This past weekend I went to see "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway. When we exited the theater, my friend Bill turned to me and said, "Well, that was a Post 50 story."
Indeed it is. Arthur Miller's 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the tragic fall of a 63-year-old sales traveling salesman named Willy Loman could not be more germane to a struggling generation of baby boomers in a post-recession world. Willy is jobless and broke, broken and ashamed, clinging to false hopes and a veneer of pride. He is alienated from his sons, one of whom fails to launch and returns home to regroup.
The play, directed by Mike Nichols, stars 44-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy; Linda Emond as his loyal and long-suffering wife; and Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock as his sons, Biff and Happy. It's a fierce and utterly mesmerizing ensemble.
For me, the most excruciating part of "Death of A Salesman" is watching Loman's bi-polar dance between the pathological optimism that is so innately American, and the crushing flashes of recognition that it's all dust. He will never reinvent himself. He will never be "free and clear." His oldest son will never know glory; the younger one will repeat his father's mistakes. But then the illusions kick back in, and Loman vacillates once more between false hope and despair, bluster and anguish. Hoffman nails the dichotomy, and it is shattering.
Hoffman also wears a palpable yoke of rage that's familiar in an economy where jobless rates among people 50 and older have doubled in the last four-and-a-half years. After more than three decades on the road, Loman begs his boss for a job in which he doesn't have to travel, but ends up fired. "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away!" Loman shouts. "A man isn't a piece of fruit."
Meanwhile, Hoffman evokes the toxic mix of envy and desperation that smolders deep inside failed strivers everywhere. Loman's brother Ben, played with stylish swagger by John Glover, has journeyed to Africa and found diamonds. He could just as well be a contemporary Silicon Valley whiz kid when he says: "When I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God I was rich." Willy replies: "Ben! I've been waiting for you so long! What's the answer? How did you do it?"
Even the details of the family's economic struggles feel contemporary: "I'm always in a race with the junkyard!" says Loman. "I just finished paying for the car and it's on its last legs ... They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they're used up."
Miller's play captures an American mythology that suggests anyone can rise to the top if he simply works hard enough and makes the right connections. Loman advises his sons: "The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want." Loman blunders through life with false ideals and aphorisms, but little moral ballast. In the end, not even the realization of his son's love can save him.
Maybe that's where the parallels can end. In 2012, in this landmine of a economy, studded with perverse incentives, moral hazards and uneven playing fields, maybe we are forced to recognize the folly of defining ourselves by what we do, and the idolatry of surrendering our lives to cultural definitions of success. Maybe, unlike the tragic Willy Loman, we can choose to see that worth and dignity are innate, and not the trophy for our achievements. That the good life, as author Richard Gula wrote, "is a life that expresses the divine grace within us." And that love indeed has the power to save us.
CORRECTION: Linda Emond's name was misspelled as "Edmond" in the original version of this story. Huff/Post50 regrets the error.