Hartman on Miller

Playwright Karen Hartman re-examines Death of a Salesman, in this Nextbook piece about Arthur Miller.

Death of a Salesman suggests but does not explain an immigrant anxiety, the fallout from Anatevka with all clues removed. The Lomans seem alone in the world, or at least in Brooklyn. The sense of them as a displaced family comes through the absence of any other relatives (Willy, the son of an unnamed Midwestern peddler, has lost his only brother two weeks before the play begins) or history, rather than culturally specific referents–no pogroms, no old country yarns, no particular cause for feeling “kind of temporary” about oneself. The play’s Judaism, like that of its characters, lies in its not being anything else–not rooted New England, not a sweetly rotting South. Details have been erased, leaving a sparse, attenuated world that is universal and also incomplete.

I’d suggest that the psychically fluid structure of Salesman tends to stick for contemporary playwrights, while its resistance to naming Jewish content has changed for now. For example, it’s impossible to envision the shifting structure of Angels in America without Death of a Salesman, but equally difficult to imagine Tony Kushner holding back cultural detail. Or I think about the tone of direct attack in Donald Margulies’ early writing about Flatbush, including his Loman Family Picnic, which directly names and satirizes Jewish life by emphasizing that, of course, Lomans don’t picnic. Then again, I remember that Margulies, who was one of my teachers, spoke of receiving praise for finally writing a play, Dinner With Friends, that was universal instead of Jewish.

I don’t understand why it’s necessary to erase cultural detail in order for something to be considered universal. What do we mean by “universal” anyway? Consider the most universal of Western stories, a fairy tale like “Little Red Riding Hood”, say, and ask yourself if a person who is not Western would think of it as being rich with cultural detail or not.