Writer Tre Ventour reacts to Death of a Salesman at Royal & Derngate…
Salesman Willy Loman (Nicholas Woodeson) is a man in crisis. He’s about to sacked from his job, he can’t make ends meet and he can’t pay his bills. When it’s not one thing, it the something else and what it comes down to is money. It’s always a matter of how much? What’s more, his sons Biff (George Taylor) and Happy (Ben Deery) don’t respect him and he can’t seem to meet their standards. Willy wonders how this all happened. He’s just a man who wants to do right by his wife Linda (Tricia Kelly) and his boys, but it’s harder than it looks.
Much akin to many of the Great American texts of the twentieth century including Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Miller’s Death of a Salesman follows the tradition of writers speaking about their reality through storytelling.
The 1940s saw the publication of Miller’s play. Miller himself part of the House un-American Activities interrogations and was found in contempt of congress. He stood by his beliefs, and this same suspicion of the American Dream emerges through Biff in Death of a Salesman, his other notable work The Crucible, is a reflection of the Communist witch hunts at the time, uncanny to the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century.
But between the end of the 1940s and the end of the 1950s Hollywood began to speak up and stand up against the oppression of the establishment. In what was supposed to be the land of the free, freedom of speech and opinion was being put on trial. Through film, Hollywood director like Miller’s good friend Elia Kazan made a ruckus. Robert Rossen’s All The King’s Men and Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront immediately come to mind, or even something more contemporary as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and British novel Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis.
So when I heard an adaptation of Death of a Salesman was coming to the Royal & Derngate, I knew it was a no-brainer. Having studied it at GCSE, I am no stranger to the story and I was very pleased with the outcome. Death of a Salesman is Miller’s magnum opus. It’s a depressive and tragic, but brilliant play. While watching it, you will see there is no hope for any of our characters, even if they believe there is. And that’s the trick, the perpetual cycle of capitalism that traps you into believing that getting rich quick is a realistic prospect. And before you know it, you’re six feet in the ground.
Whilst The Grapes of Wrath shows capitalism’s face through the Californian real estate holders, this play shows it through the daily dealings of an American family who have everyday problems, including bills, insurance, mortgages and the annoyance of having whipped cheese instead of Swiss.
Capitalism aside, Miller’s play depicts the goodness in wanting something of your own, like Biff wanting a stress-free life, on his own ranch. “To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off” he says. That’s his American Dream, freedom over cumulative wealth. Though, this is not what was defined as success back then. Working nine to five shifts until you die was considered successful. You’re only as valuable as your last paycheque. Yet, capitalism and that ‘every man for himself’ ideology is as American as apple pie, and this British production of a very American play is a portrait of that.
Death of a Salesman is as compelling as it is stimulating. Woodeson delivers an engaging performance as Willy. He provokes my sympathy for the fallen man, but he also incites my hatred in many of the decisions he made at the behest of human nature and the West’s pro-capitalist agenda. I very much enjoyed Tricia Kelley as the matriarch Linda, who gave an emotional performance, and I’d argue even matched Woodeson’s lead in the second act. Deery (Happy) and Taylor (Biff) were good in support, but throughout proceedings, they played second fiddle to their parents.
Linda could see her husband falling in front of her. She defends him even if he’s wrong, just to keep the peace and to prevent him from getting worse. Miller took a common idea of what a working American family was and turned it into one of the best plays of all time. And even over sixty year later, Death of a Salesman has aged incredibly well and is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1949 when it was first performed to the masses.