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Death of a Salesman History

Sara Felsenstein | Friday, March 27, 2009

This weekend the Notre Dame Student Players will be performing Arthur Miller’s classic American tragedy Death of a Salesman, directed by freshman Tom Blanford and produced by sophomores Robert Jenista and Rachel Witty. Starring are senior JJ Rees as Willy Loman, sophomore Kelly Hunt as Linda, freshman Derek Defensor as Biff, and freshman Chris Stare as Happy. The protagonist, Willy Loman, is a traveling salesman based in New York City. His wife Linda loves him for who he is despite his shortcomings, but Willy always feels the need to be someone better. He puts incredible pressure on his sons, Biff and Happy, to be successful in business, yet they are both well into their adult lives and still have not done much of anything. It is repeatedly noted throughout the play that Willy and his sons are good with their hands, yet it is clear that Willy thinks business is the only path to success in America. He clings to the American Dream with everything he has, pretending to be a successful businessman before his family when really that is far from the truth. It is because of this extraordinary persistence to be someone he cannot that Willy sends his life spiraling downward towards suicide. Death of a Salesman has redefined the genre of tragedy, as it follows not the fall of a traditionally great man but rather someone like Willy Loman who seems to be insignificant and forgotten in his everyday life. Miller is making the claim that even men who are ostensibly small in the face of society can have just as long and tragic a fall as a great man. Willy does not rule a kingdom but he does in a sense rule his own household, which sets him up as a tragic hero. It is typical for members of the audience or readers of Death of a Salesman to flip-flop between empathizing with and feeling repulsed by Willy Loman. Rees believes that putting himself in the physical and emotional position of this character has allowed him to empathize more with Willy. Says Rees, “I think Willy is a real hero.” The play is mostly told from Willy’s point of view. A series of flashbacks and warping of time characterize the show and give the audience a more rounded explanation for Willy’s current ragged condition. It is clear that in his distress he has begun to lose grasp of past and present, fantasy and reality. Says director Tom Blanford, “It is important for the audience to see a stark contrast between the true characters in reality, and their actions and emotions as Willy remembers them, yet see a smooth transition in and out of reality.” Blanford has dealt with the challenge of distorted time and flashbacks through extra emphasis on blocking and transitions of emotions. As always, a show’s set can dramatically affect the audience’s interpretation. Says Blanford, “Our production this weekend is a traditional, but minimalist approach to the show. The set is minimized and open to allow the emotions of this show to stand on top, while close attention was put into adopting the time period of the 1940s.”As a popular play performed countless times since its debut in 1949, what makes this production at Notre Dame unique is that it is entirely student produced, directed, and performed. Young, aspiring college students are dealing with issues attributed to the working class of an older generation. Says Rees, “Willy Loman is 63 years old I am obviously not 63 years old. It’s a challenge to make Willy, Linda, [and the other characters] relatable to college-age students.” However, what connects Willy’s generation to our current generation are the “themes of defining success, the American Dream, and leaving a legacy.” Even though at times the characters’ actions might provoke pity or disgust, these pervasive themes are what allow young adults to understand and relate to the position that Willy Loman and his family face. Death of a Salesman will be performed this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm in Washington Hall. Tickets are five dollars for general admission and three dollars for students and seniors, and can be purchased in advance at the LaFortune Box Office.