Death of a Salesman

“I always felt that if a man was impressive and well liked, that nothing…”

Death of a Salesman is a story is firmly planted in another time. But it’s one that remains almost startlingly relevant. I’m looking forward to seeing the 2016 Oscar nominated Iranian film The Salesman about a couple putting on a production of MIller’s play ( ).

In the original play, aging salesman, Willy, increasingly lives in his past, reliving glory days and repainting humiliations as triumphs. His most heartfelt desire is for his eldest son to follow in his footsteps but it turns out that it is his youngest who is most like him (and this is not a good thing). Both sons share their father’s tendency of making themselves sound more important and successful than they actually are. 

The real problem for all of them is a skewed view of success that is all about the flashy cars, expense accounts, and corner offices of the “American Dream.” The truth is, Willy pushed aside what he was really good at because it didn’t fit his ideal of valuable work. He spent his whole life trying to convince himself (and everyone else) that he was someone who fit his model of power and success. In the process, he taught his sons that entitlement and fudging the facts were part of their birthright. And that the way to deal with mistakes and failure was to cover them over with breezy laughter or placating gifts. I kept thinking of that line from Bon Iver’s “Holocene: “…and at once I knew I was not magnificent…” In the song, it’s always felt like a celebration to me. An embrace of being ‘enough,’ of letting old dream be crushed to make room for better ones. But Willy couldn’t let himself do that. And he wouldn’t stand for his sons doing so, either.

In their own way, every member of the Loman family reveals the power of shame to distort reality and short circuit growth and genuine connection. Willy’s wife Linda has survived by aiding and abetting his fantasy world. While she’s clearly aware of the facades, she placates and appeases, lashing out at anyone who questions them. Happy smiles and plays along while pursuing his own ends. And Biff teeters between acquiescence and honesty with his family and himself. Ultimately, it’s articulating the realities they’re all avoiding, what Brene Brown calls ‘speaking shame,’ that brings about the moment of crisis and the possibilities for redemption and new life. And they are all free to choose…