Of Willy and Bernie
Thanks to knowing the “right” people, for once in my life, I was able to attend the dress rehearsal for Arthur Miller’s legendary play, Death of a Salesman, at Ford’s theater this past week.
Set mostly in New York City in 1948, there is precious little difference between Willy Loman’s world and our own.
Loman, the protagonist, inhabits as we do, the world of mass consumption defined by payments: on a car, a house and a refrigerator that breaks the month it is finally paid off.
Willy, at age 63 and after decades on the road, is breaking too, as he loses his job and his purpose (or excuse) for living.
The play is about relationships built on lies; Willy struggles with his sons, Biff and Hap as his wife Linda supports and defends him while mediating the lie-laced family mayhem.
Today we see the sons, Biff and Hap as the “greatest generation” though Miller’s portrayal of these young males fairs no better than our current view of millennials as self-centered and conceited, we just crafted a new generational moniker for the very same behavior.
If post-war America was a time of hope, Miller shot it right between the eyes with his play, cataloguing the grim march of the middle-class man.
Loman is portrayed as a philandering liar who teaches his sons to steal and to embrace being popular and likable over working hard.
The millennial version of Death of a Salesman ironically occurred in real life starring Bernard Madoff, his wife Ruth and their sons, Mark and Andrew.
Don’t be distracted by their apparent wealth, it was never theirs, they were fraudulently living on the assets of others whether all of them knew it or not, as he engaged in epic deceit.
And, in the 21st-century version the old man survives while one son commits suicide and the other dies of cancer.
As surely as the Loman family, the Madoffs crumbled under the weight of lies and cunning.
In Death of a Salesman it is Biff, the elder son, who ends the farce by insisting on telling the truth, in the Madoff affair it is also the sons who drop the fatal dime on their father and his fantasies.
Both Willy and Bernie operated under the contradictory impulse of wanting the best for their sons while embracing deceit as a way to escape from the purgatory of the installment plan.
Arthur Miller pointed out, and Bernie Madoff reminded us that lying to thwart reality is like being turned loose in a maze of mirrors where the self revealed is inescapable.