Reading with the Times: Death of a Salesman (March 1)

On March 1, The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood invited columnist Joe Nocera to discuss the relevance of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman in light of the contemporary dynamics and culture of American business. I did not add my ideas or questions to their active digital discussion but I decided to consider the theme of their discussion on my own blog, a plan I noted in my February 26 post.

The Times featured a striking image from the original playbill for the play. The

Detail of the original playbill for Death of a Salesman from The New York Times.

poignant image captures the heavy burdens of the play’s protagonist whose dream of becoming a salesman stemmed from seeing eighty-four year old Dave Singleman at work. Singleman’s working life was one of ease and repose as he could make his sales calls by merely picking up his home phone. The playbill image captures the weight of working on your feet and moving about away from home at an advanced age. Such an existence curves a man’s shoulders and pulls his head down. The Times nicely sets this image against the topic of the “fresh urgency” of the play’s critique of American Dreams of success in modern times.

Nocera reads the relevance of Miller’s work through a portrayal of Americans who “strive endlessly” and who are “fueled by ambition,” and who “often measure ourselves by how much money we have.” To me, the relevance of Death of a Salesman for our times, as it relates to business culture, has much to do with how well it captures the sadness and emptiness that comes from constant striving, boundless ambition, and the lust for money. As I read Miller’s stage directions I could hear the music he intended for the play and much of it echoes the sorrow I associate with Willy’s life. The music was so striking to me because of how the acoustic representation of Wall Street resounds for me today. Currently, Wall Street appears unaware of knowing critiques of greed to the extent that a clear eyed and incisive treatment of the corrupting influence of money can serve as fuel. The use of The O’Jays classic soul and funk hit “For the Love of Money” as the theme song for the NBC television show The Apprentice proves this point.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 1 Timothy 6:10

So how does a song that has this biblical caution as its inspiration become the theme song for Donald Trump’s show The Apprentice? I don’t actually know historically how that came to pass but I know that it doesn’t quite make sense. I can’t honestly say that I have watched an entire episode of this show but I know the premise. People compete for a chance to get a job working at one of Trump’s enterprises. They are organized as teams who compete against one another with the losing team having to face Trump’s boardroom appraisal. At the end of his review, he makes the decisive pronouncement, “you’re fired,” and sends someone home. Even when celebrities compete for charity dollars, Trump doesn’t deviate from his bold declaration.

The Apprentice shows people being awful to one another. From the little that I’ve seen, they yell at one another, they conspire against one another, and they justify this poor treatment through an appeal to their winning ambition. On one level, then, The Apprentice appears to be a televisual re-enactment of The O’Jays’ lyrics since the show depicts how money corrupts. The O’Jays song, however, is an explicit critique and The Apprentice appears shameless about its embrace and pursuit of “money, money, money, money, money, money.” Nocera contends that contemporary businessmen absolve themselves from any guilt associated with the seemingly harsh realities of job loss and firings through their foundations and charities. Perhaps The Apprentice does the same through its seasons of celebrity charity giving but what the show fails to appreciate is the poisonous atmosphere it maintains in having people mistreat one another in the name of winning money.

The Apprentice. NBC.

The Apprentice logo significantly differs in its portrayal of a businessman from the one featured on the original playbill for Death of a Salesman. The businessman on the playbill looks tired and rundown. The play itself constantly suggests and even references Willy’s fatigue and exhaustion. The Apprentice makes an ideal of frenzy. For all of Willy’s faults, he never wanted to be like the man running with a briefcase. He wanted his slightest gestures to open doors and to move men. From the little that I’ve seen of The Apprentice this is the impression that Trump likes to make of himself: when he enters the room, “attention must be paid.” And of course, Linda wanted someone to pay attention to her husband’s humanity despite his anonymity. The goal of The Apprentice, or any reality show for that matter, is not to be human, but rich.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: