by Charles Isherwood
Aside from its implicit critique of the notion of valuing a man’s life by the rung he occupies on the ladder of commerce, other elements in the play resonate freshly today. Among the most famous phrases, recurring in the dialogue almost like an incantation, is Willy’s fervid emphasis on the importance of being “well liked,” once again using a quantitative measure to establish a human being’s inherent value. His son Biff, Willy asserts, will inevitably rise in the world, despite the moral failings they both swat away like pesky gnats, because he is “well liked,” not merely “liked,” as is Charley’s studious son Bernard.
Thanks to the explosion in social media, being “well liked” has become practically a profession in itself. Adults as well as teenagers keep assiduous count of their Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and surely are inwardly if not outwardly measuring their worth by the rise or fall of the number. People are turning themselves into products, both for profit and for pleasure, and the inevitable temptation is to equate the popularity of your brand with your fundamental self-worth.
Many of us are willingly becoming versions of Willy Loman, forever on the road — that is, online — selling ourselves and advertising our lifestyles: describing the meal we just consumed at a restaurant (with uploaded photograph of course) or the trip we’re planning to take. A social-media gadfly (or, say, me) might suggest that there are vestiges of Willy’s tormenting self-doubt in the need to advertise every moment of our life so assiduously, as if constant Facebook updates could vanquish the inner voice whispering in Willy’s ear that his life is built on sand.
The play moves us on any number of levels, perhaps most fundamentally as a mid-century American version of that classic dramatic archetype dating back to the Greeks: the family in mortal conflict with itself. The Loman family’s conspiracy to support Willy in his delusions — at least until Biff decides he has to destroy his father’s illusions to save himself — is drawn from true filial and marital love, and it is in observing how little this love can do to save Willy that the play is most devastating. He is too consumed by the belief that his failure to succeed, and to inculcate success in his sons, has somehow disqualified him for full membership in the human race.
Despite Willy’s delusions and moral evasions, Miller always insisted on the nobility in his struggle. “The play is really about mortality and leaving something behind,” he told The Times during an interview on the occasion of the Chinese production. “Willy Loman is trying to write his name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.” His contradictions and his failings are all human and all common, which is why the hallucinatory last day of his life will always retain the power to command not just our pity but our respect too.
Charles Isherwood writes for the New York Times