Sunday, May 20, 2012

Is Willy Loman Jewish? And did Arthur Miller speak Yiddish?

(3/15) UPDATE: Willie Loman shall indeed speak Yiddish when the New Yiddish Rep brings their new Yiddish language production of Death of a Salesman to the Castillo Theater! 

Please go read this fascinating article by the wonderful Sam Freedman (also my former teacher), Since the Opening Curtain, a Question: Is Willy Loman Jewish? As the name hints, the article explores the ambiguous Jewishness of Willy Loman, the everyshmo at the center of one of the most famous plays in the American theater, Death of a Salesman.

The question of Willy's Jewishness has been alive pretty much every since the play was first produced in 1950. Freedman notes that even Arthur Miller's view on Willy's Jewishness changed over the decades. This in itself seems to be material for some graduate student's paper. Does Miller's perception of Willy change because his perception of his own Jewishness changed over the years? And why did Miller only write about Jewish topics when it related to anti-Semitism or the Holocaust? How much does Miller's Jewish identity reflect the ambiguous Jewishness of millions of non-Marilyn Monroe marrying, average American Jews?

One unasked question popped out at me. Freedman notes
Some critics have singled out Linda Loman’s famous speech about Willy — “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person” — as having a distinctively Yiddish cadence.
I dunno. Maybe yes, maybe no. The obvious question is, did Arthur Miller speak Yiddish? We're told he grew up in a traditional Jewish atmosphere, but what does that mean? If we're really going to get into that kind of textual analysis, I think it's an important question.

And I thought this quote from director Mike Nichols was also really interesting:
“Willy has no forebears,” Mr. Nichols said in an interview this month. “He’s not from any country. He has no holidays of any religion. So you have to assume Miller’s making a point. We who are struggling to sell enough have to drop everything — religion, nationality, family. There is nothing except, as Willy puts it, being known and being well-liked.”
"We who are struggling to sell enough have to drop everything — religion, nationality, family." To that I would add language, too. As many, including the great Max Weinreich, have noted, the Yiddish language isn't just a language but the transmitter of the whole of Ashkenazi way of life, religion included. The muscular monlingualism of America leaves us all much poorer, and at a loss, much like Willy Loman.

1 comment:

  1. The article left me more than a little annoyed on a couple of points, however. Wh the hell do they put in a picture of Gene Lockhart, when it's Lee J. Cobb who created the role? And how can they mention the Yiddish production without mentioning the people who translated, adapted and starred in it, ie Joseph Buloff and Luba Kadison? I understand there are word count limits and what not, but I would think the ten words crediting Buloff and Kadison would not have brought down the Times. And are they saying the Times DOESN'T have a photo of Lee J. Cobb in the role?


    I like your point in the last paragraph, Rokhl. One interesting aspect, though, seems to be that America is less monolingual now than it used to be. Or am I deluding myself because I live in New York? Certainly my time in Texas gave indications that Spanish could survive beyond the immigrant generation. It's a question.