(Death Of A Salesman, Opening Set Rendering by Jo Mielziner, 1949)
Last night I saw the Richmond’s Fire House Theatre production of Death of a Salesman—a riveting performance by a nearly flawless caste. This morning I woke to news that the ‘Washington consensus’ was forming around a compromise for the so-called fiscal cliff that will involve raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67.
That means while the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans will have to pay a bit more from their slush funds, millions of Americans will be required to work an extra two years in order to retire without fear of losing their savings or home because of an unanticipated illness. They could have retired at 65, using early retirement, but without affordable healthcare how is that feasible? Where does a person turn if they are 65 years of age and Medicare eligibility age is 67?
Perhaps for those with desk jobs or a relatively untaxing work life, those extra two years won’t mean that much, but for many Americans, this is an extra two years of hard labor, arbitrarily tacked onto a lifetime of sweat and struggle—and an extra two years can amount to a life sentence when you’re over sixty. Ask Willy Loman.
In the political calculus, let’s not forget him. Our Willy Lomans are still out there. Hammering in nails, petitioning on the street corners, working in the grocery stores and fast food restaurants, waking up sore with headaches from the night before, not sleeping well, worried about their children’s future, worried about their own. Many are not salesmen in the traditional sense any longer. The jobs and the demographics have changed since Arthur Miller’s play debuted nearly 70 years ago. Today our Willy Lomans are poor parents, single fathers or single mothers (in fact, females make up the majority of Medicare recipients), stretching to make ends meet when the car breaks down and they have to use their grocery money for repairs. Shall we make them work an extra two years so that a millionaire may preserve a bit more of his on hand cash?
Many others are immigrants who work all day landscaping our corporate scenery or toil in our fields to bring us cheap lettuce, tomatoes and grapes. They sweat under the sun, survive in crowded corners of our cities, or further out in dirty shacks provided for day laborers, stacked one on top of the other, far from our eyes and our thinking. Those are our Willy Lomans, too. With this deal, we’re telling them to work another two years in the sun, digging ditches, pounding nails, living like animals so that our millionaire congress can ‘save face’… That’s fair, right?
At the heart of Miller’s play is the cry of the dispossessed, of those who do not ‘make it’. Willy goes to his manager, exhausted beyond words, tells his young boss—who he helped name as an infant—that he just can’t continue traveling anymore. But there’s no place in the system for a Willy Loman who doesn’t travel 700 miles in a day, wearing holes in his shoes, lugging his valise. The young boss blows him off at first, and then finally fires him. The moment breaks Willy’s heart, and ultimately his mind. The question Miller asks is still with us: what do we do with our used up citizens, our jobless, our elderly, our permanently poor who will be shunted aside and ignored once again, our perennially homeless? They will find no new hope in this deal. Rather, what little help they might have received will be bartered away on the altar of an ill-timed austerity fix. Hundreds of thousands are still without work, millions who work must take jobs they find both demeaning and demoralizing because their chosen career path is no longer viable. Yet we will require two more years of their service; and no extra help for anyone who can not manage to be so lucky. That’s fair, right?
Death was the only escape Willy saw out of the cruel necessities of the system in which he was immersed. “What’s the secret Ben,” he asks his brother plaintively in one of his dream locutions before the end of the play. Ben, ever the adventurer, answers with a non-answer, “You go into the jungle and you come out rich. You go into the night, Willy and you come out with diamonds.”
It’s a nice thought, a romantic thought, probing the heart of the American dream, but in the end it’s the idea whose dissolution dooms Willy—and millions of Americans like Willy every day. The question is: do we as a society soften the lives of those who will never find diamonds in the jungle? Or do we tack two more years onto their already hard existence in the name of a meretricious austerity that benefits no one but the very wealthy? It’s an important question that defines us as a society. Attention must be paid.
~ Jack Johnson