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business world selling willy

Work has a special place in modern society, having taken on a different emphasis from the days when people simply worked to survive, and modern dramatists have been keen to explore these changes and their impacts on people’s lives. Their central concerns have been the threat of dehumanization in the workplace in an industrial society increasingly uncaring of its workforce; the ways in which people are judged by the work they do, rather than by who they are; and the ways in which people allow their work to take over their lives. Of equal concern is the relationship between work and ethics, as capitalism threatens to eradicate the last shreds of compassion and humanity from the business world. It is perhaps this underlying brutality of business that makes the majority of playwrights who address the theme of work consider only male workers, rather chauvinistically protecting womenfolk from the dangers of the workplace. In the plays considered here, we see very few female workers, and those who do appear play only minor roles.

With his communist leanings, Clifford Odets wrote what is perhaps modern drama’s best-known play about workers’ rights. Waiting for Lefty has become the most definitive work of agit-prop in American theater. Agit-prop is a style of theater purposefully designed to incite its audience to political action. Its language and situation are usually simplistic, and designed to harangue its audience to an awareness of social abuse. Odets’s drama relates the genesis of a taxi drivers’ strike, and its cry for a workers’ revolution has been heard around the world.

Grounded in a belief that honest work deserves to be rewarded with fair pay, Waiting for Lefty also explores ideas about freedom from prejudice and decent conditions (both physical and psychological) in the workplace during the time of the Depression. Odets emotionalizes and humanizes his message through a series of vignettes that reveal conditions at home and in the workplace, and show the difficulties of finding fairly paid, honest work in the 1930s, just before World War II began to revitalize so many businesses. The play’s dialogue was innovative for its time, in its attempt to recreate working-class cadences; although the characters’ speech may at times sound a little awkward, it consistently conveys the strong emotions of both workers and the playwright, as they try to bring down the “big shot moneymen” and create a more equitable society. Odets presents an extreme vision that allows for little debate, but that demands an immediate, active response.

Selling has become one of America’s prime business practices, and Arthur Miller’s tragedy Death of a Salesman contains a blueprint of the changing nature of salesmanship in America from the pioneering days through to the postwar boom. With such constant change, some people are bound to get left behind, and such a man is Willy Loman, who has become stuck in an old-fashioned and outmoded style of selling. His death is not just that of a human individual, but of a whole way of life.

Glengarry Glen Ross , David Mamet’s exploration of a world where business comes first, can be viewed as an updated version of Miller’s play. Salesmen continue to strive for success in a business where the rules keep changing, though Mamet’s characters are more cutthroat, their language is fouler, and the outlook on life seems bleaker. Willy’s counterpart, Shelley Levene, may not commit suicide at the close, but he faces prosecution and a ruined life, while the world continues on in its pursuit of wealth. The play introduces us to a collection of real estate salesmen, each with his own sales technique, each vying to be the best salesman of the group. Everyone is totally preoccupied with work and any semblance of private life has been eradicated—these men are defined by what and how they sell.

The vignettes of Waiting for Lefty are woven between scenes from an increasingly emotional taxi-drivers’ strike meeting, where the men wait for their elected chairman, Lefty, to appear. We see the impoverished home and family of Joe, a typical driver; the contrasting problems a lab assistant faces in his work for an ambitious industrialist; the plight of a young driver, Sid, who is waiting to earn enough money to marry; and the firing of a doctor with socialist sympathies. The play ends with a call to arms for all workers to strike for freedom and a better world.

It is evident from the complaints of Joe and Sid that taxi drivers are getting a raw deal. The taxicab company takes such a large share of fares that the drivers are left with just $6-$7 a week on which to survive—barely enough to pay the rent. Joe worries about striking, since he will receive no pay while on strike and may lose his job once the strike is over, and there are no other jobs available. Joe is desperate: unable to pay his bills, his furniture is repossessed, and there is no money to feed and clothe his family. Edna, his wife, puts the children to bed early, “so they won’t know they missed a meal” (8). She spurs Joe on to strike by threatening to leave him if he does not at least try. It is Joe who first speaks out at the meeting, where the corrupt union official, Fatt, is trying to dissuade the men from striking. Sid cannot raise enough money to even start a home and family, and has been engaged to Florrie for three years. She loves him and is prepared to wait, but her family is pressuring her to give Sid up because he has no future. Out of decency, Sid offers to free her, but is glad she refuses.

At the meeting, Fatt displays his control over the union through the looming presence of a threatening Gunman who pressures the attendees to keep quiet. Fatt tries to assure the men that working conditions will improve if they are patient, but the men’s skepticism is evident. They have heard this before and no longer trust those in power. But the country is still in the Depression, and, while jobs remain scarce, those who have them are easy to intimidate because they have few other options. What Odets wants the working classes to realize is that they do have options, and strength in unity. The bosses cannot exploit them if they stand together and demand better conditions and wages.

Fatt patronizes these hardworking men, calling their elected committee a “bunch of cowboys” (6). Using the national suspicion and uncertainty toward communism, he accuses anyone who complains of being a “red,” trying to silence them and discredit whatever they say. He introduces Tom Clayton, supposedly a fellow worker, who speaks about his regret at being involved in a strike, warning them to hold off. But a heckler, who turns out to be Clayton’s brother, exposes him as a company spy, paid to try to get them to back down. He works for an organization that supplies “scab” labor to replace the strikers. Thus the work climate truly sets brother against brother. The unions, formed to help the workers, are clearly not doing their job, as Agate Keller indicates when he speaks about his union button burning up out of shame.

In counterpoint to the taxi drivers’ plight, we have that of Miller, a comparatively well-paid lab assistant at an industrial company. He puts up with the blatant racism of his boss, Fayette, but despite the hefty raise he is offered, he walks out on the job when its demands become morally repugnant. He feels bad that the company makes its money by producing poison gas for the military, despite Fayette’s assertion that, “That’s not our worry. If big business went sentimental over human life there wouldn’t be big business of any sort” (15). But the clincher comes when his boss insists that he must also spy and report on his colleagues. The portrayal of Fayette is meant to show the corruption of big business in America, and its disdain for the workers who keep the companies afloat.

There is also Dr. Benjamin, a talented Jewish doctor with socialist leanings, who loses his position because of both his religion and his affinity for socialism. To show its disdain for the working class, the hospital pulls Benjamin from a charity-case operation, replacing him with an incompetent doctor who kills the patient. A sympathetic colleague, Dr. Barnes, complains: “Doctors don’t run medicine in this country. The men who know their jobs don’t run anything here” (27-28). He sees the very wealthy in control, but so isolated from everyone else that they are ignorant and uncaring of anyone’s needs. Barnes feels too old and vulnerable to rebel—he has a dependent, disabled daughter—but he encourages Benjamin to challenge the unfair dismissal. Benjamin is an excellent doctor and had seniority, but he was the one the hospital board chose to fire when pressured by their wealthy trustees to reduce expenses.

What Odets suggests is that both blue-collar and white-collar workers are being exploited by the system. Honest work is not sufficient to put bread on the table, and things must change; if communism is the only means to effect that change, then communist principles should be embraced without compunction or shame. The only way to change the system is to rise up united against it, and demand fairer wages and greater rights. As this becomes evident, at Keller’s instigation the workers begin to rise up in force, overcoming the opposition of sychophants like Fatt and his accompanying thug, calling for all to unite, from Edna to Barnes, in the fight for right and the freedom to better their lives. News of Lefty’s murder pitches Keller into a greater fury as he exhorts everyone, including the audience, to join the strike. Although Odets’s call for workers of the world to unite had a particular resonance in the 1930s, the cry remains applicable in any capitalist society that privileges the rich over the poor.

Death of a Salesman recounts the final twenty-four hours in the life of salesman Willy Loman. The story of his life is told in a series of flashbacks and remembrances to help explain how he reaches the point of desperation that causes him to take his own life. Central to his life is his relationship with his sons, and what he attempts to teach them, wrongly or rightly, about selling and how to become successful in society. As their name suggests, the “Loman” family represents the plight of so many of the “lower” class during the period of economic and labor-force changes that followed World War II.

Willy has witnessed major changes in the economic structure of his country. He experienced the sense of limitless possibility at the beginning of the twentieth century, a time when his father and brother both left home to pursue their fortunes. He lived through the wild prosperity of the 1920s, a period that convinced him he could become successful in his work, through to the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which marked the start of the Great Depression and saw his dream begin to fall apart. The Depression lasted through the 1930s, and Willy would have found his selling increasingly difficult, as people had little money to spend. With the economy jump-started in the 1940s by the increased market demands and industrial advances of World War II, Willy recognizes a renewed sense of vigor in the American economy, which creates much of the hope he places in the prospects of his two sons.

The play was written and is set in 1948, at the time when the forces of capitalism and materialism came to the fore and technology made an enormous impact on the lives of everyday people, and we see this in the lives of the Lomans with their desire for household machinery and an up-to-date car. But Willy has an uneasy relationship with machinery, understandably, as it is the efficiency of this new machine age that is pushing him out of his job.

Through the generations of the Loman family we are given a history of salesmanship in America. It is a male history, as selling was a predominantly male profession up until the latter half of the twentieth century. Willy’s father began as an itinerant peddler, who traveled from sale to sale, often with his family in tow. He personally produced some of what he sold, and Willy still recalls the sound of the flutes his father made. This personal connection to what a person sells has bled away by the time we meet Willy, and we never even learn what he sells, other than himself. He has modeled himself on Dave Singleman, an old-fashioned traveling salesman who got by on being well liked, but Willy is living in a far less sentimental age. Efficiency, productivity, and the hard sell are the contemporary workplace buzzwords, and Willy cannot keep up with such demands, just as he could never be sufficiently ruthless to do well in such a world.

Times have changed and Willy has been unable to change with them; the values he espouses, where deals are made with a smile and a handshake, are those of a bygone age. His brand of selling is now considered old-fashioned in an increasingly technological business world. Howard Wagner is the epitome of the new type of cold-hearted, exploitative businessman Miller saw succeeding in this new world—one who callously takes away Willy’s job when he starts to lose business, without a thought to the man’s financial obligations or years of service. Howard is only concerned with the bottom line: he is more interested in things than in people, as illustrated by his paying more attention to his tape recorder than to his employee. He foreshadows the businessmen who decimated their workforces as cheaper automation took over. Ben is another exploiter, who ignores family responsibilities in search of a fortune that he makes by taking risks and plundering the jungle. His advice to Willy is self-aggrandizing and essentially useless, for his success stems more from luck than from judgment, though his cold, calculating approach to selling allows him to survive until he finds his diamond mine.

Willy recalls his idealized past, both as an escape and as an attempt to discover what went wrong. Convinced that his current unhappiness is due to his failure in the business world, he searches for the answer to the question he has asked all his life: How do you become successful? Willy remains convinced that the answer is to be well liked, and he passes this belief on to his sons. But Miller makes it clear that being well liked has little to do with succeeding in the modern world. People usually get ahead by hard work (Charley and Bernard), inheritance (Howard), or by sheer luck (Ben).

It is unlikely that Willy’s sons, Happy and Biff, will fare any better than their father did. Happy believes, to the end, that Willy’s dream was right and plans to try to follow in his father’s footsteps, and we know where they will lead. Biff recognizes what the business world has done to Willy, and though he tries to fit in by planning to create a sporting-equipment firm out of regard for his father, he quickly sees that it will never succeed. Biff has a chance at happiness, but only if he rejects everything his father has taught him, and turns his back on the business world in favor of a more modest dream of living close to the land out West. But this kind of pastoral existence is also under threat from predatory business interests, and Biff’s plans may be no more realistic than Willy’s.

Although characters like Howard and Ben embody a selfish and uncaring face of capitalism, Miller indicates that values of compassion, respect, and hard work still exist within the marketplace, as illustrated by Willy’s neighbor Charley. Charley is satisfied with moderate success without feeling compelled to be the best, and he does not take shortcuts but relies on steady, hard work. He knows that winning the high school football championship is no guarantee of success in life, and that being well liked has little impact in the modern business world. He passes his values on to his son, Bernard, who is as caring and compassionate as his father, and a highly successful lawyer besides, showing the continuing efficacy of such values. Unfortunately, Willy chooses to admire men like Ben rather than Charley, and it is partly this misguided admiration that kills him.

Glengarry Glen Ross opens with a group of real estate salesmen in a restaurant talking about their sales techniques. In competition with one another to become the best salesman, even when the property they sell is rather dubious, they know that those who fail to produce will lose their jobs. This puts everyone under enormous pressure, especially those like Shelley Levene, who are in a selling slump. Everyone is obsessed with getting good leads for potential clients. While star salesman Ricky Roma makes a sale to James Lingk, Dave Moss plots to steal their firm’s leads to sell to rival brokers. The second act shows the office investigating the theft of these leads, while Ricky, creatively but unsuccessfully, tries to prevent Lingk from canceling his transaction. At the close we discover that it was actually Levene who stole the leads, his arrest is imminent, and business for the rest goes on as usual.

These men are consumed by their work and will try to sell to anyone, regardless of a client’s need or the quality of the property they sell. Duplicitous and desperate to make a sale at any cost, they lie, wheedle, and trick their clients in their efforts to close a deal. The conversation is constantly about land and travel, and yet we never see any land but only the narrow and rather sleazy world in which these salesmen live, in which no one really moves or goes anywhere.

The play’s title refers to the illusory world of salespeople, a world that seems to force one to sacrifice truth and humanity in order to be considered successful. “Glengarry Glen Ross” is an illusion, showing how salespeople often offer their clients false images of whatever Promised Land they seek. The name sounds pretty, but it is made up of two worthless pieces of land without any merit, created by putting together the misleading names of the two main properties these people peddle, Glengarry Highlands (a place in Florida that has no hills) and Glen Ross Farms (a wooded area without any farmland). The “Highlands” are being sold by younger salesmen, like Roma, and represent the present, while the Farms, which Levene has been selling, are emblematic of the past, which is where Levene has been left, since selling property has become a young person’s game.

The characters create illusions—not only for others, but also for themselves—to try to bolster their spirits. They constantly blame other things—poor leads, customers, land, and management—to cover up their own ineffectiveness. Levene and Roma, especially, like to play roles, and both feel no allegiance to the truth. Levene, who cannot accept the he is old and cannot sell any more, is constantly trying to make his next sale. Roma, meanwhile, explains the soft-sell illusion he creates, in which he pretends he is not a salesman and the land is not worthless, and comes close to believing his own sales pitch. The audience is also continually deluded, as Mamet misdirects them to believe the wrong man stole the leads, that Levene actually sells something, and that Roma’s contracts have gone through.

Youthful and handsome, Roma is in a different league from his colleagues, with a personal style and flair that is attractive but insidious. While the others need to talk about past conquests and dream about increasing their current sales, he gets to work and makes those sales. His friendly chat with Lingk quickly turns to business, and he soon persuades him to invest in property. When Lingk comes to the office to cancel the deal on his wife’s insistence, Roma tries every trick he can to prevent him from pulling out, resorting to a series of lies, including professing to Lingk that he values friendship over business. This is just a pretense of human compassion designed to allay Lingk’s fears and keep him on board, and Roma nearly succeeds with it, were it not for the manager’s unwitting interference.

When Levene pleads with the office manager, John Williamson, for better leads to help him recover from his slump, Williamson is unmoved. He is only interested in sales and not with the messy humanity of the people who do the selling. Indeed, we quickly realize that the business imperative necessarily cancels out the human response. All the men in the play begin with energy and enthusiasm, garbed in business dress, but as the play progresses we see their outfits become increasingly disheveled, and they take on a haggard appearance, as the pressures on them to sell mount.

Driven by an uninhibited competitive spirit that they see as key to democratic capitalism, these salesmen rationalize every deceit that might close a sale, distorting language and ethical principles to justify what they do. They are selling themselves as well as the land, manipulating people’s obsession with the mythic dream of America as the Promised Land to generate more sales. Mamet wants us to know that such selling takes a heavy toll on the human spirit, and a total preoccupation with self-interest inevitably leads to an amoral society. When selling defeats them, people like Dave Moss and Shelley Levene resort to crime, and it is ironic that even here competition reigns, as Levene beats Moss to the leads.

The play’s offensive language, which is so clearly exaggerated, is not an attempt at realism. Through such violent language, Mamet reveals both the intense desperation of his salesmen, trapped in an endless cycle of selling, and the negative influence that such selling exerts on their characters. The overly cluttered and drab office setting of the second act further underlines the barren spiritual state of these people. Rather than end with any epiphany after the crime has been solved, they continue their amoral routines as before, and Roma heads back to the restaurant at the play’s close. Mamet has depicted not only a highly competitive, capitalistic world, but also the morally stultifying effect such a world has on business and the men it employs.


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