By Prof Sehdev Kumar
How does a dream turn into a nightmare? When do mundane words become eloquent poetry? Why do everyday images sometimes pierce into our consciousness with the ferocity of an epic?
American playwright Arthur Miller’s two plays – Death of a Salesman and The Crucible – currently being presented by the Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto at the Young Centre do precisely this.
Celebrated for decades as among the most poignant dramatic works of the 20th century, these two plays explore the vagaries of the human condition with disarming irony and heart-rending compassion.
Both plays are directed by Albert Schulz with subtlety and deep understanding. Joseph Zeigler and Nancy Palk – husband and wife in life – act in both plays with extraordinary aplomb.
Death of a Salesman was first presented in 1949. Over the decades it has become the most scathing indictment of the American Dream. It is no ordinary dream; since the early years of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it has touched, in one way or another, the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people who have flocked to the shores of America from many parts of the world. They came in search of prosperity, but also freedom from religious and political oppression. It is a dream of paradise on earth.
It is not a dream without its distracters. For many, it is a dream that leaves the weak and the impoverished to fend for themselves. For many, even as they cling to the dream, it keeps turning into a delusion, and ultimately into a nightmare.
It is thus, as the salesman Willy Loman – played by Zeigler with remarkable mastery – is falling apart, and with him his dreams, his wife pleads to their two sons – indeed to the whole world – in words that have come to assume an irrefutable iconic resonance: “I don’t say he’s a great man…. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
The second Miller play at Young Centre, The Crucible, came out in 1952 at a time when McCarthyism was running wild in the US and the Committee on Un-American Activities was creating hysteria against many writers, filmmakers and dramatists, including Arthur Miller. It too was a violation of the American Dream.
It was one of the ugliest periods in American history when, through false and distorted confessions and accusations, one could no longer distinguish a friend from a foe. To comment on these events and on the cruel fickleness of the human heart, Miller created a play based on the witch trials in Massachusetts in the 1690s. In these trials too, false confessions and accusations had laid bare the perversity of the human condition.
The Crucible becomes a parable which transcends both history and geography and thus touches a universal chord, much like an epic does. This is how, in the 1940s, during the Nazi occupation of France, playwright Jean Anouilh invoked afresh the great Greek tragedy, Antigone, and made the 2500-year old play so real, so contemporary.
This is the fierce power of art, and of stories and plays, that they keep illuminating our path in the immense human journey in the long night.
(Dr. Sehdev Kumar, Professor Emeritus, lectures at the University of Toronto on International Films and Science/Religion Dialogue. He is also Distinguished Professor of Culture & Communication at Himgiri Zee University in India. He can be contacted at email@example.com)