November 7 - November 30, 1980, Salt Lake Acting Company presented DEATH OF A SALESMAN. In this play by Arthur
Miller, James Morrison played Happy.
Willy Loman has been a traveling salesman for the Wagner Company for 34 years, and he
likes to think of himself as being vital to the New England territory. Once long ago,
Willy met a salesman named Dave Singleton who would go into a town, pick up a phone and
place many orders without ever leaving his hotel room. When this man died, people from all
over the country came to his funeral.
As the play opens, Willy has just returned from New England. He tells his wife, Linda,
that he just can't seem to keep his mind on driving anymore. He asks about his son, Biff,
who has just come home for a visit after being away for a long time.
Willy reminisces back to when Biff was a senior in high school, how Biff was playing in a
great football game and people were coming from all over the country to offer him
scholarships. But something happened after that year, and Biff never seemed to find
himself. We find out later that Biff had flunked math and had gone up to Boston to find
his father and explain the failure to him. But when he reached Willy's hotel room, Biff
found his father having an affair with a strange woman. After this, Biff seemed to hold a
grudge against his father and could never bring himself to trust Willy again.
Now after 14 years, Biff is home. He and his brother Happy try to think of some job that
Biff could get and then settle down in New York. Biff used to work for a man named Bill
Oliver. He decides that he will ask Mr. Oliver for a loan of ten thousand dollars to begin
a business of his own. The two brothers tell Willy about their plans, and Willy thinks
that together the two boys could absolutely conquer the world. He tells Biff that Mr.
Oliver always thought highly of him. Happy has been overshadowed by his brother Biff since
he was a young boy, but Happy never expressed any overt resentment over this excessive
attention to Biff. Yet, we see in flashbacks that Happy is continually saying, "I'm
losing weight, you notice, Pop?" And in present scenes this phrase changes to the
announcement that he is going to be married. This is Happy's attempt to achieve some sort
of recognition -- which he never seems to do.
The next day, Willy is to meet the boys for dinner. He is so pleased to have his boys with
him that he decides to ask his own boss, Howard Wagner, for a new job for himself in New
York also. But Howard not only tells Willy that there is no room for him in New York, but
also that he can no longer represent the firm in New England anymore because he has been
doing harm to the firm.
Willy's day has suddenly reversed. He is now without a job and has to go to a friend,
Charley, to borrow enough money to pay his life insurance premium. We find out then that
Willy has been borrowing 50 dollars a week from Charley for quite some time, and then
pretending that this amount is his salary. Even though Charley offers Willy a good job in
New York, Willy refuses because he says he can't work for Charley. Willy leaves to meet
his sons for dinner.
Biff and Happy meet each other in the restaurant, and Biff begins to explain that he has
been living an illusion. He tells Happy that he has stolen himself out of every job he has
ever had, and he wants to make everyone (especially Willy) understand that he is no longer
bringing home any prizes. Yet when Willy arrives, he tells his boys that he has been
fired, and he refuses to listen to Biff's story. Biff walks out in frustration. Happy
abandons his father to flirt with some girls. When one of them asks about Willy, Happy
replies "No, that's not my father. He's just some guy."
Later that night, Biff comes home and finds Willy out in the back yard planting seeds and
talking to his brother who has been dead some nine months. Biff explains to his father
that it would be best if they break with each other and never see one another again. He
tries once again to explain that he is no longer a leader of men and that he is a common
person who has no outstanding qualities. But Willy refuses to believe him and tells Biff
how great he could be. Biff again is frustrated because Willy will not see the truth. He
finally breaks down and sobs to Willy to forget him. Willy thinks that Biff is still a
child who needs him. Willy silently resolves to kill himself, because with the twenty
thousand dollars of insurance money, Biff could be such a magnificent person.
No mention is made of Happy's future. Willy committed suicide for the sake of his son, not
for his two sons. Whenever Willy thinks of the twenty thousand dollars worth of insurance
money, it is always in terms of Biff. Happy has functioned so long as the rejected son
that his rejection of his father in the restaurant is partially justified. Even though
Willy's philosophy was essentially directed toward Biff, it is nevertheless Happy whose
life was affected most by Willy's ideas.
At his funeral we see that Willy died a mostly forgotten man because no one aside from his
family comes. The Requiem brings the play into proper perspective. Since nobody came to
the funeral, this proves that Willy's idea about being "vital to (the) New
England" community was all an illusion. The truth is that Willy was not well-liked.
Willy created this illusion to be able to continue with the daily drudge of living, and
once the illusion was destroyed -- with his firing -- there was no reason for Willy to
We see that Biff now has a firmer grasp on reality as he has seen through himself well
enough to know he will never attain the height that Willy expected. But Happy is even more
lost in his world of dreams, as lost as Willy was. Biff seems to know that Willy had
"the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong." But Happy thinks that he is going to
justify Willy's dreams in the next year by making manager of the store. Happy says that
Willy "did not die in vain. He had a good dream." Thus Happy is lost, but there
is some hope for Biff.
Judith Guest has been criticized for writing about ordinary people; Sam Shepard is said to
be a writer who offers no hope for the American family; Arthur Miller has been called
"old fashioned" and "unserious" for giving us plays that deal with
And yet both Shepard and Miller are Pulitzer Prize winners and Guest, with her first
novel, moved quickly to the best seller lists around the country.
All three authors have the ability to reach down inside their audiences and pull out
emotions that some people would just as soon leave buried. That is one reason they are
criticized -- it is not easy to admit that some mothers do not want to put their arms
around their sons (ORDINARY PEOPLE). It is uncomfortable to listen to fathers, sons and
mothers who constantly put each other down (BURIED CHILD), and it is painful to admit that
you might someday have to be taken care of by your children (DEATH OF A SALESMAN).
So the criticism continues and possibly because he has been at it the longest, Miller has
received the most. Some critics have said his plays have no place in modern theater
because "they have nothing in common with the high-minded theater of the
avant-garde." Others have contempt for his ideas because they seem "simple"
-- he talks about guilt, family betrayal and loneliness.
But there have also been those who have praised him, in particular, the late Harold
Clurman who said, "The poetry in Miller's plays is that of the impassioned moralist
who, as in a parable, seeks to convey not so much a thought as an emotion which goes
beyond the factual material employed."
Miller has said it has never been his intent that his plays "simply move an
audience." A play, by its very nature, is a dramatic consideration of "how men
ought to live."
Responding to DEATH OF A SALESMAN, which first appeared in 1949, Miller said in a New York
Times article, "I was disturbed when SALESMAN was first produced. I didn't want
people weeping; I wanted them to confront themselves, not just to heal themselves by this
kind of sorrow. I didn't want to let them off the hook."
For the first time in several years in this city, Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN will open,
produced by the Salt Lake Acting Company as the opener of its 12th season. The drama will
feature, according to director Anne Decker, "the most incredible cast ever assembled
in this city to put on a show. All of these actors have an intuitive sense about the
characters they are portraying and we have become a family within the Loman family."
Tony Larimer (Willy Loman) describes the drama as "the most complex and also the most
simple play I know. It is a play that reads perfectly, that demands that each word
delivered by the actor be done so in the precise manner written. I will not improvise
Willy's words... structurally there is not a line wasted. It is also a play with enormous
appeal to all different kinds of people -- fathers will find it frustrating as they see
the physical, moral and spiritual side of Willy. In the end, he is a clean man, but there
is nothing left of him. He just wants to get back into his Chevy."
When Gail Hickman was asked to portray Linda Loman, she reread SALESMAN, and at first felt
that is was dated -- a mother darning hosiery in 1980 seemed a little strange. "But I
stayed with it and saw very soon its relevance. If we tried to contemporize it, it
wouldn't work. The play is difficult because it is written so well. It is powerful because
it is all of us, and it gets down to the basic issues of life."
Decker continues about the character, "Linda (Loman) is a woman who always puts her
husband first, then her boys and somewhere way down the line, she puts herself. She must
keep a firm hold on Willy, or she knows it will all go down the drain."
Larimer concludes, "Miller has written a play about choices -- Willy's was a sad
choice, but he made one. I think there is an audience out there trying to find something
to respond to -- SALESMAN just may fill that need." Synopsized from notes by James L.
Roberts, Ph.D., for Cliffs Notes, Inc. and a review by Nancy Funk for The Salt Lake
"Some of the most enjoyable sequences involved Biff's interaction with his brother,
Happy, whose punchy playfulness is captured beautifully by James Morrison," Brett Del
Porto for Deseret News.
"The sense of Hap comes instantly as he moves restlessly in his bed, listening to his
father. Morrison shapes this detached young man not only with words but with gestures --
the way he holds a football, lights a cigarette, enters his parents' bedroom. He is the
younger brother, and he's fighting to find a place in the family. Morrison does not have
to fight to bring us Hap. He is there from the beginning and he's marvelous," Nancy
Funk for Salt Lake Tribune.