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“So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person. You called him crazy... no, a lot of people think he's lost his... balance.”

Linda Loman is exhorting her sons, Biff and Happy, but Arthur Miller is also exhorting us.

The Globe’s current production of Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, is a shattering experience.

As the audience filed out of the theater, after the concluding graveside scene, few of us spoke until we had exited the building.

I overheard several people talking in the courtyard. Most were making comments like, “I mean, I read it in high school but I had no idea.”

Indeed.

So what attention are we to pay to Willy Loman? Why is Arthur Miller blatantly telling us to pay attention to such a person? Is Willy crazy?

Willy is no more crazy than you or I. He has only lost the ability to keep his thoughts to himself. Willy is constantly replaying scenes from his past but he thinks of them out loud.

We all think this way. We might be washing the car or driving to work and suddenly we replay a scene from our past. Sometimes it’s a positive scene but often it’s a scene in which we imagine ourselves to have been wronged. We think just like Willy, but we don’t speak our scenes like he does—for the most part.

Attention must be paid. Willy represents the dysfunction we all posses but we still have the ability to hide our hysteria. Our delusions of grandeur remain private but they are delusions none the less.

Willy rarely tells the truth in general and specifically never tells the truth about himself. He doesn’t lie to avoid trouble, like a child who lies about eating all the cookies. No, he lies about himself because he doesn’t consider the truth of himself to be acceptable.

Attention must be paid. How much do we tell the truth about ourselves and our current circumstances? We pick and choose. Mostly we tell lies of omission regarding ourselves. Why don’t we just share the truth? We don’t consider the truth to be acceptable.

There are a few moments when the truth of Willy shows up.

Willy’s older brother Ben offers him an opportunity to manage a forest claim in Alaska. Willy truthfully wants to go but decides, with prompting from his wife Linda, that he is building something good in his sales position.

Ben asks him, “What are you building? Can you put your hands on it?”

What is Willy building? Can he put his hands on anything in his life?

No. As Willy’s neighbor and friend Charlie reminds us, Willy based everything on a shoe shine and a smile.

Attention must be paid. Miller is asking us all, "What are you building? Can you put your hands on it?"

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Comments

CurtainCall Feb. 4, 2011 @ 10:43 a.m.

My junior year of high school, we had to read Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey into Night. Novel-wise we read Catcher in the Rye and the Great Gatsby. Wall-to-wall depressing crap. Thank God I liked to read more uplifting books that weren't assigned to me. They offset the depression factor.

I've never been a fan of the people-in-small-rooms-driving-each-other-crazy school of play writing. It all seems so forced.

Homer, isn't saying: "Willy is no more crazy than you or I. He has only lost the ability to keep his thoughts to himself" something like saying "He's not crazy, he's just lost his ability to act like a sane person" ?

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Homer Hesse Feb. 6, 2011 @ 11:07 p.m.

It is the dysfunction of Willy's thoughts that is crazy but he's not alone because we all do it.

Willy is constantly spinning possibilities out into the future and replaying events from the past. His thoughts rarely dwell on the present moment.

He is full of, "If I had only..." and "It will be great when I...".

Willy never stops to consider what is necessary in the current moment which is why he fails at almost everything he does, especially his family.

Most of us fail to consider what is crucial in the present moment. That is the very definition of being grounded. Our lives don't happen in the past or in the future, they happen now but we seem to focus all our attention on events we can't change or events that haven't and probably won't happen. That is Willy Loman to a tee. Whether or not we speak that thought process out loud, it's crazy!

So far as the people in small-rooms-driving-each-other-crazy school of play writing, I've never really considered it as a genre. I tend to start with whether or not a play or book worked for me.

I have to admit that when I read Cather in the Rye as a Junior, I didn't like it all. About fifteen years later I read Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and loved them. I revisited Cather in the Rye and became a fan of it as well. I'm not sure why we think 17 year olds can handle material like that, let alone enjoy it.

I appreciate and thank you for the comment! HH

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CurtainCall Feb. 7, 2011 @ 9:54 a.m.

"I'm not sure why we think 17 year olds can handle material like that, let alone enjoy it."

Exactly. Kids and teens are much better served by themes of heroism and virtue than by angst. They already have angst. We should give them something to shoot for, not more mud to wallow in.

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nan shartel Feb. 7, 2011 @ 2:17 p.m.

everyone of every age is more interested in heroism and virtue then angst...u know all the stuff the demoralized alcoholics of that time frame wrote

when i was seeing or reading F Scott Fitzgerald,O Neill,some Hemingway,Miller i felt due to it's popularity i should hang some kind of importance on it that would in some way mean i had a kind of deep understanding lost on the populace at large~~how arrogant was that~~

when i was living in San Francisco the first play i went to see was "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett ("the most significant English language play of the 20th century")and tried hard as a 20 year old to perceive it's absurdest grander importance so that my college educated young piano composer husband would be proud of me

even tho i personally had no need "to hold the silence at bay"

~~perhaps i haven't a penchant for men who sit in trash cans~~

i'm not interested in Oscar the Grouch's philosophy on Sesame Street either

Willy Loman was a man of limited personal vision who had a totally unclear picture of himself....his need for and inability to create greatness in his life was his final undoing...it a was self inflicted and self create tragedy...

it is however a more the meaty part for anyone who played him on stage or in the movies...and how can i rail against an author like Miller or the Pulitzer Prize ;(

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Homer Hesse Feb. 11, 2011 @ 1:06 p.m.

Okay, I'm back. Quickly: I consider Biff to be a hero because at the point he becomes completley honest about who he is, he is elevated to higher consciousness than any other character in the play and probably most of the audience. To admit that one is "a dollar an hour, a dime a dozen" is an insight that takes courage to achieve.

Mediocrely yours, HH

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