Fighting the American Dream: Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman

                   Will you take that phoney dream and burn it before something happens?
                    – Biff

Alone on a bare stage, stands a white car, headlights carving into the dark like twin knives, the tail lights a fiery glow on the back wall, the dream already on fire. As the houselights darken, a figure is revealed in the car – Willy Loman, the titular travelling salesman. Considered one of the staples of the American dramatic canon, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about “a man refusing to let go of the false dreams we were all once promised.” It’s not a pretty play, either; rather, it’s grueling and harsh and unforgiving and brutal, ferocious even, in its depiction of this crumbling dream.

The dream is, of course, the great American Dream, the dream whereby ‘every man is created equal’ and has access to freedom, opportunities for prosperity and success, and the pursuit of happiness. But as relevant as this dream might have been in the early part of the twentieth century, and especially in post-war America (when Miller’s play was written), it is not so relevant now, especially in the countries who were not present in the creation of this dream. In his director’s notes – in the form of a conversation with Ralph Myers – Simon Stone talks about how the dream of capitalism – and, I suppose, by extension, the American brand of democracy – has been thrust at us, whether we like it or not. Like Biff in Miller’s play, it is only now as we start to question the dream, start to wonder whether it was really true at all or just a sham, just a dream, that we’re starting to reflect upon it, starting to distance ourselves from it. “In its original production it would have been a play about a particular man failing where other men have succeeded. In this era it is about a dream which was never going to work anyway,” Stone says, continuing with the paradoxical impossibility of the idea at the very heart of Miller’s play: the dreams parents have for their child/ren and the fundamental inability for the child to live up to those dreams and become their own person.
Stone’s production is, in a word, stark, as I suppose you’d expect from his work by now. Apart from the car – a white ’96 Ford Falcon sedan – the stage is completely bare, just the black walls and floor, perhaps symbolic of the road itself that Loman travels day in day out. Against this backdrop – and some very clever use of the car as a refuge and or hiding place, a device for changing scenes and location, a site for remembering – the tragedy of white middle-class America plays out. Amongst Willy’s anger and frustration, there is a desperation to mean something, for his past to have made an impact somewhere, the need to hold something and claim it as your own, the need to own something – a house, a place in a collective cultural memory, or at least in a familial sense; a desperate need to be Someone. (Ironically – meta-textually – Loman has become Someone, a now-famous [fictional] character.) His two sons – Biff and Happy – struggle to be something, to find their place in the world, just as Willy’s wife, Linda, struggles to maintain her and her family’s dignity in the face of the unfolding tragedy. The lack of set – and or the presence of the car – ultimately becomes a blessing for Stone’s production as in his previous work: the story is not about the location, the time or the place, but rather about people, about us, no matter where we come from in the world.
Delia Falconer describes the road as making us uneasy. “If we celebrate them at all, it is for their strangeness… In our collective imagination the road is usually a place traversed on the way to somewhere better.” In a similar way to America, our roads have borne the scars of our nation’s development, from convict dumping ground to the island continent nation we are today; they form the backdrop of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we like it or not. Our roads mightn’t be Nabokov’s ‘glossy black dance floors’ but they hold a similar resonance as a symbolic representation of freedom and opportunity, of escaping, running away. By the same token, Stone’s production – situated within Ralph Myers’ black-box-bound set broken only by the white car – becomes a symbol of Willy Loman’s trapped-ness, his caged-in-ness, his inability to dream the dream. The same car that has allowed Willy to travel and conduct his business – to earn his living – now becomes his cage, his prison, his tomb; trapped on the road or in his driveway, heading nowhere except into the past, he gives up the fight because he knows he cannot win, or perhaps that there’s no point in winning because the result is not worth the struggle.
Willy’s struggle, then – against his country, against his dream, against his son(s) - becomes perhaps a synecdoche for the relationship we in Australia have with the United States. As an Everyman railing against the system, the machine – the dream – Willy Loman and, by extension, Biff, becomes increasingly aware of the futileness of the fight, of the struggle. At the play’s end, both realize that for the son to be like the father, the parent, is both impossible and crippling: at what price can capitalism and democracy be spread across the world, how long will it take for a son to rebel and stand up to the parent? Miller’s is an angry play about the disappearance of a world – an old world where words and promises are empty, no longer valid – and where the new currency is money and ambition, potential and opportunity. For Willy Loman, his career as a travelling salesman is over because he does not fit the current business model, does not fit the current political climate, because he does not fit.
Stone’s transposing of the play into the contemporary world does not harm Miller’s play, his words or characters. If anything, it strengthens them. Solidifying his reputation as a director whose creativity and genius comes from within productions as much as from their inventive staging, Stone’s creative use of the car as more than just a car, as a shrine to car-shaped mobility and endless ambition, as well as his updating of the scene between Willy and Howard with the Dictaphone – with barely any changes, the scene becomes about the wonders of modern technology and you cannot help but smile at the genius simplicity of the transposition – only serves to amplify and magnify the similarities between Miller’s world and our world, the fact that very little has changed in sixty-odd years.
If Belvoir’s previous production of Eugene O’Neil’s Strange Interlude (rewritten and directed by Stone) was about the American woman, then Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about the American male, and it is brutal in its deconstruction. Its starkness and power comes through the performances as much as through its virtually non-existent set and austere albeit subtle lighting. Colin Friels’s Willy was a bit like an excitable kid, all manic energy, pent-up frustration and action, a kid who in the end exhausts himself, has to stop fighting, has to let the dream crush him. Patrick Brammall’s Biff, Hamish Michael’s Happy and Genvieve Lemon’s Linda were also well-cast, and carry their struggles and dreams with conviction and a heart-rending pathos.
Perhaps the play’s ending – at Willy’s funeral (and if you’re crying about spoilers, it really was in the title) – lessens the wretched futility of the preceding scene (which Stone has tweaked eversoslightly from Miller’s original). If perhaps the funeral had been cut, so it was just Willy’s wife Linda by his grave in a thin white light, then perhaps the despair of the play’s end could have been even more remarkable, even more harrowing.
In the end, regardless of whatever you make of it, you cannot deny that it is a
“meaty piece,” as Brammall described it in an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. “It's a big piece of steak to chew on. [For] any young man, it’s all the father issues, too. You know, the young bull and the old bull banging heads.” Whereas Biff drops in and out of jobs, not reaching his potential at all, Hap is someone “who has found a way to live the lie. ‘He’s more like Willy than he imagines … [If] Biff is fighting against things, Hap is always trying to keep the status quo.’” It is, in Hamish Michael’s words, a “slow-motion tragedy.”
Fighting is exhausting, especially if you know you’re not going to make the grade, the cut, the dream, It, whatever It is. And maybe that’s the whole wretched point of it all.

REFERENCE: Falconer, Delia. The Penguin Book of the Road. Camberwell, Victoria; Viking, 2008.

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