Class Notes

Death of a Salesman—Seen vs. Imagined

By Paula Marantz Cohen | June 5, 2012


I recently spoke about Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to a group of people who had provided financial support for its recent Broadway revival. We then attended the production and, afterward, listened to a Q&A session with the actors.

This is the three-part ecosystem that sustains a great play. As an English professor who teaches Death of a Salesman, I help maintain its place in the literary canon. The backers to whom I spoke, through their financial support, give the play life—in this case, on Broadway, the world’s most important venue for a theatrical work. And the actors give flesh to its latest incarnation.

When I ask my students to write about Death of Salesman, I encourage them to think like a director staging the play. The choice to highlight some element—say, the pathological dynamics of the Loman family, or the exploitation of Willy as an employee, or the way in which a changing technological landscape is rendering Willy obsolete—opens a door for readers (in the case of an essay) and audiences (in the case of a performance). The play allows many ways in—and any one of them, in a given interpretive paper or a given performance, produce different angles on its characters, political viewpoints, and critiques of the social context of its time and our own.

As a teacher, I facilitate these different interpretations, but stand apart from both the student writer and the theater director. My job is to see the play in all its potentialities, something that no single paper or performance could encompass. Is Willy’s dream incorrect? It depends on how you look at it. Does Biff finally free himself of the delusions inflicted upon him by his father? Possibly and possibly not. Is Happy a tragic repetition of his father’s benightedness? It depends on how you understand repetition.  Is the play an indictment of the capitalistic rat-race? Up to a point, perhaps, but there is also reverence for the individualism that undergirds it. I could go on. Of course, a good production like the one on Broadway is not a one-note performance; it presents several angles on these issues. Even so, the play closes off other possibilities of interpretation. As a square-jawed, dogged character, Philip Seymour Hoffman seems more inert and pigheaded than Dustin Hoffman’s frail and tremulous Willy or Brian Dennehy’s blundering Willy (an image that I also imagine for Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role on Broadway). At the same time, Linda Loman, as played by Linda Emond in the current revival, is far more level-headed and attractive than previous Lindas I’ve seen. This gives her a solidity that somehow reduces the tragic element. Hopefulness crystallizes around her at the end, despite her realization that none of the many people who presumably admired Willy had come to his funeral. Perhaps she will lead her family to some sort of better place now that her husband is no longer there to obstruct change.

Although I appreciate the way a live production illuminates facets of the play and, as in the case of Linda Emond, opens me to fresh interpretations, I always feel let down when I know a play as well as I do this one. I sympathize with the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom who says that he can’t abide seeing Shakespeare performed. The plays as they exist in his mind’s eye are too rich to support any single staging of them. This is the casualty of knowing a work too well. You begin to feel that nothing can do justice to the performance playing in your head.

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