Family Matters

Nothing Like Willy Loman?

A Classic Play Still Casts a Haunting Spell

Magazine Issue
November/December 2012
Nothing Like Willy Loman?

I am sitting in the balcony of the Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street, watching–for the second time–the Mike Nichols revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the agonizing final 24 hours in the life (and hallucinatory memories) of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman living in Brooklyn. Emotionally drained the first time I saw it, I’m back to unravel the mystery of why this play is so devastatingly powerfulso much so, in fact, that a few friends, familiar with it, have adamantly refused to see it even once. At the climax, when Willy’s older son, Biff, crying like a baby into his father’s lap, begs him to please, finally, wake up to the fact that they are nowhere near special, that they’re a “dime a dozen,” I struggle to rein in my silent weeping, certain that if I don’t, I will collapse into uncontrollable sobbing even louder than Biff’s.

What is it about this play that can produce such a reaction when hundreds, no, thousands of other plays and movies–already in the process of being forgotten even as they are being seencannot? Why, I wonder, is this particular play so special when, as Biff says, the Lomans so clearly aren’t? Was it because it struck so close to home?

So close to home?

Albert Wistow was nothing like Willy Loman.

Was he?

For much of the play, Willy, lost in his head, relives the past, trying to solve the mystery of how his life has turned out the way it has. In these hallucinatory flashbacks, the love story of father and son plays out before us. Willy wooed both his boys with tales of his success and fantasies about their own boundless futures. Even as he puffs them up with how they, too, will be successful beyond all reckoning, he is, as his wife well knows, far from the success he’s leading his boys to believe him to be: his salesman’s commissions are barely enough to scrape by on; he’s a struggling little man who stakes his claim for admiration on a tissue of lies.

In his senior year, Biff fails math, putting his high school graduation and college football scholarship in jeopardy. He instinctively takes off for Boston to seek solace from his father, who’s there on a sales trip. When Biff bursts into Willy’s hotel room, an irreversible fall from grace takes place. Biff has stumbled into a shocking secret: his father has a mistress. The curtain pulled back, Biff grasps the awful truth: Willy is tawdry, small-time, patheticmost of all, a phony. The idealized picture he’d had of his father, the one on which his world was based, is shattered, permanently.

From that horrible moment on, their relationship and, in a way, Biff’s life, go off the rails. Willy refuses to come to terms with his son’s decision to live out West because he’s secretly afraid Biff’s aimlessness is based on “spite”Biff’s way of getting back at Willy for being a cheat and a liar. As we relive his memories along with him, we come to see how Willy’s yarn-spinning evolved into self-deception and, finally, hallucinations. Now, during what will turn out to be the last day of his life, he is almost unreachable, adrift in his fantasies, barely able to distinguish past from present, reality from make-believe.

That was not my father.

Was it?

Well, yes, like Willy, Al had a wife and two sons, and like Willy, yes, he was trapped, not as a traveling salesman, but in his corner grocery, where, with my mother, he worked all day and most of the night. But my father didn’t have a mistress in Boston (well, if he somehow managed to pull that one off while doing time in the maximum-security prison that was his marriage and the store, I never learned of it), nor did he ever instill in his boys the belief that they were destined for greatness of any kind, or that they needed to be liked (let alone “well-liked”). He didn’t own a car or a house or buy anything “on time” (his fear of debt rivaled that of breaking the law, and thus he rented his entire life and barely went anywhere, even on public transportation), nor did he have a talent for construction or carpentry (he had no hobby or craft through which he might express an inner creative self). He wasn’t a proud, native-born American (a Lithuanian immigrant, he lived here most of his life, but America, I sensed, never really became his “home”). Last but not least, my father wasn’t losing his mind (though the occasional strange hint from my mother seemed to imply that when I was too young to remember, he’d actually had some kind of “nervous breakdown” . . . for a whole week).

Yet, notwithstanding all these valid and crucial distinctions between the real and the fictional, every single subatomic particle of my being was as firmly convinced as was Elia Kazan, the play’s original director, when he told Miller, “Willy Loman is my father.”

But why?

What I saw was this:

The production brought to life again the visceral sense of the simmering hothouse that is family, or at least was mine. As I watched the play, those long-buried crosscurrents of feelingsfeelings that I’d thought were long gone, feelings that have never been matched in their intensitycame bubbling up, as palpable and as intense as they’d ever been, as if everything else that had subsequently happened in my life, all the decades of experience that had followed, were but an accidental add-on, superfluous, pale and thin in comparison.

Those people on stage were my family: so close, cooped up together like animals in a cage, inmates in a cell. Except to sulk or steam or scream or find fault about what we’d done or failed to do, nothing was ever really said. We could pick at each other, for sure, but, somehow, we made no attempttoo ignorant? too afraid?to describe any positive feeling we had for each other, to praise or find comfort in each other. We were simply unable to speak meaningfully, except to yell. At any moment, tempers might tip from calm to ferocious. As in the play, the fact that a fight or argument could erupt at almost any moment–the peace so fragile, the emotions so raw and ready to explode–made the volatility, at times, seem almost comically absurd. The play captured the god-awful sense of the claustrophobia, the pressure cooker, of being tied together by enormous feeling, but not by communication or understanding, each person in the household ultimately a mystery to everyone else, including themselves. The fundamental isolation and loneliness, each individual separated from the others, that is the pain of the play.

Leaving the theater, deeply moved, tears starting to dry, I sensed my body grasping how fragile things are. All the people who first created this work in the 1940s, alllike the era, like my fatherwere gone. Long gone. Yet, underlying that very fragility was strength: they also were alive. Through the magic of art, they’d been revived. They were hereon the stage and in my mind–raised from the dead, brought back to life once more.

And anything that lives has the power to surprise.

No matter how many times I’ve seen that excruciating hotel-room scene, I keep hoping that this will be the time Biff will listen to Willy and go wait for him in the hotel lobby. It never happens. That woman always comes out of the bathroom, dammit. And she did this time, too. But days after I left the theater that second time, that scene triggered a memory. A surprising one. I remembered that I’d had a moment of discovery like Biff’s, though at a much younger age, maybe 6 or 7, when a torrent of information, impossible to process, came rushing in; when the world suddenly went out of focus and everything that world was based on was thrown off-kilter.

Because my father snored–was that it? was that why he was exiled from my parents’ (“Mommy’s”) bedroom?he’d taken to sleeping in the living room of our two-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up in the Bronx on a foldaway twin bed disguised by day as a love seat–strangely and ill-fittingly, upholstered in pink. One middle of the night, as I was passing through the living room to get a glass of milk (or was I not passing through, but just surreptitiously standing there, studying the sleeping figure of my father?to see whether he really did snore, and if so, how loudlytrying to understand something about him not by communicating with him, but through sheer observation and telepathy), I saw my sleeping father do something astonishing. He absent-mindedly scratched the top of his head andmirabile dictuthe top of his head came off. That is, just like in a horror movie when the villain removes the mask he’s been using to conceal his true identity, all of his hair–from the top of his forehead to the back of his crownmoved backwards, then slid off to the side and onto the pillow, where, slightly crumpled now, it came to rest.

An emptiness, a hollowness paralyzed me. What had I seen? What on earth had I seen? Was I still even on Earth? Was this sleeping figure some space creature from one of those science fiction movies pretending to be my father? Orcould it be?was my father himself an alien?

After a few momentsor was it hours?the paralysis wore off sufficiently for me to tiptoe back to the bedroom I shared with my brother and ask him about what I’d seen.

He played it down. “Daddy wears a toupee.” Big deal. Based on my brother’s blasé response, it all was, apparently, no big deal, the kind of thinglike Santa Clausthat everybody knows . . . or should know. Maybe my brother was trying to keep me calm; maybe it was no big deal to him, but it sure was to me. His air of indifference made the whole thing even more nerve-racking. It shifted the mystery from my father to me. The question was no longer “Why does Daddy wear a toupee?” or “If Daddy wears a toupee, why does he sleep in it?” or “Is that why Daddy wears a hat all the time?” but “What’s so shocking about Daddy’s being bald?” and “Why am I so wildly hypersensitive about it?” And, just as Biff never talked to his father about that woman in the hotel, I never asked my father anything about the secret he seemed so determined to keep from me, even when he slept.

Death of a Salesman allows us to witness firsthand what’s going on in Willy’s head, but what was going on in my father’s, under that toupee of his? It saddens me immeasurably to realize I haven’t the slightest clue. Willy agonized about missing out on striking it rich by not having joined his brother and gone to Alaska. Did my father regret a road not taken? Did he, like Biff, long to escape from the hemmed-in city to a farm like the one he grew up on? Did I disappoint him as much as Biff did Willy? As much as my father did me? I saw his “hairpiece” as sadly masking a crushed soul, a self-image of failure for whatever he’d never managed to do with his life. Did it? And shame. Was he ashamed of being an immigrant in a strange land, speaking with an accent, being bald and uneducated, not designed for city life, hiding in plain sight in the store? I certainly felt that was what was going on because I sure was angry at himfor not being greater than he was, for passing on to me a legacy of shame and inadequacy, and for his need to live a life of little hope and fewer dreams.

That’s what I felt was going on, but do I really know? No way. Willy had a coping mechanism“a shoeshine and a smile”but that was light years away from my father’s: work like a horse and trudge on, grimly, in silence.

Then again, the most profound statements are often made in silence.

In the climactic scene, the one that almost had me bawling out loud, Willy and Biff argue, yet again, about how Biff’s “spite” has made him throw away his life, his greatness. When Biff breaks down, crying uncontrollably, trying to get his father to see he isn’t acting out of spite anymoreit’s who he isand pleads with Willy to give up the phony dream that they’re anything more than just a dime a dozen, Willy, for a moment, achieves serenity. He finally understands that his son loves him. Biff’s feelings have gotten through to Willy, but not his words, not the content. Instead, fortified by Biff’s emotional outburst, Willy starts spinning out new, unrealistic dreams about Biff’s future, a bright future Willy knows will be guaranteed by the insurance money that will flow to Biff once Willy kills himself.

Even at this moment of closest connection, when the love/hate bond between father and son is at its strongest, a gulf remains between what Biff is saying and what Willy hears. How cruel the paradox: how inextricably connected these people are, and yet how distant they remain, unable to understand another human being whose life is so intertwined with theirs.

Did I finally understand the mystery of the play?

My fatherwhatever his shortcomings and faults, whatever the mutual barriers we may have created in our relationship or the pathetic mediocrity we sharedwas there, a presence, even though, in so many ways, a ghostly unknown silent one. I could only guess at what he thought, or who he was, or what else he might have wanted out of life, or, indeed, what he thought of me, yet . . . he was there. Working. Providing. Enduring. No matter how many arguments and fights, no matter how cruel the words exchanged may have been, how deep the disappointments, no matter how many “I’m-gone-for-good”s or “Don’t-ever-come-back”s were uttered, we could never disentangle ourselves from each other, because, I realized, our bond wasn’t in spite of shortcomings and faults, it was, at least in part, because of them. The whole sad mortal package. Yet somehow immortal, too. For much like all those memories from the long-ago past that haunt Willy and keep shooting around inside his head, as paradoxical, irrational, and inexplicable as it always appears to me to be, my father is still in mine. Like a hand or a limb, he’s indistinguishable from my being. Though dead and gone now for over 30 years, he’s also still here, a part of me, never to leave.


Illustration © Adam Niklewicz

Fred Wistow

Fred Wistow is a former contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and lives in New York City.