How the Loman family helped my students understand their own
By Paula Marantz Cohen
I know by heart practically every line of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman. I have read it and seen it performed numerous times on stage and on screen. And yet each time I teach it, I discover something new.
Recently, I had my students read The Family Crucible by Augustus Napier with Carl Whitaker (the subject of an earlier column), a novelistic recounting of a family therapy process, which I assigned in advance of Death of a Salesman, thinking that it would provide context for understanding the family dynamics in Miller’s play.
But when it came time to discuss the play, the conversation quickly veered off course—away from focusing on the dynamics of the family and its patterns of repeated interactions. So I decided to cast four students in the roles of Willy, Biff, Happy, and Linda and told the class to ask them questions in the style of Napier and Whitaker, the therapists in The Family Crucible, which, I hoped, would turn our attention away from individuals, images, and ideas to actual interactions.
It worked—the simulation of family therapy not only clarified how the Loman family’s problems were embedded in dynamic interactions, it also encouraged students to relate the play to their own families.
Several students focused their attention on Happy, asking him what it felt like to be ignored by his parents. Later I learned that these students were the younger children of large families, attuned to what it meant to be sidelined.
A number of women in the class were determined to bring Linda to a higher level of consciousness. “Tell Willy how you feel,” they said. “Explain to him what you want.” The student cast as Linda remained in character and answered: “I want what he wants,” heightening the fury of her interlocutors.
Many students tried to get Willy to acknowledge his mistaken values. “What if Biff finds happiness working on a farm? Would you begrudge him happiness in favor of doing something he doesn’t want to do?”
“He does want to do it,” said the student-Willy. “He may not know it, but he does.”
“Why do you know better than he does what would make him happy?”
“Because I’m his father. I should know.”
“Are you happy?”
“I would be, if Biff would do what I want.”
“Why does Biff steal, why is Happy promiscuous? Did they learn these things from you?”
“Why do you think they behave this way?”
“Biff does it out of spite.”
“Why is he spiteful?”
“I don’t know. He wants to see me suffer.”
“Why would he want you to suffer?”
“I don’t know. Ask him.”
“Biff, do you want your father to suffer?”
“No. I love my father. I just want him to see the truth.”
“What’s the truth?”
“That we’re ordinary. That he shouldn’t have blown us up to think we were so hot.”
And so on.
The class-therapy session became an extended gloss on the play. The patterns that had been so difficult to talk about became strikingly clear once they were enacted. In a sense, what we’d done was performed the play in another register—repeating its motifs, but also interpreting and extending them in time and expression. I wish Arthur Miller—and Carl Whitaker—with their enormous insight into families, could have been present.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.