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America’s reviewers were not enthusiastic about new plays from Arthur Miller and Archibald MacLeish (photo: Alamy)America’s reviewers were not enthusiastic about new plays from Arthur Miller and Archibald MacLeish (photo: Alamy)  

In 1949 and 1958, America reviewed two plays that were widely praised by critics. Our reviewers, however, were not enthusiastic. Theophilus Lewis found Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to be mediocre. And for a young Jesuit dramatist and poet named Daniel Berrigan, Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.” failed to match the power of the biblical story that inspired it. Their judgments may have missed the mark (or did they?), but their prose retains a spark these 70 years later. This article has been republished as part of America’s special 110th anniversary issue.

‘Death of a Salesman’

Since it is practically certain that Death of a Salesman will be elected best of the season, its accolade warrants a re-appraisal of its dramatic and social importance. In either department, the play is no better than second class. Edward, My Son is superior drama, and The Mad Woman of Chaillot is more mature in social vision. In only one quality, its vigorous dialog, is Mr. Miller's play in any way distinguished.

While some of the author’s admirers call the drama a criticism of our national values, it is never quite clear which popular fallacies are the targets of his censure. Are his strictures intended to debunk the myths and vainglory that have elevated salesmanship to the status of a perverted religion, like voodooism or the nudist sect, or is the salesman a symbol of the inadequacy of material success? If the former were his intention, he has done a good job; if the latter, his treatment of the subject is superficial, faltering and rather dated.

In dissipating the nimbus glowing around the salesman’s cult, Mr. Miller achieves an excellent demolition job. The salesman, in a high-production economy like ours, has an important function. When production managers began to proliferate commodities in excess of normal demand, somebody had to move the goods out of the factory, out of the wholesaler’s warehouse and out of the retail store. The situation called for men of fluent speech, capable of persuading a buyer to order more than his firm could sell or cajoling a customer into purchasing something he didn’t need. The salesman became the spark-plug of prosperity, and the elite of the profession, the road man, roved over the country in grand style. He was insouciant and glamorous, and in adult circles supplanted the cowboy as the most colorful of American characters. Mr. Miller’s Willy Loman was a pukka salesman, and the color and insouciance of his calling eventually turned to dust and ashes.

When Willy Loman has outlived his usefulness to his firm, the current executive of the company casually cuts his name off the payroll, a suggestion that our capitalist society callously throws workers too old to produce on the rubbish pile, along with worn-out machines and discarded formulas. Twenty or thirty years ago that would have been valid social criticism. Today, with the indigence of old age relieved by various forms of social security, it is only a maudlin scene in an otherwise interesting drama.

As social drama, Death of a Salesman is a dud. It is a white-collar Tobacco Road without Jeeter Lester’s hillbilly background. Willy Loman’s crack-up is a personal rather than a social tragedy. His story is good drama, however—the play most likely to succeed when various committees distribute their medals and blue ribbons.

—Theophilus Lewis, April 9, 1949


The question arises: how much of the original Job material did the author truly understand and absorb? If the figure of Job is to be the basis of a new departure—and how dangerous a venture this is!—one would not be unreasonable in expecting that the Job of prosperity in the dramatic adaptation would be marked by depth of character, skill and command in giving point to thought. But this is simply not the case. The J.B. of MacLeish is a rather simple overdrawn Main Street type, so pale as to be invisible at noon...

But it is in such a man, we are told, that the great metanoia occurs. Adversity is to fashion him into a gentle, unwearying heart, against which ill-fortune will beat in vain. He will perceive the hand of the living God in every setback, and tell, again and again as ruin accumulates, of the struggle that shakes his heart, and of the vivid, virile faith that creates its dawn at the end of pilgrimage.

Now in the Book of Job this process is dramatically credible. The formula is from life: simply, radical greatness will achieve its stature in adversity. And so it happens. There is no phony seeking after “answers”; the mystery of suffering is inviolate at the end as it was at the beginning. It has, however, been assimilated again to the greatness of man’s faith; and assimilated precisely qua mystery: “even though he should destroy me, yet will I trust in him.” It is for this the Book of Job will always be relevant, as long as man’s life deserves the name human. It traces in the darkness, with a groping, anguished love, the outlines of man’s plight; and in darkness it concludes in the presence of the same mystery that appears in the theophany of the burning bush….

To say that the height and breadth of this theme is foreign to the play of MacLeish is to choose merciful understatement. Here the protagonist is transformed, without so much as a footnote to explain how, from a publican of suburbia to a preacher of the word; but of evidence that his word proceeds by way of a human being, there is little. And the last section, abandoning the noble original structure of debate and nightlong wrestling with God, succumbs to the fatal temptation of every dramatist who has failed to distinguish form from matter: he has untied the knot. In forcing what God has joined, the whole tense, close fabric of argument and action rots away in his hands.

But score one for MacLeish for his courage, ingenuity and sense of his time—and now and then, for a dazzling peripheral success. The chorus of women who surround Job in the darkness is raffish and real; and with what astounding rightness, sometimes, a line or sentence will issue as though from the heroic lips of the Great Book. One is teased out of thought: almost, he heard the summons of creation.

—Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Oct. 4, 1958

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