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Ambulance Chasing

A playwright locates her grandfather, a Reds announcer with a voice rootless as the airwaves, with help from Death of a Salesman.

Karen Hartman
February 14, 2005

If Arthur Miller is an aesthetic grandfather to Jewish writers—and how can he be otherwise?—he’s the kind who changes names at Ellis Island and mentions the old country only later in a glorious, difficult life. The cropped family portrait in Death of a Salesman allows people from all cultures to recognize its intimate dynamics; Jews, in particular, might notice the lack of context.

Miller addressed his remarks that day to the playwrights in the room, a few dozen among a group of 700. He was honored to be honored by writers, he said, and spoke plainly about a playwright’s capacity to shape truth, as if theater’s relevance were not a slogan but a fact. He seemed to urge each of us to get to the business at hand, his vital, cogent presence suggesting that such a business—an artist’s version of the American dream—may be embattled, but is not extinct.

I had already consulted what I believed were the sources for Going Gone, my family play. I read newspaper files in Cincinnati, spoke to the Society of American Baseball Research, tried—and failed—to find recordings of Hartman’s voice. I interviewed my father, whose terminal illness informed my wish to understand his past. I studied Yiddish intensively for two summers at the YIVO Institute, determined that if I could not hear my grandfather, I would learn his language, to put it onstage directly (Yiddish dialogue conceals secrets from the youngest son) and indirectly (English speech patterns mimic Yiddish grammar). I structured Going Gone around what seemed to be an idea inspired by baseball: cramped domestic scenes punctuated by “ups”—direct observations of the characters’ urgent fantasies, memories, and hopes. The family’s idolization of Hank Greenberg, for example, buoys each of them, particularly the mother, otherwise a souring fountain of nostalgia.

As Miller spoke, I recognized that my heritage-play-in-progress was more or less ripped off from Death of a Salesman. I never met my grandfather, so the man who becomes the voice of the all-American pastime but feels rootless as the airwaves is as much Loman as Hartman. So are the “ups,” which oscillate between material reality and an internal treadmill of aspiration and despair. Less embarrassingly, my decision to pay attention, to reexamine a man in my family who had the right gifts for the times until the times changed, to look at a chain of fathering through a foggy, cracked lens rather than not at all, probably started with Death of a Salesman.

I grew up in San Diego, so I first saw it on television. My high-school English class watched a tape of the 1985 Broadway revival, and I stayed in the classroom through lunch and wherever I was supposed to be after lunch, glued to that nine-inch-high epic family, unclear why I was sobbing. I did not know Arthur Miller was Jewish. I knew Dustin Hoffman was Jewish. Did I see Willy Loman as Jewish?

I saw him as haunted. That’s what terrified me about the slump of Hoffman’s shoulders, the visions that sprang forth when he settled into a chair or turned a corner. These are of an American salesman past, of course—a brother’s wealth, a father’s disappearance, sexual regret. Yet they reminded me of my father’s jokes about visitations from “the ancestors” before he married my stepmother, who is Catholic. My father was missing a father whom he never discussed (the baseball stories came later); my stepfather was a former wholesale dealer who hadn’t worked in five years. I recognized the jungle of worry inside the Lomans’ home, where Willy’s carried, buried grief erupts until it kills him. As a teenage girl, I took Death of a Salesman to be an insider’s view of manhood.

Death of a Salesman suggests but does not explain an immigrant anxiety, the fallout from Anatevka with all clues removed. The Lomans seem alone in the world, or at least in Brooklyn. The sense of them as a displaced family comes through the absence of any other relatives (Willy, the son of an unnamed Midwestern peddler, has lost his only brother two weeks before the play begins) or history, rather than culturally specific referents—no pogroms, no old country yarns, no particular cause for feeling “kind of temporary” about oneself. The play’s Judaism, like that of its characters, lies in its not being anything else—not rooted New England, not a sweetly rotting South. Details have been erased, leaving a sparse, attenuated world that is universal and also incomplete.

I’d suggest that the psychically fluid structure of Salesman tends to stick for contemporary playwrights, while its resistance to naming Jewish content has changed for now. For example, it’s impossible to envision the shifting structure of Angels in America without Death of a Salesman, but equally difficult to imagine Tony Kushner holding back cultural detail. Or I think about the tone of direct attack in Donald Margulies‘ early writing about Flatbush, including his Loman Family Picnic, which directly names and satirizes Jewish life by emphasizing that, of course, Lomans don’t picnic. Then again, I remember that Margulies, who was one of my teachers, spoke of receiving praise for finally writing a play, Dinner With Friends, that was universal instead of Jewish.

My grandfather’s name, like his Yiddish, seemed integral to the project of writing his story. It felt odd to sit in an audience and listen to “Hartman” throughout the theater, but I couldn’t match the pun—he died of a heart attack. And anyway, I liked it, as I liked hearing the Yiddish out loud. Cincinnati Playhouse received complaints that my portrayal was anti-Semitic because the family was unhappy, but I saw their Jewishness as compatible with their Americanness. I assumed that Jewish and American could be explicitly the same thing.

Arthur Miller, our last living grandparent, has gone. His abstract portrait of Judaism helped forge American realism. He presented a domesticity built around absence, an ache the size of history. American Jewishness has become a cultural identity in a multicultural society, to be freely and concretely invoked. Writers of my generation and beyond will continue to work in detail, spilling more personal information than the young Arthur Miller would ever have considered. Yet I wonder when anyone will next build a play that is so clearly, cleanly real.