Down the Path to Willy Loman
Grown men were crying. It was last Friday night at the Shubert Theater downtown, and a friend and I had just seen the newest revival of Arthur Miller's classic 1949 play, "Death of a Salesman." This version, starring Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman, swept the Tony Awards last year and has proven as formidable a rendition of the play as those starring Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott and Dustin Hoffman. The performace Friday was no exception, and afterwards, as I watched fellow members of the audience cry--in some cases, bawl--I realized that the play has not lost its relevance to American society. In fact, the major theme of the play has a distinct bearing on Harvard students and the important role that they play in shaping that society.
"Death of a Salesman" is the story of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman who has reached the end of his career. The play's success is in the slow, torturous way that Willy grapples with his fate--he cannot bring himself to face the reality of the choices he has made. For many literary critics, the brilliance of "Death of a Salesman" was that this simple message conveyed the tragedy of the everyman, and in such a way that an audience of any kind could empathize. Joel Henning of the Wall Street Journal said that his father, a businessperson, never responded to any theater like he did to "Death of a Salesman," which "was imprinted on his psyche until he died." That's powerful stuff.
There is a related view of "Death of a Salesman," one that not only applies to our generation but also has direct influence on Harvard students. It has to do with Willy's motto, the one that he lives by: "It's important to be well-liked." It is this mantra which leads Willy to denigrate his neighbors and friends, a trait that he imbues to his children at the expense of pursuing their education and that leads him down the path to self-destruction. The fundamental truth Miller reveals is that the flipside of always trying to be well-liked is that you can never truly understand yourself. It is his son, Biff, who--frustrated by his father's failures--proclaims, "He had the wrong dream. He never knew who he was." It is the futility of Willy's fight that is tragic, because the audience realizes that they too want to be liked, that they constantly need attention and the approval of others.
It would seem that Harvard students would understand this message. For most of them their high school careers were spent avoiding the excesses of popularity in the sake of academics, extracurriculars, even athletics. Not to say that they weren't social or likeable: just that they weren't exactly canvassing for votes for Homecoming Queen. Many of them were focused on getting into a good college, one which would help them reach their goals--for a family, a career, or beyond.
Yet for many the situation changes dramatically once they reach Harvard, and the temptations to strive to be "well-liked" are strong. In an atmosphere where there are more people like you--bright--than ever before, the desire to be popular is certainly present. There are final clubs to be punched, extracurricular events to be conquered and upper-crust socializing to be done. You need to know everybody in your dorm, your house and your Yard. If you don't personally know the big men on campus, you certainly need to know everything about them.
It is this "Willy Loman" personality that is all too seductive, especially when the expectations for Harvard students are high and the pressure to be everything to everyone is intense. Harvard students are selling themselves constantly, whether it be looking for a summer job in November, chatting with the cute girl in section, or trying to impress a professor and possible thesis advisor. The consequences are not simply limited to your life, either. As students that will go on to lead this society, the attitudes that we have and our ideas about success in life are crucial to the direction of that society--especially at a time when we are most likely to form those attitudes, in college. The question is, do we know what we really want?
This is not to say that all Harvard students constantly seek the approval of others. But the tendency is there for some, and the temptation for the rest of us is great. The easiest way to understand the tragedy of such a lifestyle is by reading the piece of literature that most powerfully conveys it. "Death of a Salesman" is a 90-page play that one could easily finish on the plane ride home. And the message is significantly more important that chomping on some pretzels and finishing the crossword puzzle in Delta's Sky magazine. I think Arthur Miller would agree that no matter how hard it is, you should first and foremost be true to yourself. I hope Harvard students understand.
Vasant M. Kamath '02 is a Crimson editor and a Government concentrator in Winthrop House.