When Arthur Miller’s “Death of A Salesman” first opened on Broadway, in 1949, Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times’ chief theater critic, could not have been more enthusiastic—“masterly,” he called, “heroic” and “superb.” It is safe to say that the same adjectives can be used to describe the current Broadway revival that opened this week. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the lead role of Willy Loman, brings renewed complexity to a classic American character who is sometimes derided as one-dimensional—his Loman manages to seduce you into the fiction of the American Dream, while making clear that it’s been a delusion all along.
Maybe I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am at my visceral reaction to this “Salesman”. After all, the director Mike Nichols (like Miller, also Jewish) made every attempt to stage his revival exactly as Miller intended it to be seen in 1949. The midcentury score and ominous autumn leaves projected on the set evoke both the jaunty promise—and sinewy undercurrent of dread—that Miller always envisioned. This is the America that had, by the 1950s, turned Miller, the son of a Jewish Polish immigrant, into a major celebrity. A year after “Salesman” debuted, he was married to the most glamorous woman in the world, Marilyn Monroe, and at the height of his artistic success.
But watching “Salesman” now, it is easy to forget the frustrated future that would await Miller. By the end of the 1950s, his marriage with Monroe was over; he had been humiliated by McCarthy in a HUAC hearing; and he would never again write a major play on par with his four major productions that ended with “A View from the Bridge”, in 1955. Yet having that knowledge only heightens the sense of unease, even downright disdain, that Miller had with the American Dream, a dream no one but himself had come so close to embodying.
Many critics today are fixated with the prophetic vision “Salesman” lends to our own times. There is certainly merit to this: as you watch Willy Loman delude himself about the integrity of his business, and try to project those lies onto his wife and two sons, Biff and Happy, it is impossible to ignore the parallels to our own financial crisis. Loman may be represented as a business type we in America no longer esteem—the lowly salesman—but the high-flying Wall Street financiers of today embody the same confused virtues. Hoffmann’s Loman makes you want to believe that an honest day’s work, and above all, being “well-liked,” are the keys to success in business. But as the play evolves you see that even those worthy virtues can become contorted in a world where ruthless profit and prestige are the things that matter most.
But there is also a way in which the economic parallel to today falls short. It is clear that Miller was never quite taken with the idea of unencumbered American success. Despite Willy Loman’s romantic projections about an honest business culture, there is never any doubt that his life is headed for a grim, dark, and all too immediate end—one that is abetted by his own rosy delusions. Yet that is not at all the sense you get at following the financial crisis today. Just this week, we had another reminder of the self-delusional nature of Wall Street in the very public resignation of Greg Smith, the Goldman Sachs employee.
Smith wrote in his Times Op-Ed that, when he entered Goldman Sachs little more than a decade ago, the firm embodied the honest virtues of integrity and looking after its clients’ well-being above all else. But it takes no more than a cursory understanding of Wall Street to know that those values were perhaps just as much a myth as the one that Willy Loman embraces. Anyway, if the venal practices of Wall Street were in part what caused the recent economic crash, then why didn’t Smith have the courage to call them out—that is resign then, and forgo his own profit—when his industry was at its moral nadir? We should question the moral integrity of a man who cries foul well after the true crime was committed.
Smith’s Op-Ed only perpetuates the myth that Miller was trying to upend. And the picture gets only more interesting when you think about the two men’s Jewish background. In his Op-Ed, Smith oddly marks one of his proudest accomplishments as a winning a bronze medal in ping-pong at the Jewish Maccabi Games. If readers had any doubt about Smith’s own metrics of success, it needn’t take much else to assure you that his value system has been confused for much longer than he even realizes. (If you fall for the trap of winsome Jewish gemutlich—what a good Jewish boy!—sorry for you.)
As for Miller, he was always more elusive about the role his Judaism played in his own value system. He could at times be ardently defensive about his Jewishness, rigorously denouncing anti-Semites. But he could also be callous to critics who said he tried to hide his Jewish identity. Like many Jews striving to be viewed as true Americans in his times, he often suggested that his American identity superseded his Jewish one. As he told a Jewish audience in 1947: he had “graduated out of ...Jewish life,” adding that “the Jewish writer [had] no other identity than his American identity.” Still, he never denied his Jewish identity and often fought hard to defend it—and even Jews’ rightful place in America at large. In his autobiography, published in 1987, he wrote: “I had somehow arrived at the psychological role of mediator between the Jews and America, and among Americans themselves as well.”
Of course it would be nice to praise both men—Miller and Smith—as Jews we both could be proud of. While I wouldn’t go so low as to say Smith is someone we should rebuke—he is certainly no Madoff—insofar as he embodies the moral integrity that Jews might be proud to claim as their, I’m afraid he misses the mark. But the harder case is Miller. His artistic achievements are first rate, as is his admirable stance against the anti-American values of McCarthyism and McCarthyites. But that he rarely claimed his moral integrity to stem from his Jewish upbringing makes the case for his apotheosis as a Jewish hero more difficult. Maybe then we can admire Miller more in the Noahide sense, rather than the Abrahamic one: a great man, Miller was, whatever we make of the role Judaism played in making him one.
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