75 at 75: Jonathan Ames on Arthur Miller
A special project for the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Jonathan Ames writes about Arthur Miller reading from Death of a Salesman with actress Mildred Dunnock, who played Linda Loman in the original Broadway production. It was recorded at 92Y on February 2, 1955.
Posted on Dec 12, 2013
Arthur Miller’s voice reminds me of Al Pacino’s. Same kind of New York accent. Tough, gruff, sort of ugly. Like it’s an accent better served for vulgarities than endearments.
But what if I’m wrong about the origins of Pacino’s accent? What if Pacino is from Chicago? Well, since everything is immediately quasi-knowable nowadays, I just looked up Al Pacino on Wikipedia. Sure enough, like Arthur Miller, he’s from Harlem.
I mean I knew that. I knew in my crossword puzzler’s trivia-filled heart that Pacino was from New York, but then I doubted myself. But it was rewarding to read that he was from Harlem. That I didn’t know. I thought of him as being from the Bronx. But no, Harlem. Just like Miller. Everything connects. Everything comes full circle.
Or do we make things come full circle because we’re all going in circles, dizzy and confused? And so we think we’re getting somewhere in our thoughts and in our lives, but we never really leave the point of origin, we just spin around, occasionally lifting the blindfold, like a child playing a game. What we think is vision or insight is usually an illusion, but since all of life is an illusion—or so I’ve been told—we might as well make it a good one. A good illusion, that is. Didn’t Hamlet say, “Stay, illusion?” Well, he may have meant something else, but I like the way that sounds—“Stay, illusion.”
Personally, I don’t practice what I preach. My illusions are negative. I see my soft, privileged life through a discolored veil. There seems to be only one dictum that makes sense, “Love and be kind,” and at both things I fall short, and yet I get up each day just to fall short again. Life rushes by and everything we love slips through our fingers. But I can’t really complain. My negativity and self-loathing is a privilege. An indulgence. Having a difficult brain—and the time to consider this difficult brain—is like being rankled by the chafing of your silk pajamas or by the bit of caviar stuck in your teeth.
There is mortality, though, and there’s no refuting the dreariness of its circularity—“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent, the meaning of which I’m not really sure. My thoughts are like soap bubbles, they dissolve rather quickly and don’t stand up to too much scrutiny, but I think it’s fair to bring up mortality, since I am, in part, discussing Death of a Salesman, which is what Miller is reading from on this recording, accompanied by Mildred Dunnock. Dunnock played Linda Loman, Willy Loman’s wife, in the original production of the play in 1949.
So Miller sounds like a New Yorker and he also sounds a bit aggrieved. Early in the recording, he tells the audience, “I want to thank everyone for coming in this miserable weather.”
There was probably a wet snow, or a cold rain following a snow. When it’s just snow it’s not miserable. The white blanket relieves the city of its sins. It’s a respite from our true selves. So it was probably a wet, miserable rain that had turned the snow ugly. There may have also been lacerating winter air coming off the East River and up the hill to 92nd Street and Lexington. It was February, which in New York is the cruelest month.
This recording happened in 1955 when Miller was thirty-nine, which in 2013 would be about fifty-two, since, like currency, we age differently now and adjustments have to be made for the inflation of life-expectancy. So he was mid-career, surly. Perhaps his shoes were wet. At first he seems to read the play rather flatly, like it’s a chore and he knows that his words would be better served by an actor. But as he goes along he seems to warm up and you can feel his emotions, like a mist, coming off the reading of certain lines, like when as Willy he says to Linda, “I have such thoughts . . . I have such strange thoughts.”
And what Willy doesn’t say—or so I think—is that the strange thoughts are of suicide. Alluding to them is a form of confession, a need to not be alone with the imaginings of his own destruction, though he can’t make the full confession. He can’t tell Linda what he’s been thinking, partly out of bravery—not wanting to burden his wife—and partly out of pride—not wanting to admit to her (or to himself) how close he is to being absolutely defeated.
Later as Biff, Willy’s son, Miller says, “I just can’t take hold, mom. I can’t take hold of some kind of life.” And in that line, too, I felt the writer peeking through, not just reading his words, but feeling them, remembering what they meant to him when he first wrote them.
Why did I choose to listen to this recording? A random selection of possibilities was mentioned to me in an e-mail—the Y archive is a real audio treasure-trove—and amidst the half-dozen or so authors that were listed as examples, I gravitated immediately toward Miller, which is how I pick flowers for someone I love—the ones that strike me in that moment.
And Miller struck me because ever since I first read Death of a Salesman back in high school I’ve never forgotten it. It hit very close to home. My father was a travelling salesman, his beat was the Northeast corridor, not unlike Willy’s, and Willy’s agonies are something I saw played out not in a two-act drama but over a thirty-year career.
My father always talked of landing “a million-dollar deal,” if he could just find the right angle, the right thing to sell; if his company just wouldn’t hold him back. The deal never materialized, of course, even though we waited for it year after year. At the end, when my father was around Willy’s age, his bosses put him on commission, just as Willy’s bosses had, and when that happens a salesman knows it’s over, that he’s all used up. It was painful to witness and more painful for my father to live it.
Another reason that this play has always stuck with me is that I read it around the time that my grandfather died, which was my first experience of death. And what Linda says at Willy’s funeral put into words my own confused response to my grandfather’s passing: “Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it . . . Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. . .”
That was how I felt about my grandfather’s death and how I have felt about every death since. It’s like my mind doesn’t accept it, can’t accept it. The person is simply away; we’ve drifted apart for a while; we’re out of touch; certainly I’ll see them again, make things right, tell them I love them.
“It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. . .”
Maybe we can’t—or at least I can’t—accept the deaths of others, because it’s like a math problem beyond our ken and to ken it is to fully grasp and understand our own death, which maybe we can’t, just as we’re not supposed to be able to dream of it.
Well, I guess that’s all I have to say about listening to this recording. One shouldn’t write things that are too long if they’re to be read on the Internet. Wait, there’s one more thing. What comes through this tape and in the play is the great love that existed in the Loman family, right alongside the anger and the tragedy. Despite everything, they love each other. They may not be able to say it in the right way or at all but at least it’s there. Attention, as they say, must be paid to that. To the love.
Jonathan Ames’ latest book is You Were Never Really Here.