Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Death of a Salesman (1949) and Mr. Peters' Connections (1999)
If ever there were a person who was the unwholesome combination of Willy and Linda Loman, it would be my grandmother Ethel. All of the unrealistic expectations and boundless excuse making for her children with a built-in self-support system, an unquestioning, undying belief that her beliefs were always right. From my perspective, she never failed to blame external forces for any and all failures that befell her children and grandchildren. I cannot say that she believed that superficial charm and the trappings of success were as important for her as they were for Willy Loman, but they certainly ranked quite high in terms of what she found important.
Where Biff eventually comes to terms with his shortcomings, that he remained trapped between his father's view of the world and a deep and abiding need to not fulfill those misbegotten expectations, my father remained a slave to the belief that the world was forever doing him wrong. He came to believe the lies invented by my grandmother – that my mother had tricked him into marrying her (I vividly remember when this fiction was formed in the summer of 1986 over two nights, when it was slowly formed into a truth they could all accept), military service ruining my father's ability to start his own business, that he was not at all responsible for the fact both of his children took multi-year breaks from speaking to him – I suspect because that had been a way of life in the house in which he grew up. Such as it was for the Lomans.
I am sure there is something deeper going on in Death of a Salesman, but because there is something so real about it, I found it difficult to see it without comparing it to my family. Where my grandfather managed to get something akin to Willy's dream funeral – and there was much to be made about his own grandfather's funeral, with the myth (maybe truth) that even the Governor of Michigan was in attendance – my grandmother was left with a small service, almost entirely restricted to her children, grandchildren, and people from the church where the service was held (who didn't really know her). To be fair, both lived to be quite old, and the life-long friends they had fostered (they do have me there) were almost all dead.
Where Death of a Salesman felt like an examination of the danger of being raised to be a valueless narcissist (and the people who create those kind of children), Mr. Peters' Connections felt like an imagining of my grandfather's later days. When he was scared to live in his own home, essentially confined to his bedroom (it cluttered with books and video tapes collected by my grandmother, so she could pretend to be interacting with a dead friend – and clearly looking for something, anything to justify his hanging on to his life. Where Harry Peters was a pilot for Pan Am, my grandfather flew for United. Both felt that retirement was forced upon them too damn soon.
I doubt that there was a woman for whom my grandfather forever pined – he was quite honestly in love with his wife, but there may or may not have been instances when he strayed – and he didn't have a dead brother to fret about, but so much of the rest felt true. That Miller could continue to find the angst of the end, and for it to be as true in its emotion is quite remarkable. While absolutely nowhere near as focused as Death of a Salesman, Mr. Peters' Connections still has something to say. Instead of being concerned with the damage that can be inflicted on children, it examines the danger of having nothing left to identify as ones' own at the end.