If Willy Loman Were Jewish

July 29, 2011

If Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” had been Jewish, would the play fall within the study of Jewish literature?

More specifically, if the play were to mention only once that Willy was Jewish, would the play fall within the study of Jewish literature?

The answer is yes. As with the example of a revolver on the bureau in the first act of the play, its appearance means there is an expectancy level that the revolver will have significance later in the play. The reason is that the revolver is not an item in the mainstream of what is usually found on a dresser, so it brings attention to itself.  We all know this example. And similarly, if a character is tagged as being Jewish, there is a reason for it.

But Arthur Miller did not make Willy Loman Jewish. He made the neighbor boy, Bernard, Jewish. Bernard becomes a lawyer and one day argues a case before the Supreme Court. Bernard’s success is the quintessential Jewish American Dream success story. The ratio of over-the-top successful Jewish people to our representation in the population creates the myth that almost all Jews succeed spectacularly well.

Willy Loman seeks the American Dream. He does not achieve it. He seeks it for his son Biff who also does not achieve it.  The Jewish man achieves it and/or he prepares the way so that his sons achieve it.

I am certain that when theatrical producers first read Arthur Miller’s play, some of them shook their heads and said, “Willy Loman’s story is about failure, not success. Who wants to pay money to see such a play? Everyone wants a play about rags to riches.” And when it was first produced on Broadway and after the curtain closed on the final act, and there weren’t any applause, the producers confirmed their fear. But then they began to n otice that no one moved, that grown men sat there with their heads lowered, their shoulders shaking; they were sobbing. The audience had been stabbed in the heart with Willy’s failures. Everyone understood and related. There is some of Willy in all of us, and especially in his love affair with his son. The audience was crying for the human condition.

This story of failure when applied to the Jewish man in America may seem intolerable to the Jewish mythmakers. In fact, Arthur Miller, himself Jewish, wouldn’t touch it. Many Jews choose to believe such a man is an anomaly, a deviation.

“What! He failed in business. It’s un-Jewish,” said the comedian.

I guarantee that after the comedian reads THE PROVIDER, he never again will regale his audience with that funny line.

THE PROVIDER’s publication is forthcoming in the next few months. You can read the first chapter at EvelynMarshall.com