Arthur Miller could depress Mary Poppins.
And his classic play “Death of a Salesman” is less relevant today than when written 60 years ago.
I attended a brilliant performance of Miller’s masterpiece at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater last week and was stunned by the mesmerizing portrayal of Willie Loman by Lee Ernst, a veteran actor with the resident company. Willy was a striver, dreamer, BS artist and therefore ultimately a first class loser. Human as he was, it is hard to gin up any sympathy for him as he clings to his chosen lot in life, that of a road salesman — a drummer in the parlance of Miller’s time.
Our group of four playgoers was thoroughly down and exhausted by the three-hour play that ends in Loman’s misguided suicide.
The next morning, though, I managed to generate a positive thought. If Willy and his family were living in today’s world, things would be much better. To wit:
- Willy was trapped in his job as a salesman, but in today’s world he would have many options to get out. He was good with tools and gardening. In an age where a life-long job with the same company is the exception rather than the rule, where people have five careers before they hang it up, he could have honorably applied for retraining after being fired. He had valuable skills.
- He could set up his own carpentry business with help from the Small Business Administration and Small Business Development Centers. Society honors entrepreneurs today more than grind-it-out careerists. He could have made a job, instead of working for the man.
- The two sons showed entrepreneurial instincts as well and would have the same support systems available.
- His wife Linda, the stay-at-home mom and the member of the family with her act together, could have become the major bread winner. That’s true of many couples today, the wife having higher earning power. And two salaries would be coming in.
- Today, Willy would receive unemployment compensation to get him through to his next job, up to 99 weeks worth.
- He and Linda could have sought counseling to find out what they were suited for. That didn’t exist back then.
- Except for his striving through his sons, Willy loved his two boys and they him. He could have been Mr. Mom. That happens all the time in today’s families. Sometimes the guy is the better parent.
- Knowing Willy was becoming suicidal, there are counseling centers available to just about everyone. Linda would surely call a suicide hot line today.
Miller did get us all thinking deeply about how to live a life and raise a family in today’s context. So the play’s core challenge survives.
It’s just that I have a low tolerance for losers, and I prefer happy endings.