by Jeffrey Mason
The American dream is having a rough time. Three out of four citizens believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
We're worried about finding a job or holding a job. We struggle with the debts that have become routine but threaten to drown us. We stress over our kids getting into college, finishing college and supporting themselves. We don't know if we can afford to retire.
None of this is new, of course. There have been recessions and depressions, wars and famines and upheavals of all kinds.
Yet this is America, the land of opportunity, the nation built on freedom and unlimited possibilities. We won't settle for less.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller tackled all of these issues over 60 years ago in his signature play, “Death of a Salesman,” first produced on Broadway in 1949 with Lee J. Cobb in the leading role.
Willy Loman is a traveling salesman who has worked for the same company for over 30 years but now faces hard times. The man who hired him hinted at the prospect of partnership, but his son, the new boss, has different views, first taking away Willy's salary, leaving him to work on commission only, and then firing him.
At the age of 63, Willy has a stack of bills but no income, so he goes to his neighbor to borrow money and pretend to his wife that it's his pay.
His older son was a football hero in high school, the golden boy whose glamour dazzled everyone, but he failed to graduate and never trained himself for anything, and he's spent the last 10 years drifting across the West, working as a ranch hand in Texas and serving a few months for petty theft in Kansas City.
The younger son followed his father into business, but he's content with his apartment, his car, and his women, and he lacks the drive, skill and integrity to become anything more than an assistant to an assistant, brashly claiming friendships with executives who probably don't remember his name.
The wife is a housekeeper, the only member of the family who fully understands the truth of their circumstances but who is powerless to shape events. Of course, today's American women are no longer bystanders, so Willy's wife stands for all who feel frustration at putting up with what they can't control.
What does it mean to succeed in America? Willy frets over paying his bills, and he scorns his sons' paltry weekly paychecks, but in the end, it's not about money.
It's about respect. Willy takes pride in his conviction that he is known, that he can walk into any town in New England and find receptive smiles. More than the money, he prizes admiration and recognition.
Willy's high regard for his profession represents his absolute faith in business itself, an optimistic conviction that marks him as essentially American. The men who led the American Revolution and wrote our founding documents were farmers, merchants and craftsmen.
They declared independence for many reasons, but chief among them was their desire to do business as they saw fit: to buy, to sell and to provide for their families. Again, the point is not the dollars but what they mean, the liberty and autonomy that they confer.
“Death of a Salesman” is an American story, and American audiences have found it irresistible. Critics called the play “infinitely moving and bitterly splendid,” and “a triumph of the magic of theatre,” and “emotional dynamite.”
Willy Loman fascinates us because he will not be denied, because he never gives up. He is the ordinary man battling the system, the one who stands up for all of us.
Jeffrey Mason directs the Sierra Stages production of “Death of a Salesman” playing at the Nevada Theatre from Jan. 25 through Feb. 12.