Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Sandra Bates
Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Review by Brendan Doyle
First staged in 1949 but still powerfully relevant, Miller's best-known play Death of a Salesman is as searing and complex as The Crucible, which Miller recently adapted for the screen, as spare and devastating as his earlier All My Sons.
As dramatic writing, it is an intricate composition of moods and interweaving themes, here given a superlative treatment by director Sandra Bates, with veteran Max Cullen in one of his best roles.
Bates wanted this production to be "true to Arthur Miller's original vision". Hence the grey, spare set consisting of three platforms representing the kitchen and two bedrooms of the Lomans' New York apartment.
Willy Loman, a 63-year-old travelling salesman, is at the end of the road. As the play opens, his wife Linda (Lorraine Bayly) is woken by Willy stumbling in after a nightmare drive home from a sales trip. He tells her he nearly ran off the road several times.
We soon learn he is now working only on commission. They can't even keep up the payments on the car, the fridge and the life insurance without the financial help of Willy's friend Charley. But Willy refuses to face the facts. He's an old, sick man, trying desperately to maintain illusions about being a successful businessman.
Linda knows things are bad. She has found a length of hose in the cellar, attached to the gas. But she tries to keep him going by propping him up with her praise and love. She too knows that Willy's job is his life. And there is no pension, no superannuation tucked away, no welfare state to look after him in his old age.
His grown-up sons Biff and Hap can't, or won't, help him either. Biff, a malcontent and compulsive thief, has just come out of jail and can't settle down to "normal" life. Hap spends all his money on women and living it up.
Willy is at the end of the line. His mind has started to wander. He keeps seeing his hero, Uncle Ben, who became rich from gold in Africa and Alaska. Ben represents the American dream of the man who starts from nothing to become a millionaire. But all the odds are stacked against Willy.
Yet he too has been sold the dream. He chose this job, he says, because he saw an 80-year-old salesman "selling things over the phone". He dreamed that Biff would be a football star, then a successful businessman. None of it came true, but Willy cannot accept it.
In a scene of ultimate humiliation, he goes to see his young employer Howard, who has inherited the company from his father, to request an easier position in the city. Howard tells Willy the company no longer needs his services. No longer profitable, he is cast on the scrap heap.
Biff, his wayward son, has learned one thing that his father cannot admit: that in the eyes of capitalist society, they are nothing. Unless they control capital, they are only there to be temporarily exploited.
The long-suffering Linda is living with a man who has given up but won't admit he's beaten. It's only later in the play we learn why Willy is so desperate to keep up the payments on his life insurance. Unable to pass on any other wealth to his family, he knows they will collect $20,000 in life insurance at his death.
In the final scene, he again goes out on the road, we hear a crash, and Willy has achieved his goal. The widow, weeping over the grave, tells her sons she made the final mortgage payment the day before. "Now we're free", she says, devastated by the loss of her husband.
There is darkness and pessimism hanging over Miller's world. This is no celebration of the American dream, which was already a delusion for ordinary people in 1949. Ironically, the only ray of hope in the play comes from Biff, a total failure in the eyes of his father and society, who refuses to play by the rotten rules of an uncaring, materialistic society, but who can't yet see any other way.
Highly recommended. Cast and crew do justice to the depth and complexity of Miller's vision.