Lee Siegel has a piece up this morning in the International Herald Times titled Death of a Salesman’s Dreams. Being a salesman of sorts and having recently seen Arthur Miller’s The Price, I was drawn in.
Siegel seems to feel the contemporary rendition of the Arthur Miller play rings hollow because the middle class dream — a dream described by Miller himself as a “pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last,” — has no place in a society where top marginal tax rates have dropped from 82% to 30% or less, depending upon your capital gains receipts. He finds irony in the fact that only the affluent can afford tickets (starting at $111) to see Philip Seymour Hoffman portray Willy Loman, a salt-of-the-earth type who struggles to make good financially while retaining his humanity.
What Siegel misses is that Miller’s target audience was never real life Willy Lomans — not in 1949 and not now. Siegel suggests that “elite intellectuals like Mr. Miller himself unwittingly created an atmosphere hostile to such middle-class attitudes”. If Mr. Siegel knew better, and I think he does, he’d have dropped the term “unwittingly”.
Siegel’s thinking — that a new affluent class has adopted the play as a means to feelings of superiority — is just plain wrong-headed. Though he hints at it, Siegel never quite admits that Miller meant “Death of a Salesman” , not as a mirror for the middle-class to behold their failings, but as a critique of the materialism of the capitalist middle class … for the self-congratulation of the elite. The play affirms the superiority of the minority, a claim that always informed Miller’s thought. Anti-democratic sentiments are ubiquitous throughout his work — his critique of the feeblemindedness of the masses in the face of demagoguery in The Crucible, his scathing review of the amoral nature of the social-climbing professional class in The Price, his adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and so on.
“You see, the point is that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”
“The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?”
“What sort of truths are they that the majority usually
supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are
beginning to break up. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in
a fair way to become a lie, gentlemen.”
Quotes from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People
Would a man who’d aligned himself with the masses or gave much mind to their reform set out to adapt a play like Ibsen’s? Was marrying starlet-of-the-century Marilyn Monroe a decidedly working-class act on Miller’s part? Would a mass-minded-populist glorify the character Victor Franz (The Price) — a simple working-class flat-foot stiff who firmly knew his place — while vilifying his brother Walter for his unchecked ambitions and his awkward social-climb in to the professional class? Siegel’s latest piece is just another contribution to the myth of Arthur Miller, American Populist, Leftist, Communist — revealer of the flawed-but-humane popular hero.
Each time I watch Barton Fink, I’m reminded of Arthur Miller and his set — literary opportunists ready to make a genre on the backs of popular struggles they’ll never know themselves:
Well, I don’t mean to get up on my high horse, but why
shouldn’t we look at ourselves up there? Who cares
about the Fifth Earl of Bastrop and Lady Higginbottom
and – and – and who killed Nigel Grinch-Gibbons?
I can feel my butt getting sore already.
Exactly, Charlie! You understand what I’m saying – a lot
more than some of these literary types. Because you’re a
And I could tell you some stories –
Sure you could! And yet many writers do everything in
their power to insulate themselves from the common man –
from where they live, from where they trade, from where
they fight and love and converse and – and – and
. . . so naturally their work suffers, and regresses into
empty formalism and – well, I’m spouting off again, but to
put it in your language, the theater becomes as phony as a
Yeah, I guess that’s tragedy right there.
Frequently played, seldom remarked.
Whatever that means.
Barton smile[s] with him.
As an aside, I think Siegel also misses the mark by failing to identify that today’s Willy Lomans aren’t sales shills who’re out on the road selling widgets for the man — they’re creative men and women with a powerful longing to claw back some of their human agency. Today’s Willy’s aren’t fighting to retain humanity within the inhumane business-sphere — they’ve already conceded the impossibility of that act. This generation of middle-class-workers wants to get in and get out of the corporate environment — many of them have fixed their gaze on idyllic return-to-the-land schemes, DIY business start-ups, or a plethora of other means of “going it alone” to create a modest, humane life from outside the parvenue of the capitalist class.
*As a caveat, I enjoy Siegel’s writing and think his unrelated thoughts on the dangers of the internet are interesting, too. In this case, I was simply struck with liberality of his most recent piece. I think he’s a better writer than he showed today so I’m not just “hurling the Sprezzatura stuff” here.