Updated: Mar 24
My observations direct from the rehearsal room of Queensland Theatre's production Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and the similarities between a Salesman and Actor.
'Death of a Salesman' caught the spirit of self-aggrandisement
/əˈɡrandɪzm(ə)nt/ noun the action or process of promoting oneself as being powerful or important. "critics accused him of self-aggrandisement"
When you gather nine of Australia's best actors and pair this with a director whose depth of knowledge is closer to a philosophers textbook, there is bound to be conversations of great interest. These meaty conversations were birthed within the incomparable script of Arthur Miller.
It was 1948, and Miller's first marriage had just ended. Arthur Miller moved in to a new cabin that he built far from his original home of Brooklyn. There he wrote the first act of Death of a Salesman in 24hrs. He had never built a cabin in his life but it was within those four walls that he created something that would stand the test of time; the most successful modern play ever published.
An idea that seemed quite fleeting at the time flung out of Jason Klarwein's [director] mouth on a Thursday afternoon. It was to do with the desperate need for Willy Lowman to be liked '...much like the life of an actor.' That resounded profoundly. Credited to the exceptional writing, I marvelled on the mirroring aspects of a Salesman and Actor's life.
All Miller knew about his new play was that it would be centred on a travelling salesman who would die at the end and that two of the lines were: “Willy?”
“It’s all right. I came back”—words that to Miller spoke “the whole disaster in a nutshell.”
He says, “I mean, imagine a salesman who can’t get past Yonkers. It’s the end of the world. It’s like an actor saying, ‘It’s all right. I can’t speak.’”
Within the disheveled world of The Lowman Family themes of UP-SELLING and being 'well-liked' are sewn throughout the pages. Willy Lowman is an ordinary man who has the deepest desire to be...to have... greater. The three Loman men are floating and inevitably struggling between the life they want and reality. It's starkly relatable. Especially in my own career.
“The man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want” - Willy, Death of a Salesman
I've spent years up-selling myself. At times I have caught myself lying about what I can do on my resume or twisting my REALITY to fit what I think 'the industry' wants from me. Selling is an inevitable part of the job. But it's also our job not to fall into it...because if you do, you'll either a) let people down and damage your reputation or b) operate in an environment where you set up such expectations and therefore feel an immense amount of stifling pressure restricting your ability to be vulnerable and open. Simply, you can't do your job. But that's not the most dangerous thing. "Willy Loman is a salesman, but we’re never told what product he lugs around in his two large sample cases....“What’s he selling? You never say what he’s selling.” Miller quipped, “Well, himself. That’s who’s in the valise.” Miller adds, “You sell yourself. You sell the goods. You become the commodity.” [The New Yorker,1999]
Why do we do it? Well because there isn't enough work for it to fall at our feet but another clue can be found in Millers words... just replace the word salesman with actor.
A salesman doesn’t build anything, he don’t put a bolt to a nut or a seed in the ground. A man who doesn’t build anything must be liked. He must be cheerful on bad days. Even calamities mustn’t break through. Cause one thing, he has got to be liked. He don't tell you the law or give you medicine. So there’s no rock bottom to your life. All you know is that on good days or bad, you gotta come in cheerful. No calamity must be permitted to break through, Cause one thing, always, you’re a man who’s gotta be believed. You’re way out there riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smilin’ back, the sky falls in. And then you get a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Cause there’s no rock bottom to your life. The whole idea of people failing with us is that they can no longer be loved. You haven’t created a persona which people will pay for, see, experience, or come close to. It’s almost like death. You have a deathly touch. People who succeed are loved because they exude some magical formula for fending off destruction, fending off death.” He continues, “It’s the most brutal way of looking at life that one can imagine, because it discards anyone who does not measure up. It wants to destroy them. It’s been going on since the Puritan times. You are beyond the blessing of God. You’re beyond the reach of God. That God rewards those who deserve it. It’s a moral condemnation that goes on. You don’t want to be near this failure.” [The New Yorker, 1999]
This play was written in 1949 and consequently re-mounted every year in various countries and various languages since. What is completely unfathomable to me is that the same mistakes, these same themes, are ever so present today. To quote Linda, the unconditionally loving widow of Willy "Attention must be paid." And although it was for her son's ears, I ultimately believe it was Miller's plea to the audience...to society...to us.
In dramatizing the fantasy of competition, Miller’s play was the first to dissect cultural envy in action—that process of invidious comparison which drives society forward but also drives it crazy. “You lose your life to it!” Miller says of the envy....In the intervening half century, the surface of American life has changed, but its mad competitiveness hasn’t. “I’m not aware of any change in the way people look at this play,” Miller says [The New Yorker, 1999]
Stay true, stay open, stay creative.
And come see this show at QPAC - 9th February - 2nd of March.
And here is the New Yorker Article, Arthur Miller and The Making of Willy Lowman, where I took the quotes from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1999/01/25/making-willy-loman
Definitely worth a read.