First the death of a salesman, now the middle class

In the play Photo: Finn Wittrock, Linda Emond, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman (Photo: Associated Press)

FLORIDA, May 8, 2012 — While watching a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which is considered by many to be the playwright’s greatest work — though I contend that All My Sons deserves this distinction — Lee Siegel, a columnist for The New York Times, began to wonder “why the play was revived at all”.

His doubts were not due to the performances at hand; Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman was, in fact, “heart-shattering” and “for the ages.” Furthermore, the revival that Siegel was fortunate enough to attend has been nominated for a Tony Award. Considering this, his negative reaction seems out of place.

Until one reads his explanation for it.

“While ‘Death of a Salesman’ has consolidated its prestige as an exposure of middle-class delusions, the American middle class — as a social reality and a set of admirable values — has nearly ceased to exist,” Seigel notes. There is more: “Certainly few middle-class people, or at least anyone from any ‘middle class’ that Loman would recognize, are among the audiences attending this production. What was once a middle-class entertainment has become a luxury item. Tickets for the original run, in 1949, cost between $1.80 and $4.80; tickets for the 2012 run range from $111 to $840. After adjusting for inflation, that’s a 10-fold increase, well beyond the reach of today’s putative Willy Lomans.”

Now it can be understood why Miller’s play, the quintessential 20th century classic, has taken on such a depressing mood recently. It reminds us of an era long since passed; one outsourced and free-traded away, leaving the United States with a consumer, rather than producer-oriented, economy. Of course, any strategy based on such footing will not be able to balance itself for very long — which in large part explains the ongoing Great Recession.

Seigel alluded to this by pointing out how “the industries that employed the salespeople, factory workers, middle managers and others in the plentiful, humbler realms of mid-20th-century capitalism (have) begun to dry up.” This has caused “a fight to the death for shrinking opportunities in so many realms of life (which) renders the idea of fair competition an anachronism.”

I could not have said that any better myself. 

There can be no two ways about it: Globalization has ransacked America. Our country has been fundamentally looted of the blue collar, as well as more than a few white collar, jobs which allowed for unparalleled upward mobility during previous generations. In our quest to cheapen the expenses of developed nationhood, we have actually sunk ourselves closer to the third world. 

Throughout his article, Seigel attacked “capitalism” as the prime culprit of this. Looking at history, though, it becomes quite clear that free enterprise within the parameters of fair trade is exactly the thing that brought America to its financial zenith. Now, as we slope away from those comparatively halcyon days, collectively forming the era that inspired Miller to write Death of a Salesman, there should be little question as to how the middle class reached the brink of extinction.

To think that it all happened in less than half a century. 

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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