Attention must be paid," says Linda of her husband Willy Loman in Arthur Millar's play, Death of a Salesman. "I don't say he's a great man. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."
Arthur Millar was himself the privileged son of a rich father whose business was driven to bankruptcy by the 1929 depression, and who had to survive on his wits, taking any menial job he could get, and as a result, getting an insider's view of the doomed and the desperate.
Salesman is too great a play to be about any one thing, but over and over it explores the myth of the American Dream – that if you dream big and work hard you will inevitably "make it", with the unforgiving underside of the myth, that if you have not made it, that is your own fault, and you cannot expect compassion or help.
What is the value of a man like Willy, who has spent his life creating a legend in his own mind, that he has been known and loved by many and hence has been a success, and always on the edge of the big break? Especially when, deserted by his own father when a child, he is desperately searching for how best to parent his sons, and settles, as a largely absent father, for creating unrealistic expectations of what his boys can achieve.
His own flaws destroy the ambitions of Biff, who is within an ace of graduating, and drops out.
Central to any cohesion which the family has is Willy's wife, who is afraid for his survival, and only too aware of his tendency to cling to a fantasised past and an unrealistic future.
The play is full of un-confronted regrets, and dysfunctional relationships, which burst out into uncontrollable rages fuelled by frustration.
Like The Crucible, this play is both very much of its time and universal. The questions it poses have particular relevance to the current situation in the USA, where most of the middle class are barely one pay-check away from insolvency, and the disparity between the rich and the struggling is still excused by blaming the victim.
There are many Willy Lomans in our current society.
A tribute to this production is that, almost from the beginning, we are swept into the powerful dynamics of anger, frustrations, regrets and pains and it is only later that we realise just how skilled the direction and the acting has been. My recollections of reading the play are almost fifty years old, but I was expecting Linda to be even more of an earth mother, and the bond between Willy and Linda to be even stronger – which would have given the graveyard scene a strength and a poignancy that it somewhat lacked – or possibly its arid emptiness was just what the director wanted.
Certainly, as with Shakespeare, there are many ways of playing Millar.
This production showed that the power is still there. The capacity audience was palpably engaged with the disintegrating family ground down by the failure of their dreams. Perhaps we saw so much more than one man destroyed by his daemons, and were confronted by the universal fragility and value of humankind.
Small wonder that Death of a Salesman is regarded as one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, and this production rose to the challenge of bringing it to life.