For days I’ve been working through a convulsive cultural experience: seeing Death of a Salesman the other night (in a second-row seat a friend gave me). The play is so dark it’s almost unwatchable. The character of Willy Loman doesn’t develop. You get it in the first scene, and the title tells you how things are gonna turn out. It may be a coronation for Philip Seymour Hoffman (or Dustin Hoffman, or Lee J. Cobb) to finally play Willy Loman, but it’s torture for the audience to watch a guy falling down eight flights of stairs.
There is only one character with arc in the play, Willy’s son Biff, who comes to majestic self-awareness over the 3 hours. In this production Biff is played by Andrew Garfield, who played Mark Zuckerberg’s Brazilian Jewish associate/friend in the Social Network. I’m told he’s now the It boy. Well, he should be: he gives an astonishing soulful performance. The reason I stood up at the end was for what Garfield calls on in all of us, aspiration, honesty, failure, rage, creativity.
The play had three levels of meaning for me. One was the father-son relationship. It’s devastating; the next time I see my father, I want to talk some things over. Another is the critique of capitalism. I loved it. It seems to me the whole play can be boiled down to two lines. One is Willy’s plea to his boss when he’s getting fired: “You can’t eat an orange and then throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” What could be a more meaningful description of hedge funds transforming our communities than that one line?
The second line is from Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, from opening night in 1949:
It seemed forever before someone remembered to applaud, and then there was no end to it. I was standing at the back and saw a distinguished-loking elderly man being led up the aisle; he was talking excitedly into the ear of what seemed to be his male secretary or assistant. This, I learned, was Bernard Gimbel, head of the department store chain, who that night gave an order that no one in his stores was to be fired for being overage.
Imagine a social drama today converting a hedge fund manager.
The third meaning for me was the Jewish layer. Walking out of the theater, I sensed that Death of a Salesman was wrested from Miller’s Jewish experience, and the next day I got his autobiography to learn more. Miller wrote that the play was based in some measure on a charismatic bullshitting Brooklyn salesman uncle of his named Manny Newman who had athletic sons who made their house “dank with sexuality.”
The Jewish meaning for me goes beyond Manny Newman. Willy’s two generational counterparts in the play read to me as archetypal Jews: his brother Ben the luftmensch entrepreneur and his businessman neighbor Charlie whose son ends up arguing before the Supreme Court. But let’s be clear. Ben and Charlie aren’t Jewish; no one is presented as Jewish in the play, and even if the models came out of Miller’s NY Jewish world, he wasn’t smuggling Jewish characters into American public consciousness. He wasn’t doing what Seinfeld did. Or The Social Network. Or Curb Your Enthusiasm.
No, Miller was using his Jewish materials to reach a broad society he wanted to redeem. He writes in his autobiography of his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery:
Mary had stopped considering herself a Catholic as a high school student in Ohio, just as I was struggling to identify myself with mankind rather than just one small tribal fraction of it. Both of us thought we were leaving behind parochial narrowness of mind, prejudices, racism, and the irrational, which were having their ultimate triumph, it seemed to us, in the fascist and Nazi movements that were everywhere growing in strength. Judaism for me and Catholicism for Mary were dead history, cultural mystifications that had been devised mainly to empower their priesthoods by setting people against one another. Socialism was reason…
Cultural mystifications: when Miller told his family he was marrying Slattery, his grandfather threw a clock at his mother, blaming her I guess.
There was a deep shadow then over intermarriages between Jews and gentiles, and still deeper if the gentile was Catholic.
The prejudice went both ways. Miller sensed that Mary’s Ohio family listened to anti-semitic radio. And that gave him a mission:
By whatever means, I had somehow arrived at the psychological role of mediator between the Jews and America, and among Americans themselves as well. No doubt as a defense against the immensity of the domestic and European fascistic threat, which in my depths I interpreted as the threat of my own extinction, I had the wish, if not yet the conviction, that art could express the universality of human beings, their common emotions and ideas.
Their common emotions and ideas! When I hear Miller’s summons to universality, I think of how much official Jewish life today valorizes tribal identity. Surely this has to do with the “continuity” crisis brought on by the 1990 survey showing that more than half of Jews were marrying out. Surely it has to do with the ’67 and ’73 wars that married American Jews to Israeli nationalism. But today it is not very common to hear a Jewish writer standing up for intermarriage. At the Tablet-sponsored debate about Israel last Wednesday, Daniel Gordis stated that tribalism is the core of Judaism and congratulated Peter Beinart for his concession in the Jerusalem Post, “I am a Zionist, a tribalist, a partisan of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” And Beinart’s book about Zionism calls on Jews to separate their children in day schools so they won’t marry non-Jews. In doing so, Beinart notes that there are today 6000 non-Orthodox Jewish children in Jewish high schools.
As if that’s a big number. It’s not a big number. By and large, Jews are doing what so many other American tribes have done. They think of themselves as Americans, they are trying to help their country.
It’s not surprising that many people associated with the new production of Death of a Salesman are Jewish. Wikipedia says Andrew Garfield is Jewish. Director Mike Nichols likes to talk about his immigrant Jewish background. Some of the producers are Jewish, including Scott Rudin (himself the son of a traveling salesman; so– Biff ended up in Hollywood).
All these Jews are cultural mediators, not just of Jewishness to America, but as Miller said, between Americans themselves. That is a great social responsibility; and for Miller that role was related to his intermarriage.
I must stress (Wondering Jew has hit me on this point): It’s fine and great when Jews marry other Jews. Marriage is hard enough without anyone else issuing guidelines.
But I am talking about the role Miller sought in American life: of artistically/spiritually mediating between Americans, seeking to resolve cultural problems. I don’t think you can aspire to such a role and meanwhile be telling your children to marry inside the tribe.