Sunday, February 13, 2005

Yes, You Do Know Willy Loman

Amid the rush of Arthur Miller articles that have been flooding the newswires since the Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright's death last week, this Chicago Tribune piece from today, "Why Miller Matters," really stuck out.

Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

Why Miller matters
Even if you missed his plays

By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic
Published February 13, 2005

There's a story they tell about a guy who went to see "Hamlet" and then demanded his money back.

"Piece of junk," he snarled. "Full of cliches."

That's the thing about great works of art: We can't imagine a time before they existed, before certain phrases and ideas were part of the very air we breathed. And thus even if you've never seen "Death of a Salesman" or haven't read "The Crucible" since high school -- you're still influenced by Arthur Miller, who died Thursday at age 89....

This is true of only a handful of writers per century. Some of the best writers who ever lived never attain such a status; despite their talent, their works never become forces of nature. Their works never insinuate themselves so firmly into the culture that gradually they seem to elide with the infrastructure, with rocks and trees and sky, shedding radiance on both the people who know the works well -- the passionate readers and the dedicated scholars -- and on everybody else too.

"Salesman," with its cold shakedown of the American dream, seems hacked out of the side of a mountain. It's all blunt force and ragged edges.

Elia Kazan, the man who directed the 1949 Broadway debut of "Salesman," well understood the play's elemental nature. Miller, Kazan wrote in his 1988 autobiography, "didn't write `Death of a Salesman.' He released it."...

"When a scholar dies," goes the Yiddish proverb, "everyone is his relative." The same is true of certain writers. The whole world grieves because the whole world is implicated.

If you know Miller's work, then good for you; but if you don't -- well, my friend, you do. You do.

Head over and take a gander. Willy'd want you to.