Eulogist for the American dream (National Post, February 14, 2005)

Like many contemporaries who saw their parents diminished by external forces, Arthur Miller railed bitterly against the random suffering imposed by capitalism

Broadway theatres dimmed their marquee lights last Thursday at curtain time to mark the passing of playwright Arthur Miller. His death at 89 touches every generation. High schoolers still study his most celebrated plays, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, while any adult with even modest cultural aspirations has seen a stage or movie version of one of them. Even philistines remember him for his short, stormy and highly public marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe.

Miller was a moralist shaped by economic circumstances and a particular cultural moment in American history. His parents were Jewish immigrants whose garment business failed in the Depression. Unable to provide for his family, Miller's father sank into despair; the effect on the impressionable boy was immense. The abiding themes of his work became the ever-yawning abyss of failure, the price of success, the shattered American dream, and the moral crucible of the family. These combined with a fierce traditionally Jewish obsession with social justice. Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, who worked often with Miller, says he saw "a rabbinical righteousness" in the playwright. "In his work, there is almost a conscious need to be a light unto the world. He spent his life seeking answers to what he saw around him as a world of injustice."

Miller was one of those writers so immersed in his craft that he had no real private life. Everything that happened to him tumbled out on to the page. His 1953 play The Crucible uses the Salem witch trials as a parable for McCarthy's America, an era he deeply loathed. Miller himself was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and, when he refused to co-operate, a judge convicted him of contempt of Congress.

But it is for Death of a Salesman, not his other 16 plays, that the marquee lights were dimmed. Salesman opened on Broadway in 1949, when Miller was 33 years old, and immediately established him as a lord of the American theatre. Nothing he wrote after that would equal it.

Riding on "a smile and a shoeshine," Salesman catapulted its creator to instant celebrity, making Broadway history by capturing all three top awards: the Pulitzer, the Tony and the Drama Critics' Circle.

The genesis of the play lay in a short story Miller wrote at 17 while working in his father's business, providing the important ingredients: the failed, ageing salesman, the unfeeling bosses and the suicide. Willy Loman's household is closely based on that of Miller's uncle, who was also his father's competitor, and his two children, the models for Loman's sons Biff and Happy.

Death of a Salesman is always referred to as a "tragedy" in the Shakespearean sense. I have a problem with that. Though a painful, sad play to watch, it's more pathetic than tragic. In a Shakespearean tragedy, the protagonist, prompted by a "tragic flaw," offends against the moral order of things. From his mistake, there follows as punishment a domino effect of terrible consequences. A true tragic hero is flawed, but the tragedy derives from the fact that the punishment meted out to him and his circle is disproportionate to his failing.

Willy's flaw is ostensibly to believe too passionately in the American dream and in his own powers of salesmanship. But in fact, he is merely an inherently weak man without potential for greatness. He ignores realities pressing in on him: his failing sales record and the moral weaknesses of his sons. As pressures mount, he slips in and out of fugue states, entertaining fantasies of wealth and opportunity just around the next bend. "He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong," Biff remembers. Certainly his punishment for this crime -- the disappointment of his sons, and the humiliation of being exposed as a failed provider -- seems disproportionate.

Though tragic heroes always die, the most satisfying tragedies don't end in suicide. Tragic heroes may be doomed, but they wrestle with their fate to their last breath. Suicide is cheating, dramatically speaking. Moreover, the important thing about a tragic hero is that through his suffering, he achieves a new level of self-knowledge. He is granted insight into the reasons for his failure, however briefly, before the end, and has a glimpse of the road not taken that would have led to fulfillment and integration with others.

This illuminating bloom of moral growth is what delivers the catharsis and closure the play-goer needs to loosen his identification with the hero. Willy Loman never ascends to that plane. He ends his life as he lived it -- in ignorance of himself. Willy sees himself to the end as the victim of circumstances, rather than a free agent who made poor choices. But a victim cannot be a tragic hero, for there is no greatness in a born loser. The play-goer is wrung with pity for Willy, but not edified by his story.

In a Shakespearean tragedy, the waste and the carnage at least give birth to a restoration of moral order. The hero's tragedy is offered as an aberration, a cautionary tale in a world that works well as long as hierarchies are observed. One has no sense in Willy Loman's America that the moral system in which he lives permits self-realization for anyone. His creator demands justice for Willy ("Attention must be paid!"), but he has no faith that such justice can be found in the land of capitalism. Willy was crafted to indict a political system, not to reveal any part of the timeless human condition.

There is irony in the fact that Miller's post-war heyday coincided with the greatest economic boom in human history -- a time when it seemed everyone was either living the American dream, or within reach of it: Like many of his left-wing contemporaries who were shocked into early maturity by the Depression, who saw their parents diminished by circumstances beyond their control, Miller had grown irreversibly embittered by the random suffering imposed on workers by capitalism. After the Depression, he never really trusted America again. Nobody better understood or more powerfully brought to life on the stage the psychology of desperation. But Miller lingered too long on America's failures and betrayals, wilfully ignoring her amazing virtues and strengths.

The playwright was a writer for his time, in other words. But in surrendering to this role so completely, he weakened his claim to timelessness.
© National Post 2005