able to do the American Accent very well was the fellow who played Willy’s brother Ben.

Most of the play takes part in the here and now, but every now and again there are hallucinatory flashbacks representing Willy’s decaying mind.  I found that during the flashbacks I couldn’t help but marvel at how well a job of directing that Sandra Bates had done in keeping the story comprehensible.  It would have been so easy to turn the story into a confusing opaque mishmash.

Sean Taylor is completely believable as the flawed Willy Loman, and much to his credit I didn’t feel like I was watching an actor act.  Taylor manages to convey Willy’s decrepitude and lack of character very convincingly.

Jacki Weaver plays the careworn Linda with a steely pathos of such conviction that I found myself being angry with the Willy character, for not treating her with the kindness and thoughtfulness that her character deserved.

Anthony Gooley is a wonderful Biff.  One minute he is a self doubting and tortured lost soul, then the next he is a confident and enthusiastic high school sports star. I really enjoyed Gooley’s transformations during the show.

Tom O’Sullivan plays the cad about town, Hap with the enthusiastic relish of a fox terrier that’s spotted a rat.  He just leaps on the part, gleefully gives it a good shake and then runs off with it.

Judith Hoddinott’s set serves the play well, but its multi-levelled design looks like it would be an actor’s nightmare to navigate in the darkness of the scene changes.  I hope nobody gets hurt on it.

Without trying to sound too dismissive of the obviously evident talent displayed on stage, it’s the writing of the play, and the ideas that it carries that are the stars of the show. 

The play triggered many memories of conversations and shouting matches I had within my own family as I was growing up. The myths that are presented to us as important goals in our culture can be very distracting in our search for a meaningful life. Mr. Miller has erected a few hazard signs for us with this excellent play.

Without any deliberate hyperbole, I’d say that “Death of a Salesman” is a play that everyone who lives in a first world consumerist society should see at least once in their life.  Preferably sooner than later as it would pay to be conscious of the lessons that it has teach before life passes and myth created mistakes are regretted.