The writer and historian James Truslow Adams once defined the “American Dream” as the potential for life to be “better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”. This remains an important part of America’s sense of its own exceptionalism from old Europe, with our hierarchies and class constraints. But there’s an obvious downside to that dream, the nightmare for those left behind by circumstances and ill-health.
There’s much to admire in this production: Irene Macdougall is particularly heart-felt in Linda’s stocking-mending devotion to her husband.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman takes a long, hard look at the American Dream, and finds it wanting. Titular travelling salesman, Willy Loman, firmly believes that success in life does indeed come through hard work, enterprise and being liked; it’s an ethos he’s attempted to personify, even though—as he admits to his long-supportive wife Linda—others seem to have found greater success with less effort. Living up to the Dream has also shaped him as a man and father, but it becomes clear that his two adult sons—Biff and Happy—are emotionally damaged as a result.
This withering new production by Dundee Rep, sharply directed by Associate Artistic Director Joe Douglas, features a well-balanced ensemble cast who bring a real sense of truth to this troubled family. Nevertheless, the production’s ultimate success is down to Billy Mack as Willy Loman—and his full-on performance that’s layered and subtle enough to hold the balance between our sympathies and annoyance. For this is where a wider context comes to play: Willy Loman may be described as “exhausted”, as “only a little boat seeking a harbour”, but it’s clear to modern eyes that he’s living with dementia.
Whether or not it’s Alzheimer's Disease, Miller uses dementia to show us not only better times in the salesman’s life (visits by his successful brother Ben, the younger Biff’s football success) but also his increasing inability to achieve his own ideal of material success and popular acclaim, and the all-too-real consequences of being left behind as a result. This downside to the American Dream is subtly given form in Neil Warmington’s set—especially in the chimney-smoking trashcans on either side that echo the “Hooverville” encampments of homeless people which grew in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
There’s much to admire in this production: Irene Macdougall is particularly heart-felt in Linda’s stocking-mending devotion to her husband. Yet arguably the strongest directorial flourish is in Douglas’s casting of Ewan Donald and Laurie Scott as not just Biff and Happy, but also as two of their more successful peers. Unsubtly perhaps, we’re shown how in the American reality, success doesn’t just come from hard work and ability but also background and opportunity.