The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Life After “Death of a Salesman”: The Loman Family Nightmare

  When I was eight years old my parents took me to see Death of a Salesman. You had to hand it to mom and dad, they knew where to find the fun. An entire childhood of Miller, Chekhov, Beckett, and Ibsen, and not one damn trip to Disneyland.  But I guess it made me the man that I am today. Which probably accounts for why I grew up hating Uncle Walt’s magic kingdom, falling in love instead with Arthur Miller’s epic tragedy of hubris, failure, suicide, and abyss.

It may seem weird to mention Arthur Miller and Walt Disney in the same paragraph. But they’re not as different as you might think. True, they occupied different ends of the political cultural spectrum. But the creators of Mickey Mouse and Willy Loman had identical artistic missions: understanding, interpreting, and to varying extents redefining our hallowed, tortured American Dream.

Every spring, I teach To Kill a Mockingbird to my sixth grade English class. We start by trying to define the exact nature of the American Dream, and I’m surprised at how many of these kids hearken back the 1950s and ’60s. “Perfect…everybody’s supposed to be happy…mom, dad, and the kids all smiling.” So says my student Grace, whose definition is every bit as revealing as the one that I eventually write up on the board: “The American Dream is the idea that unlimited prosperity and success are available to every person who works hard enough, regardless of his or her origins. Ability, ingenuity, and achievement determine your success.”

Now, every dream is its roots in reality; America’s is certainly no different. Don’t get me wrong; I like Finland as much as the next guy. But I’ve never heard anyone call it the land of opportunity. In 1820, 8,385 immigrants obtained permanent legal status in the United States. A century later, that number had grown to 430,001. In 2010, it was over a million. And these figures only tell the story of legal entry into the United States. America has had an “immigration problem” since 1492. “Gold is most excellent,” wrote Christopher Columbus. I’m no admirer of the Genoese sailor, but he is certainly the godfather of all immigrants; his American Dream was every bit as hypnotic as Willy Loman’s: “Gold is treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world, and succeeds in helping souls into Paradise.”  Even the most skeptical and cynical observers have to admit that America’s power to pull in a crowd remains historically uncontested.

But like every other nocturnal fantasy, the American Dream is not real. Forget about our history of slavery, sexism, and the European genocide of our native population. Let’s talk about today. Minorities continue to be statistically over-represented in our penal system.  The National Center for Children in Poverty states that “…higher percentages of minorities live in poor families.”  As of 2010, men out-earned women by 19%, even though women are now on average better educated.  Perhaps a country founded by white male slave owners shouldn’t be surprised by these disparities. But myth is a seductive thing, and far more digestible than fact. Even in the face of overwhelming data, the American Dream is one from which we stubbornly refuse to awake.

Disney's 1937 Film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  This is most definitely true in pop culture, especially when it comes to Disney. Isn’t the achievement of prosperity through hard work at the core of every one of his films? How many floors do Snow White and Cinderella have to scrub before their princes finally come? How cheerfully must these poor girls endure the abuses of their step motherly pseudo-European she wolves before achieving the Holy Grail of a big cash husband? And make no mistake: these princes are plenty nice guys. But their chief assets are their assets. Why marry the village blacksmith’s son when you can get a nice rich boy who’ll add a little sparkle to your brand new tiara?

Walt Disney Testifies Before the HUAC

Arthur Miller Testifies

No. Walt Disney and Arthur Miller were both in the same game; they were just playing on opposing teams. In 1947, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was second only to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in smearing Americans as communists and sympathizers.  Good ole Walt was all too happy to name the names of his former animators who’d had the temerity to strike against him years before. Disney loathed organized labor, and I’m sure enjoyed the opportunity to ruin the careers of the “trouble makers” and “Bolsheviks” who had made it so hard for him to get Dumbo completed right on schedule.

In 1952, Arthur Miller also appeared before the HUAC. But unlike Disney, he did not name names. He didn’t even invoke his Fifth Amendment constitutional right to remain silent, saying instead: “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” A judge punished Miller by citing him in contempt, fining him $500, and handing him a suspended sentence of 30 days in jail.

The playwright’s hostility to red baiting should come as no surprise. As early as 1947 (the very year Disney testified) Arthur Miller’s All My Sons had the audacity to depict war profiteers as murderers. It is a wrenching piece of theatre. But Death of a Salesman is devastating. It’s almost impossible to describe the visceral impact of this sad and agonizing play, which is probably why Brooks Atkinson’s New York Times review of the original 1949 Broadway production came up short:

Original 1949 Production

“It is so simple in style and so inevitable in theme that is scarcely seems like a thing that has been written and acted. For Mr. Miller has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theatre.”

True enough. But anybody who has seen or read Death of a Salesman can’t help but feel that Atkinson missed the burning immediacy and sheer pain of America’s greatest tragedy. Frank Rich did better (as always) in his Times review of the 1984 revival with Dustin Hoffman:

“In Death of Salesman, Mr. Miller wrote with a fierce, liberating urgency. Even as his play marches steadily onward to its preordained conclusion, it roams about through time and space, connecting present miseries with past traumas and drawing blood almost everywhere it goes.”

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Death of a Salesman. Even though the cast was comprised entirely of college students, I believed every moment of that American family nightmare. Seeing the salesman Willy Loman rail at his wife and sons while crumbling to pieces before me was like watching one of my parents bleed to death. And of course, as an eight year old with almost no concept of American history, I had to access the history that I did know. The history of my family.

I’ll bet that’s how it is for most of us. Most Americans can’t name the three great constitutional amendments of the reconstruction. But we all remember our families. How did Grace put it? “…mom…dad…everything’s perfect.” Why do we always leave that part out when defining the American Dream? Maybe because it’s so ingrained that we simply take it for granted. It’s not just the income, the car, the television, or the super awesome vacation that pervade our fantasies of status and affluence. It’s the myth that any of these things will ever make us happy. That our happiness is a thing to be purchased, itemized, and shared with a loving family who will shower us with endless appreciation for having made them rich. Small wonder that Death of a Salesman is still one of the most admired and recognized plays in the American canon.

But after a while, there’s only so much pain that an audience can take. Even Samuel Beckett knew how to tell a joke. Perhaps that’s why our greatest tragedians have always needed the help of a court jester. So Shakespeare has Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  For Mary Shelley, there is Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. Ingmar Bergman can find countless parodies and homages in the films of Woody Allen. And Arthur Miller has Don Margulies’ The Loman Family Picnic, its rapid-fire one-liners and knock ‘em dead musical numbers both easing and illuminating the crushing disillusionment of the American Dream’s tragic betrayal.

The Loman Family Picnic is neither satire nor parody. In fact, none of the characters in Miller’s tragedy even bother to make an appearance. Rather, they are channeled through the imagination of Mitchell, an eleven-year old boy living in Coney Island during 1965. “For school, Miss Schoenberg made us read this play that Arthur Miller wrote a long time ago, before I was born, about this salesman with two sons who lives in Brooklyn? Sound familiar?” Noting the similarities between his ‘real’ family and that of the Lomans, Mitchell imagines the unimaginable: a musical comedy version of Death of a Salesman.

To be sure, this play draws up its own share of blood. “The Loman Family Picnic isn’t just after laughs,” says Sacha Reich, Executive Director of Portland’s Jewish Theatre Collaborative, which stages the play this month. And Margulies (like every playwright besides David Mamet) has a better understanding of women than Arthur Miller. The Loman Family Picnic, to paraphrase Psycho, is all about the mother. Her name is Doris, and she begins the play with, “On the day I was married the world showed every sign of coming to an end,” as we watch her cut her wedding dress to bits. True, Arthur Miller gives Linda Loman plenty of fine dialogue, but her entire character amounts to a mere adjunct (and co-dependent) to Willy. Not so with Doris. “That snoring,” she says of her husband, “if he doesn’t stop that snoring…it rips at my kishkas every time he breathes.” And so the play moves back and forth between Arthur Miller and the Borscht Belt. And just as the inevitable father and son is about to come to a head, the entire cast bursts into song, realizing Mitchell’s ultimate American Dream that anything can be turned into a musical, and redeemed with a happy ending.

My family knows all about those dreams of happy endings. My grandfather, Aaron Berkson, was the son of Mordecai Berkowitz, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. (Some family members say he was Russian; others insist he was Polish). The family Americanized its name to Berkson, and my grandfather went on to become quite successful selling plumbing, and making a small fortune for himself.

But it came at a terrible cost. His relationship with my father was strained even in the best of times. After I was born, it reached the breaking point: my dad and grandpa fell out, and never spoke to each other again.

The year after I graduated from high school, I decided to pursue my own American Dream. I quit my job bussing tables and hitchhiked from Portland to Los Angeles. (To fend off any attacks from the Mike Daisey police, I should mention that I made part of the trip by bus.) While staying with some family friends in California, I looked up my grandfather and called him. I’ll never forget the terrible silence that followed my introduction by phone. But Aaron agreed to see me, and he and his wife Marge (my dad’s stepmother) took me out to dinner.

Whatever I was expecting, I sure didn’t get it. My grandfather kept asking if I’d run away from home; he somehow couldn’t quite grasp that his that his 18-year-old grandson was legally an adult. He went on to describe the weekend work I’d been doing in children’s theatre as “amateur.” (It wasn’t.) As dinner ended, he took stock of my appearance and said, “If you walked into my office, I wouldn’t hire you in a minute.” Handing me fifty dollars, my grandfather told me to go back home and get a haircut. Call me a bad grandson, but I only followed half the instructions. Like my father before me, I never spoke to Aaron again.

There’s an interesting footnote in our family history, although it may be apocryphal. Dad recently told me that as young men, Aaron Berkson and Arthur Miller briefly worked together in the linoleum business. I have no way of confirming this, but the story seems plausible. Like my grandfather, Arthur Miller’s parents were eastern European Jewish immigrants. The two men were born five years apart from one other, and both grew up in New York. My grandfather may have never known Arthur Miller personally, but he would certainly come to know the writer’s work. Aaron’s was the first generation to experience Death of a Salesman as live theatre. According to him, the audience was stunned into silence as the final curtain fell. Family legend has it that long after the crowd had left, my grandfather stayed alone in the theatre. I wonder what part of Willy Loman that man must have seen in himself. What force of will it must have taken for him to stand up and get the hell out of that theatre. To forget everything he’d just seen so he could go on living the terrible lie that there is anything more important than a loving human relationship.

I’ll never know. Aaron died in 2005, and with him the memory of almost a century of American history. Tempted as I am to judge my grandfather, Death of a Salesman has taught to refrain. No one dast blame this man. I spent a little time in sales myself, and I know all too well the adrenaline rush that comes with putting the close on a very big deal. When it comes to the American Dream, no one is safe.

Earlier in this piece, I wrote disparagingly about Arthur Miller’s Linda. Now, I’m beginning to regret it. There’s got to be a reason why the playwright gives her the last word. Maybe it’s because while all the boys around her dream big, Linda quietly tries to balance the family books, surely and carefully calculating the costs. Not coincidentally, she alone speaks to the American Dream’s human cost. Linda has one of the best speeches ever written for the theatre; it deserves to be quoted in full:

“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

Good advice, that paying attention. It’s what live theatre does best: by putting us in the same room with real human beings, it stirs us up from all manner of dreams, and forces us to finally, finally pay attention and wake up.

Not that I would know, but I’ll bet you good money that never happens at Disneyland.

David Berkson



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3 thoughts on “Life After “Death of a Salesman”: The Loman Family Nightmare

  1. Karin Martin on said:

    So completely and compellingly convincing, and movingly written. Exactly my own view of the play, and its American context – dare I write this as a European. I will share this article with my students with whom I am currently reading the play.

    • Karin,

      I’m sorry that I didn’t reply earlier. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Where are you teaching, and at what level of students?


      • Karin Martin on said:

        Hi David, one of my students has just posted that you replied. I teach English advanced-level to high school seniors at a school in Darmstadt/Germany. It is a mixed language – literature – cultural studies curriculum, and America always figures in it. Whenever possible, I try to include Death of a Salesman, which still surprises me with new facets, new ambivalences, new possibilities to read it. And then, times being what they are, the issues seem so very to the point. Despite this it is not easy to make it accessible to my young students whose experience with serious literature is increasingly limited. I blame it on Harry Potter and Twilight -the new Disney… Still fun to try though.

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