May 17, 2012

IT TAKES A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF COURAGE....:

"DEATH OF A SALESMAN": A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING MEDIOCRITY (Giles Harvey, 5/16/12, The New Yorker)

Like many people, I first encountered "Salesman" as a teen-ager, and--as with Steinbeck or Harper Lee--it was encouraging to discover that a supposed masterpiece of American literature could be so direct, comprehensible, and unmissably poignant. Miller's ironies--as when Willy, on the night he is to commit suicide, goes out into his back garden and plants a packet of seeds--are never so subtle that the reader is in any danger of missing them. "Literature," I remember thinking, "I could get the hang of this."

Ten years later, at the Ethel Barrymore, I found myself squirming in my seat from boredom and exasperation, amazed at how much glaringly conventional stagecraft "Salesman" was able to pack into its two acts. The rising action, the dramatic irony, the laborious, grandstanding speeches ("Spite, spite, is the word of your undoing...When you're rotting somewhere beside the railroad tracks, remember, and don't you dare blame it on me")--I kept wanting to exclaim, "It sounds like a play!"

Was I the only one? Perhaps. Everyone else in America seems to have been ravished by the play. Once again: the poignancy of Willy's situation (to arrive at the belief that, after years of punishing effort, you are worth more to your family dead than alive) is not in question--it is the ten-decibel amplification that Miller uses to deliver it. At one moment, agonized by what he believes to be Biff's lack of respect for him, Willy fantasizes about the crowds that would turn out at his funeral, were he to kill himself. The contortions of his battered self-esteem are painful to witness: "That funeral will be massive!" he exclaims. "They'll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the oldtimers with the strange license plates--that boy will be thunderstruck... because he never realized--I am known!"

A word to the wise is sufficient. That Willy's funeral would not in fact be the standing-room-only affair he fondly conjures up is instantly clear to any audience: this is what moves us. But Miller is not content to let the suggestion percolate. He ends the play with a cloyingly lugubrious funeral, which is indeed sparsely attended. "But where are all the people he knew?" asks Linda. (Biff adds, in case we were in any doubt on this point, "He never knew who he was.") What was finely implicit earlier on now feels about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal.

Henry James said that in art, economy is always beauty. Miller spends recklessly.

...to admit that it took you this long to realize that Arthur Miller's agitprop sucks.




Posted by at May 17, 2012 5:33 AM
  

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