Death of a Salesman is an amazing play. Formally, there are many things I don’t like about it. I’m not keen on the use of flashbacks, to start. And I don’t like the standard theatrical drama. Yet unlike most of Shakespeare that I now find boring, I never tire of Death of a Salesman. And I think the reason for that is that the play is as relevant to American life today as it was in 1949. The modern Willy Loman is more tragic than the original.
When people analyze the play, they tend to focus on Willy Loman’s delusions. But I don’t think he’s delusional at all. I think he understands the society that he lives in. And he understands that he is one of its losers. What makes him fascinating is that he tries to cover. His ideas about what it takes to be successful are really just bravado. After all, what does it mean to say, “He’s liked but not well-liked”? That’s an astrology-level of explanation — there to prove absolutely anything at all.
Willy Loman Was Self-Aware
But under this bravado is the understanding that Willy just hasn’t had the kind of luck that leads to the kind of life that he thinks would represent success. And here, my focus is not on Willy’s environment, but on who Willy is. He’s limited in his thinking. He’s leveraged his one talent — an appealing, outgoing personality — into a reasonably successful sales career. But with age, his charm has declined to the point where he is fired.
I come back again and again to something that David Foster Wallace (PDF) wrote:
The Modern Willy Loman Has Crammed the Truth Deep
What I fear most about modern American life is that the people who worship power are not self-aware enough to feel weak. The people who worship beauty don’t feel ugly. The people who worship intellect don’t feel stupid. Understand: they still act the same way. That’s why the millionaire is always a million away from happiness while the billionaire is always a billion away. But as a society, we manage to stuff these truths so deep that we rarely if ever grapple with them.
Willy Loman spends all of Death of a Salesman grappling with this truth. Many people who analyze the play contend that he was never a good salesman. That’s nonsense. He’s been at the same company for 34 years. At the time of the play, that means, he’s been working for the same company since 1915 — that he managed to sell his way through the Great Depression. This is a man who was good at his job — maybe even great. But he’s forced to grapple with his idea that being charming and hard-working is all it takes to succeed as he gets older and therefore less charming and less able to work hard.
The Death of the American Dream
Today, people have turned against the idea of the American Dream — even as idiosyncratic as the idea always was. Now they see things the way pre-industrialism royalists did. You just are or aren’t a success. Of sure, as a society, we continue the pretense. We have people like Daymond John to do a turn on the red carpet so that no one gets any ideas like that maybe all that really matters is who your parents were. But even though we’ve stuffed it really deep, we know the truth: all that really matters is who your parents were.
Willy Loman Has Given Up
This isn’t some kind of law of nature. This is a law of our political, economic, and legal system, which is designed by the powerful to protect themselves. The problem is the system itself. But Willy Loman at least reflects on his place in the system (regardless of how feebly). Today, people seem to be suffering from learned helplessness. They just accept their lot in life because they have no memory of a time when they had any control.
In 1949, it was Death of a Salesman. Today, it is “Salesman Becomes Walmart Greeter, Works Part-Time at McDonald’s in Retirement.” And it’s not a life-action film; it’s a Lego animation.
 And note that John was hardly the son of a crack addict. He grew up in a fairly stable household and went to a good high school.