When the Bell Tolls for a Salesman
Few would argue that Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is not tragic. While it lacks in royal characters doomed by fate to fall below the common man, the play still reaches out into the hearts and minds of the audience in a way that even today audiences see and connect with the disastrous unfolding of events. However the impact, source, and longevity of its tragedy are not beyond contestation. In his article for National Review, Undying Salesman, David Klinghoffer summarizes the essence of the tragedy as he sees it by saying that Willy “has failed as a man, and he knows it” (Klinghoffer, Undying Salesman). This is not necessarily an incorrect statement but it limits the range of the tragic influence, essentially asserting that males are the only ones for whom the bell tolls in Miller’s piece. The true power of tragedy is that it possesses the power to transcend race, gender, and dogma and Death of a Salesman is a strong example of what happens when such a role is fulfilled.
Klinghoffer states that “The play works agonizingly well. Not as any type of socialist harangue, but rather as a meditation on manhood.” He then challenges readers to attempt placing a woman in the shoes of Willy Loman, with daughters instead of Biff and Happy and the husband at home and left destitute at the play’s conclusion instead of Linda. The immediate response he offers to his readers is that gender reversal is impossible with Death of a Salesman. What Klinghoffer is trying to assert is that the genders of characters under the circumstances of this show are as important as the characters themselves and he justifies this stance by saying that “Devoted though they may be to their work, women unlike men are not deeply humiliated by a tumbling career” (Klinghoffer, Undying Salesman).
Most people today would take some degree of umbrage to this assertion, to which Klinghoffer concedes. The retort to his claims one would expect to hear on the news may very well be not unlike Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, bouncing back and forth with one side trying to outdo the other as a means to prove their adeptness (Irving, Anything You Can Do). In The United States of America as it is known today women can work, be politically active, drive, and further their educations just as well, if not circumstantially better than a man. Does a single chromosome render it impossible for them to comprehend or empathize with the devastating failure heaped upon Willy Loman? Klinghoffer seems to be saying that although women make competent coworkers and are quite capable of caring for their vocation, to truly understand the calamity that has befallen the Loman family, one must have been fortunate enough to have been born with a penis.
Arthur Miller himself wrote Tragedy and the Common man, an essay on the lack of modern tragic drama and literature and the application of tragedy to the more recent struggles of the average human being. He says “I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his "rightful" position in his society” (Miller, Tragedy and the Common Man). Unlike Klinghoffer, he does not place a barrier around his work to restrict its application to men only, even mentioning Medea specifically. Miller would argue against confining tragedy to any one demographic, as evidenced by his tearing down the wall that, until Death of a Salesman and works like unto it, had prevented tragedy from trickling down to the proletariat. After asserting that the true nature of tragedy is that calamitous events can befall anyone, be they commonly born or of regal heritage, barricading women from experiencing a connection with Willy Loman’s circumstance seems a bit ridiculous. The impact of Miller’s tragedy is that it opened the doors for anyone possessing humanity to become a viable candidate for consideration as a tragic hero in times of duress, despite mankind consisting of different colors, sexes, and creeds.
Klinghoffer suggests that “A man's descent to failure is horrendous to contemplate. Whatever line of work you are in, we are all salesmen, selling our products, our services, our selves” and that when a man cannot provide for his family and/or finds himself failing, specifically in the sense of failure at one’s profession, “in some fundamental way he has failed as a man, and he knows it… We may repress this instinctive knowledge, but ultimately it pops up like a rubber duck in a bathtub” (Klinghoffer, Undying Salesman). He argues that the tragedy stems from a man’s need to excel, to provide, and to pass on a legacy and again, while this statement fits Willy Loman without question, it is once again Klinghoffer placing an impediment on the core of what Miller tried to clarify in Tragedy and the Common Man.
On the true source of the emotional connections made with theatrical tragedy, Miller said “the quality in such plays that does shake us, however, derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best” (Miller, Tragedy and the Common Man). While the nobles of Elizabethan times or the Rockefellers of today might be more similar to the Greek tragic heroes due to their amassed status, wealth, and power, this definition of tragedy extends the possibilities. Before, tragedy was centered on the smallest percentage of the population but in the world of literature and theater after Death of a Salesman it is applicable to all, from the pristine kings to the basest dregs of human life. Miller did not simply renew tragedy; he gave the very source of tragic material a complete overhaul.
Where Klinghoffer and Miller do agree is on the immortality of tragic drama. Klinghoffer explicitly that “Fifty years from now, whatever new varieties of social progress have been inflicted on us, we can be sure that… Death of Salesman will be alive and well” (Klinghoffer, Undying Salesman). Likewise, Miller’s claim that the common man can be as much the protagonist of tragic tales as the ancient kings leads to the conclusion that tragedy lives even in an era without monarchs subjected to fate and the gods. As long as the world remains in a state of imperfection and there is failure, sadness, and natural shortcomings to which mankind is susceptible, tragedy will provide a means of theatrical catharsis largely due to Miller’s works which have broadened the characteristics of the genre.
What is the point of seeing shows in which we are reminded of the frailties, weaknesses, and disappointments that dwell in the “damp, drizzly Novembers of the soul” (Melville, Moby Dick)? The answer is simple; that which binds us to others more so than any honors society or PTA organization ever could is the capability to feel and share that sensation with peers. The aforementioned catharsis of tragic theater provides a bonding opportunity between the audiences, a healthy release of tension heaped onto shoulders in the day to day toils, and a time for subconscious healing. Sharing in emotion is one of the rawest connections human beings can make with each other and those evoked by tragedy are some of the purest emotions one can feel. To ask why a tragedy should be seen is like asking why people feel the need to cry, to interact with others, to share experiences, and why people feel.
The effects of seeing a tragedy do not discriminate, to find a source one needs not look beyond the self, and it will survive for as long as mankind is imperfect. Speaking of tragedy, Miller closed his essay by saying, “It is time, I think, that we who are without kings took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time--the heart and spirit of the average man.”