Willy Loman, the downtrodden hero of "Death of a Salesman," hoped to conquer the world with "a handshake and a smile," but he screwed up. Or he was screwed over by the system. Playwright Arthur Miller never makes the cause clear, but the message comes through: Willy is a failure.
As such, he remains the best known of America's stage salesmen, a group that includes Hickey in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" (1939), Harold Hill in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" (1957) and Ricky Roma in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984). (Both "Death of a Salesman" and "Iceman Cometh" are enjoying triumphant new revivals on Broadway.) The salesman is to 20th-century America what the little clerk was to the 19th-century Russians: an emblematic figure who, without precisely defining it, contains within himself the darker contradictions of his society.
There was always an upstart edge and energy to the American salesman. In Europe, being "in trade" at all is still sniffed at. Here, although selling was a way up in a country of previously unimagined social flexibility, snobs also sniffed. Many of the great Jewish fortunes in this country began with families of simple peddlers, and to the genteelly antisemitic ruling classes this made the whole endeavor suspect.
Additionally, there was the legacy of the snake oil salesman--captured so brilliantly in Mark Twain's Duke and Dauphin in "Huckleberry Finn"--who, in an age when doctors killed more patients than they cured, suckered the sick into buying phony health potions. In the public mind, the salesman was never very far from the con man.
America's ambivalence toward its own capitalist heritage accounts for the variety of guises our theater salesmen wear. Roughly 50 years apart, Hickey and Ricky Roma are predators, Hickey literally a killer. In between come Willy Loman, the victim, and Harold Hill, the happy savior, the con man with a heart of gold.
O'Neill based Hickey's flophouse pals on men he had known when he himself was on the skids in his youth, but it's not clear where he got Hickey. The character is in part a chilling self-portrait: O'Neill, too, was a vicious bastard with a charming tongue.
Hickey may also be the unmerciful version--in contrast to the compassionate one in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"--of O'Neill's blustery, shifty actor father. There is, after all, no purer con man than an actor. And a lot of O'Neill's perhaps unwilling respect for the melodramatic tradition that made his father a star--the old man toured and retoured as the hero in "The Count of Monte Cristo"--went into the writing of Hickey, who is a barnstorming star himself. Hickey's coarseness, both in personality and as a theatrical concept, is what sets fire to the weighty, arty elements in "Iceman" and makes the play the scorched-earth experience it is.
The salesman is traditionally the man who delivers dreams--this is the source of his slightly uncanny power. But Hickey comes to destroy the "pipe dreams" of his friends, all of whom have pathetic little illusions about themselves that enable them to keep on living.
He's the anti-salesman, who delivers only nothingness, but he still has the old style. He sells his victims on how good the new, disillusioned life is going to be for them; he claims he's on their side. The play's slow, remorseless revelation is that he wants only to spread his own emptiness. Dead inside, he wants everyone else dead, too.
On a political level, Hickey is O'Neill's leftist critique of capitalism, for promising the good life and then delivering death.
Arthur Miller also wrote from a left-wing background--though he was formed by the earnest socialism of the '30s rather than the romantic, anarchic turn-of-the-century radicalism that entranced the young O'Neill. But Miller turns "Iceman" completely around. The salesman who formerly represented the worst of the system is now presented as that system's victim.
"Death of a Salesman" is an American classic--as opposed to a masterpiece--because it's sentimental. O'Neill makes an audience look at the ugliness in its own soul. Miller appeals to our self-pity. You work so hard, you play by the rules--and what do you get? As soon as you're outmoded, you're thrown out like a broken kitchen appliance. It's not Willy who has conned customers into buying whatever mysterious product he sells (Miller never identifies it); instead it's Willy, the believer in the system, who has been conned by the promise of success in America.
The son of an immigrant, Miller was hyper-aware of the friendly mask worn in the alien world of American business, a place where men could smile and smile and yet be villains. Hickey is the masked man, the fellow whose smile turns out to be a feral grimace. Willy, pathetically, wants to wear the mask and never succeeds. "The important thing," he tells his family, "is not to be liked but to be well-liked." This is not the violent dream of a radical but the submissive hope of a would-be joiner. The figure of Willy epitomizes the immigrant's despair of ever belonging, and Miller pleads for compassion rather than snarling for justice. Far from being a wife-killer like Hickey, the loser Willy Loman has been emasculated by America, and it's himself that he kills.
"Death of a Salesman" accurately reflected the suspicion and uncertainty that underlay the post-World War II boom. When in 1957 Meredith Willson wanted to make the hero of his musical a salesman, he had to set the story back several decades. (Amusingly, the past that Willson idealizes is the exact period in which O'Neill set "Iceman.")
"The Music Man" takes place in a sunny, imagined, nostalgic America--a place of small towns and true love. The ebullient Harold Hill, who comes to rip off the Iowa rubes, is instead reformed by love and rewarded with a miracle: The band he has cynically formed so that the townsfolk will buy the instruments he peddles turns out to be able to play after all.
Like its corny miracle, "The Music Man" itself undercuts cynicism. Willson captures something essential in the figure of the salesman, something O'Neill and Miller left out: his vitality. The question neither "The Iceman Cometh" nor "Death of a Salesman" answers is how, if the salesman ethic is fundamentally destructive, it built such a vibrant society. There's a real strength in Harold Hill--a vulgar, life-enhancing energy, even a hint of the hipster's scornful determination to push his consciousness beyond the confines of the squares.
Like O'Neill, Willson appreciated the theatricality of selling. A salesman's spiel is already a sort of aria. Willson just took the next logical step and made it an actual song. "Seventy-Six Trombones" and the glorious patter song "Trouble" are exuberant expressions of the American spirit, hymns to can-do, fix-it optimism. And in the fairy tale land of "The Music Man," these attitudes reap a happy ending: romantic love and the gift of music besides.
Mamet established his reputation with a play influenced by Miller and then sealed it with one that harked back to O'Neill. The small-time thieves in "American Buffalo" are low-life versions of Willy Loman, pitiable suckers for the American Dream. The carnivores in "Glengarry Glen Ross" are, like Hickey, exultant destroyers.
"Glengarry Glen Ross" is a funny play. Mamet exploits the parallels between selling and comedy--the aggression, even rage, that can underlie both. Lenny Bruce, the ultimate hipster's comic, had based his style on the high-pressure rants of aluminum-siding salesmen: More psychologically exposed than an actor who takes on a role, he was selling himself. "I killed 'em," a comic says of an audience he's wowed, and the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross" "kill" them, too, those customers who are their audiences, to whom they gleefully sell overvalued real estate.
No playwright since George Bernard Shaw has understood words as weapons the way Mamet does, and at its best "Glengarry Glen Ross" has some of the exhilarating combat-high of the great Shavian dialogues. Mamet's salesmen are inspired talkers--particularly Roma, whose introduction is a philosophical shaggy-dog story he tells a man in a bar--the punch line being that Roma has something to sell him. Roma doesn't occupy the central dramatic position of Hickey or Willy Loman or Harold Hill. He's first among many, the shark among the barracudas, and "Glengarry Glen Ross" is a blood-in-the-water story about the survival of the meanest.
The play seems to be saying something about masculine competition, though it's never clear exactly what. The message you get from watching a production is that male bad behavior is enormously entertaining. "Glengarry" is like a power tennis match in which the players aim for each other's heads. They're horrible, sure, but these are real men. The true villain of the piece is Williamson, the sneaky, purse-lipped office manager (played in the film by Broadway's current Hickey, Kevin Spacey), who has venom but lacks brio. Awful as they are, Mamet's salesmen are fun. Williamson isn't fun.
The salesman is the great American myth of good hope and bad faith. He represents the central promise of capitalism--happiness through material wealth--but is himself on the edges of society, an affable but untrustworthy loner, a possible trickster. He's the glad-hander who's too good to be true, the guy who promises the good life that puritanical America has always suspected is unachievable, if not outright evil.
He's powerful because he provokes such a deep-split double response in his customers/marks. On the one hand, we know in our hearts that you don't get something for nothing. On the other hand, we want to believe that the rules will bend, just for us.
And the truth was, and remains, that American society has provided a lot of material wealth. So maybe the salesman won't con you after all. Even that former patent medicine faker the Wizard of Oz delivered in the end, before he sailed off in his hot-air balloon into an American dream.