Set play

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
DEATH OF A SALESMAN. By Arthur Miller. Manchester Library Theatre

Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman - first staged in 1949 - is a modern classic dealing with the illusions and disillusions created by the American dream.

It shows the final 24 hours in the life of Willy Loman - an ageing salesman who is too old to travel and who faces the sack. The play examines incidents from his past, including the way he has tried to force his son Biff to become a sporting hero.

In the end, Willy sees the loss of his income as a tragedy for his family and he commits suicide so they get his life insurance. He comes to the conclusion that he can redeem his life only by losing it.

"It struck me that the social message of the play is no less relevant now than it was," says director Chris Honer. "The dynamic of the play, which is to do with the family, particularly with fathers and sons, is so universal that it remains a strong reason for doing the play."

He sees the play's overall message as "trying to come to terms with reality", and says Miller shows that, whenever truth is obscured - whether in the family or in the wider world - there is trouble.

To survive in modern society, Willy has "latched on to the idea that, provided you are an attractive personality, provided you are well liked, success ill surely come". But, of course, "the world ain't like that", says Honer. Willy "gets hold of dreams and pumps them up, which Miller dramatises brilliantly towards the end of the first act, when Happy (Willy's other son) says he has a feasible idea for a new sporting business. In fact, all this idea does is give the family a temporary illusion of success."

Unlike the tragic heroes of the past, Willy is not a "great man", but an ordinary person trying to do his best. "Yet his passions and dreams are no weaker than those of the great heroes of tragic drama."

But it's not a judgmental play, "so even the smallest characters are given a dignity and respect", says Honer. "Even Willy's boss, Howard, is not made into a monster - you're allowed to see his dilemma."

Although this production is set in the late Forties, its criticism of the American dream has a wider resonance. "Today, people in Britain work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe," Honer says. "And contracts are increasingly temporary, so people are only as good as their last day's work."

Added to that, the lottery encourages "the fantasy that 'It could be you', which is the same area of illusion that the play is coming from".

Aleks Sierz

Death of a Salesman runs from today until March 10. Box office: 0161 236 7110.

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