This lecture was given at The Dionysium, Alamo Village. Austin, TX June 4th, 7:00pm
"...we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believers nimble."
Willy Loman is the nimble protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. He is an aging suburban Brooklyn salesman whose less than spectacular career is on the decline and he needs to believe that he is a hero, a respected man, a beloved man, and a man that embodies the American dream. When we meet Loman his business knowledge is still at its peak, but he is no longer able to leverage his charisma to get by. Time has caught up with Loman and Death of a Salesman presents Loman's struggle "to maintain a foothold in the upward-striving American middle class" while combating his own self-doubt that plagues him in reminders from the past that his life rests on un-solid ground. According to Charles Isherwood, Loman is the play's dominant character because "It is his losing battle against spiritual and economic defeat that provides the narrative spine of the play." Loman is a symbolic representation of millions of American employees who outlived their corporate usefulness.
Loman uses delusions about how popular, famous, influential and successful he is and about the prospects for the success of his sons, Biff and Happy. As the anti-hero Satan is the king of Hell, Loman is the nimble prince of his own fantasies, and as I myself approach forty, I can't help but think that if Willy Loman drove a Toyota and owned Ikea furniture, then I would be our everyman anti-hero, Willy Loman.
The appeal of this everyman antihero is just that. We relate to him. Loman is not a leading man; he is the man next door, the man in front of us in the drive thru at Starbucks, and behind us at Jiffy Lube. Loman doesn't have the traditional heroic qualities we see in model protagonists such as idealism, courage, or nobility, but then again who do? Loman is not larger than life, like a mythical god, Loman is not presidential; Loman has problems we can all relate to. He worries about his job, he is worried about money, and his son can't pass math. Death of a Salesman is a statement on the idea that a man is valued by his position in life, yet Willy never matures enough to realize that being popular without any substance or skill is meaningless
Willy Loman always seems to take the American stage exactly when we need to be reminded of his symbolism. He was played by Lee J. Cobb in 1949, George C. Scott in the 70's, Dustin Hoffman in 1984, Brian Dennehy in 1999, and Philip Seymour Hoffman only two years ago. Time magazine described Scott's performance in 1975 as "...a performance of staggering impact....When his head is bowed, it is not in resignation but rather like that of a bull bloodied by the bullfighter, yet ready to charge again." Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance came at a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement echoed the play, as its actors could not afford the $120 ticket price.
I understand Willy Loman. I have my own delusions. I pretend I am Thor when I watch The Avengers. Thor. The one with the long, flowing, blonde hair. Sometimes I pretend I'm Han Solo when I'm driving my Toyota truck, my dog is Chewbacca, and our local Wal-Mart the Death Star. Sometimes I crank my iPod at the gym and play air drums to the Japandroids while I show the treadmill who is boss. Sometimes I like to look at my friends list on facebook and think that I'm not as lonely as I know I am really am. I lie to myself to make the day go faster.
Willy Loman lies to himself so his existence has meaning. He says he has friends, a true career, and a magnificent son in Biff who will attend the University of Virginia despite that math grade. Loman's delusions help him travel from door to door making a living with a product that is never specified in the play.
It has been more than half a century since Death of a Salesman, and I wonder if it was written today what Willy would be like? How would he respond to Muslims, homosexuals, or President Obama? How would he use his fantasies in a world that is in transition, a world that will see the Chinese economy over take that of The United State's very soon? A world where the Germans and Japanese make the best cars, where Detroit has become a third world country. How would he respond to the digital age? What would Willy Loman "sell" in a country that doesn't "make" anything anymore? "Death of the iPhone Application Manager" just doesn't have a ring to it, does it? More importantly, how would he escape? Would Willy play air drums at Planet Fitness while he listened to his favorite band?
How would and could we write and rewrite Willy Loman today, as he writes and re-writes himself in Death of Salesman? I imagine his son Happy gives him a book to read for when he is lonely and on the road, a book with a classic hero, not an anti-hero. I imagine he reads "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and when no one is looking Willy pretends he is the title character. Who could be more respected, and loved than Honest Abe, a classic hero killing classic evils in a world where things are not so clean cut, for a middle class in 2014 that has lost its belief in government, corporations, and the church. Or perhaps Loman imagines himself as Tony Soprano, a man who plays by his own rules, a man who takes matters into his own hands, all while humming Don't Stop Believin' as his life fades to black.
The influence of Willy Loman is far stretching in culture today. Without Willy there would be no Louis C.K., no Homer Simpson, there would be fewer "guys" next door. In the end, after many suicide attempts, Willy finally does take matters into his own hands and kills himself, using his delusion in the classic hero mode of self-sacrifice, intentionally crashing his American car so that Biff can use the life insurance money to start his business. In that moment Willy Loman is not a salesman, or a vampire hunter, he is just a man who can no longer be nimble, who has outlived his corporate usefulness. He has no facebook friends, no respect, and little love, but in his minds eye, in his last moment, he goes out a hero, and who among us cannot relate to that?