Death of a Salesman
As is part of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, is currently being performed at the Studio Theatre at the North York Centre for the Arts. But not in the original. In translation. In Yiddish – Toyt Fun a Seylsman. There are supertitles, but they are almost not needed even if you know no Yiddish.
I have seen the play four times in the past. Three of those productions were amateur performances. However, this Yiddish production was even better than the professional one I saw years ago. And it is not simply because Avi Hoffman who plays Willy Loman and directs the play and Suzanne Toren who plays Linda, his long-suffering wife, and Daniel Kahn who plays Biff, offer such marvellous performances. It is in good part because the play is performed in Yiddish.
Arthur Miller wrote a deracinated play, perhaps a play suited to a salesman who has lost any sense of rootedness. It is a play that on the surface is totally uprooted from its Brooklyn Jewish culture. Willy Loman is not called Manny Newman, Arthur’s uncle who was the original prototype for the main character. Linda is not called Molly. Biff, the oldest son, is not called Barney and Happy, the younger son, is not called Harold or, better yet, Hershel. Miller uprooted and extirpated, or, at least tried to remove any sense of Jews tied to their covenant with God and to their sense of a people in exchange for one version of the American Dream that Miller puts on trial on the stage.
One of the major symbols in the play is Willy Loman’s search for seeds, his quest to buy seeds and plant them in the garden of his house even though you cannot grow a carrot anywhere in Brooklyn. A tree, a lonely tree, may grow there, but not a carrot. As Willy disintegrates, he is found in a futile effort trying to plant seeds in his garden. But this was a generation of rootless Jews in which being a salesman was apparently the epitome of success in fulfillment of the American dream.
A few years ago in an interview in The New Yorker with John Lahr, Arthur Miller described his work as a playwright as being a stenographer, a transcriber. “I could hear the characters. I could hear them literally. I’ve always said since that playwriting is an aural art. You write, but you’re really hearing it.” I think Miller is dead right about writing drama. But it is also true for the listener. For the first time when performed in Yiddish, I could really hear the play. Miller claimed that he deliberately eschewed “naturalistic” speech and “realistic” diction, that he wrote the play in a stylized manner “to lift the experience into emergency speech of an unabashedly open kind rather than to proceed by the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the ‘natural’.”
However, when you hear the play in Yiddish, in spite of the names Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy, you hear the Yiddish rhythms unequivocally. “Maybe it’s your glasses. You never went for your new glasses.” “Afshar es s’ deyn briln. ir keynmol gegangen far deyn nay briln.” אפֿשר עס ס ‘ דיין ברילן. איר קיינמאָל געגאנגען פֿאַר דיין נייַ ברילן.
Willy asks Linda. “Why do you get American when I like Swiss?”…“How can they whip cheese?” “Vos ton ir bakumen amerikaner ven ikh vi shveytser ?”…”Vi kenen zey baytsh kez?וואָס טאָן איר באַקומען אמעריקאנער ווען איך ווי שווייצער ? ” …” ווי קענען זיי בייַטש קעז?
The English is but Yiddish singsong diction that reproduces those melodies. The characters do not speak American. Certainly, the style of the speech with its hesitations, its doubling back on itself, its interrogative style, its disjointed patterns, are all rooted in the Yiddish and the American English of a New York Jewish community. So that when the play is performed in Yiddish, the singsong rhythms come out all the more clearly without the pretence of a non-natural lyricism. Further, the way the names are so ill-fitted to the speech patterns – Willy, Linda, Biff, Happy – also becomes so noticeable. Like Trump Two-Two, who came out of Queens rather than Brooklyn, Willy Loman talks in a stutter and his boasting becomes inarticulate.
The rhythm is also so well suited to the play. We are watching a train wreck in the seconds before it takes place. The past keeps jumping into the present as the present continuously reaches backwards in search of an idyllic materialist future, not one where the messiah will come, but where one becomes the messiah. And we in the audience are continually thrown off guard as the idiom jumps back and forth between past memories and current actions. It is as if we are watching ten seconds stretched out and slowed down to two-and-a-half hours. And when the crash takes place, we can hear a pin drop because that is all the noise it makes. The light of Willy’s candle goes out, not as a flame but as a whimper.
Of course, this was how Willy’s hero, the great salesman, David Singleman, applauded by salesmen and buyers in all forty-eight states (Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states), died. He too goes to his grave alone, but within a train car rather than in front of it. But that is the only difference. Singleman and Willy both die alone. Tennessee Williams (Sweet Bird of Youth; The Glass Menagerie), Eugene O’Neill (The Iceman Cometh) and Edward Albee all wrote about self-delusion and being caught up in fantasies of one’s own making, fantasies that were usually about material wealth, success and public recognition. For the root of delusion was perceived to be the misbegotten conception of the self. However, what is really on trial is a community vision that speaks the language of possessive individualism but unveils the reality of the sham of a bourgeois marriage – none as obviously as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Though these twentieth century archetypal American dramas were all about both disappointment and bewilderment, these are experienced most acutely in Death of a Salesman. After seeing the play in Yiddish, I am convinced that the real power of the play does not reside in the universality of these themes found in that period of American drama, but in the inherent tension between the buried and repressed past and the reality of the present – but not just in the superficial sense between Willy Loman’s past regrets, missed opportunities and betrayal of his oldest son’s faith in his father. At a deeper level the language and the rhythms unpack the tensions between the idolatry of looking smart, feeling good and being well-liked, of radiating success and selling oneself, and the reality that this is the age-old problem of worshipping idols.
In this period of American drama, what happens to one’s family and, in particular, what happens to one’s children, is the stick by which success can really be measured. THIS IS NOT THE AMERICAN DREAM. THIS IS THE JEWISH DREAM. The play is at its best when the tensions between these two dreams battle it out in front of the audience.
Death of a Salesman juxtaposes Willy’s lost youth and his lost opportunities with those of his oldest son, Biff. But why were they lost. Because father and son both over-estimated who they really were? When Marlon Brando as the powerful ex-boxer and almost champ in On the Waterfront pleads and whimpers, “I could have been a Somebody,” it is his older gangster brother who betrayed him. In Boston, Willy Loman betrayed Biff when Biff learns that his father has a mistress on the road to whom he gives silk stockings while the strongest image we have of his mother is patching up the runs in her stockings. But the larger problem is that they are all inward-looking as they try to extend themselves outward. They are all insular and have lost touch with their roots and their community, a loss which the play itself contributes to rather than exposes. They are all caught up in an asocial narcissism. And the blame is always placed on another. They have been betrayed. The message is not that they have betrayed themselves and, more specifically, their God.
I was betrayed. Not I betrayed myself. The Jews betrayed the Germans. That is why the Germans lost WWI. But a central theme of Jewish Holy books is that the Jews were constantly betraying their God, not that they were betrayed by others. But just as Willy has lost touch with the roots of rhythms of his speech, just as Arthur Miller suffered from the delusion that these rhythms represented a detached lyricism, putting the play on in Yiddish puts Arthur Miller’s own narcissism and self-delusion on full display.
The play is not so much about the emptiness of the American dream as the betrayal of the Jewish dream, even though that is extirpated from the drama. Though The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, though conformity and ideological orthodoxy and a faith in a prosperous suburban middle class had purportedly become the expression of the American dream and the object of Miller’s scorn, what is actually on trial, and what is so well revealed in the Yiddish version, is not simply the American focus on social approval, on buying material goods on time, on conspicuous consumption in contrast with the older ideals of the Western frontier, a period in which external conformity produced internal confusion and order that was simply a masquerade of the disorder underneath. What is on trial is not so much the American national psyche as the Jewish-American psyche.
But the English version hides it, denies it, and is as self-deluded as Willy Loman. Willy Loman may be a version of Arthur Miller’s uncle Manny Newman, the charming and bold-as-brass salesman who killed himself, but Willy’s nephew in the play, the nerdy Bernard, both initially jealous of Biff the athlete, so attractive to the girls in high school, and the subsequently successful lawyer who is about to have a hearing before the Supreme Court, is Miller’s version of himself. Only in Arthur Miller’s terms, his writing is put before the higher supreme court of public opinion. This in itself should serve as a key to Miller’s self-delusion and his own self-betrayal.
As Willy lurches between self-loathing, between recognition that he is a loser and a failure as a salesman, and the resurrection of his past self-delusions, as he bounces like a ball in a pinball machine between placing his son Biff on an illusory pedestal and tearing him down and pushing him away, as he waves his banana flippers to have his ball bounce off bumpers and into traps until his rage results in a tilt and the end of the game, a key to his character can be found in his relationship with his wealthy older brother who walked into the jungles of Africa when he was seventeen and emerged at twenty-one a very rich man having discovered diamonds. But why doesn’t Ben loan his brother, Willy, a small amount of money? Why does Biff go to an illusionary businessman and admirer from a dozen years earlier rather than to his uncle for a loan to stake him in starting a business? Miller does not even raise the possibility. Instead, Willy borrows from his neighbour, Charley, whom he almost openly despises.
In the English version, Charley is grounded and reasonable and concerned and tolerant and understanding and sympathetic. He is almost like a singular chorus in a Greek drama. But in the Yiddish version, he comes across as a schlemiel. Linda in the English version is usually portrayed as long-suffering, understanding, the mediator between Willy and their children, the peacemaker, realistic and level-headed. In the Yiddish version, all these qualities are turned topsy-turvy. Linda, instead of being the rock on which the family was constructed, comes across as the sycophant who contributes most to Willy’s self-delusions.
If we go back to Ben, Willy’s older brother, Ben is blessed not with the right qualities of a salesman. Nor with hard work and risk. He is blessed with luck, with mazal. And when Jews wish each other Mazal Tov, they are being idolatrous. Though it is an expression of good wishes and congratulations on a happy occasion, it is really an expression of a belief in horoscopes, in reading your life through the movement of the planets and expressing the wish that your constellations will be in the right alignment. For mazal is derived from the Mishnaic Hebrew mazzāl, meaning a constellation or destiny or fate. So underpinning the play is the premise of luck, not self-making. And it is that contradiction that comes out so clearly in the Yiddish version.
Do diamonds stand for real wealth, hard-won gems and valuable crystals forced over eons by the pressures of the earth? Do they validate the results of hard work? Or are they glittering stars of promise and faith that life is a lottery?
If the play is ostensibly about Biff’s failure to live up to his father’s expectations, if underneath Miller reveals that it is about a father who betrays his son’s expectations, both delusions are grounded in a far deeper one, not just ego-stoking lies of a self-deceiving narcissist engaged in and dedicated to puffery, boosterism and a love of being loved and admired, but of a much deeper rootlessness and seeds that will never be able to germinate. For Willy, people are either objects of idolatry or of contempt. So he will leave no legacy. For a life that depends on luck and fate requires no legacy. Whereas the play appears to be about the dream of the frontier as a place for hard physical work versus spin and advertisements for oneself, underneath it all it comes across as a lottery.
It is not the open west or the last frontier of Alaska or the primitiveness of Africa. This is as much a self-delusion as the other parts of the American dream. And this is the central unresolved self-contradiction of the drama that becomes so apparent in the Yiddish version.