Friday, June 17, 2011

Of Salesmen, Living and Dead

On Tuesday, December 8, 2008, the Wall Street trader Bernard Madoff had a meeting with his brother Peter, in which it is believed he revealed for the first time the extent of his billion-dollar, multi-decade Ponzi scheme. Over the previous months, it had become increasing clear to Madoff that the economic cataclysm of the previous September and October had taken him down as well, and it was time, reluctantly, to come clean on the biggest fraud in American financial history.

In Diana B. Henriques book, “The Wizard of Lies,” she writes of the moment when Peter came to learn that most of his and his brother‘s professional lives had been built on lies. It is more likely, she says, that Peter’s mind just stopped and tried “ to rewind an entire lifetime in a split second, to get back to something real and true.”

Madoff was a salesman, who made an illegitimate fortune on an uneasy mountain of mendacity. He sold himself, in the classic American fashion, by appearing to succeed.

In David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic “Glengarry Glen Ross,” we are introduced to an office full of men who would be Madoffs, if they had had a few more connections. In the course of one evening, five real estate salesman are introduced to the realities of success and failure.

Levene is an aging salesman in his fifties, assuring his boss Williamson that he has been hot in the past and will be again if he is simply given better leads toward clients. Shelley “The Machine” Levene will take on the world, if he can get just one good sale in the midst of a bad streak. He attempts to bribe his way back to success, which is better than his colleague Moss, who decides it’s better just to steal the leads and give them to a rival for the promise of a better job.

Commenting on this indirectly is Roma, a charismatic salesman who desperately wants to close a deal with Lingk, a man whose wife has understandable second thoughts about the soundness of her husband’s newly purchased land deal.

Interspersed among the various and florid profanities of Mamet’s excellent dialogue is a depiction of the desperation of men whose worth comes from their ability to legitimately rob others through their personal magnetism. Levene is haunted by his past, and what he perceives is his lost ability to beguile someone out of their money. Moss is frustrated by the inability of his office to see his potential, or the potential of the market. Even in Levene’s desperation and Moss’ woebegoneness is a shared arrogance.

“What is our life?” Roma asks Lingk, in the act of seducing him into a deal. “It’s either looking forward or looking back.” Roma looks forward. He is momentarily frustrated by Lingk’s cold feet, but there will always be another sale. He has none of Levene or Moss’ angst.

Mamet’s salesmen share a common bond with the most famous salesman in American drama, Willy Loman. Arthur Miller, in his memoir “Timebends,” recalls that he wrote “Death of a Salesman” just after the end of the Second World War and the start of what he calls a new American Empire. “I wanted to set before the new captains and the so smugly confident kings the corpse of a believer,” he said, a “pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.”

Willy Loman is that man, disintegrating even as he spouts the repeated platitudes of a lifetime, extolling the rewards of personal likability, connections and moxie, even as he contradicts himself in the next breath. It is mildly amusing that Miller saw Loman as an American and not universal character, which he absolutely is. In him is the pent-up bitterness not of capitalism, but of stubborn humanity requiring a positive score at the end of life, hoping for some validation to the slights and shattered dreams. “A man has got to add up to something,” Willy tells the ghostly memory of his brother Ben.

Mamet’s Roma, railing at his boss Williamson, roars out the question, “Whoever told you you could work with men?” Again and again, in both plays, there is the invocation of the characters’ masculinity, that a man who strives must be respected. It is Willy’s wife Linda who gives the memorable command that “attention must be paid” to Willy, because he is a human being and he is exhausted by a life of seemingly vain toil. And Linda’s presence amongst the men of the play identifies her with their dilemma as well, because all of Miller’s characters live by a personal sense of honor. Just as Willy has given his life for his business, so Linda has given hers in defending and defining and deifying her husband. All of that toil must amount to something, because it defines her too.

Levene though, is a man, and he eventually must pay for his desperation. Roma, who observed that Levene wasn’t really a machine, but a man and thus part of a dying breed, still wants Levene’s stuff, his commissions, as he is carted off. Whatever legacy he had will not survive even a day. Willy’s crime, in the eyes of his son Biff, is the unfaithfulness he was guilty of years before. All of his borrowed wisdom and surface integrity was shown to be a fa├žade. If this is an unfair judgment, we sense in Willy that his mental deterioration is his own verdict, that he too believes he has failed fundamentally. Willy has a Pyrrhic afterlife following his suicide, his memory a pall over his two sons and wife, his debts paid but little remaining.

Miller’s assault on the senselessness of acquisition and ambition is of a different plane than Mamet’s examination of human greed, mostly because Miller is writing a grand tragedy, and Mamet has created a melodrama. Miller wants to show capitalism’s moral bankruptcy, that it is a tragedy worthy of humanity’s collective tears when one small man dies the desperate death of a Willy Loman. Mamet shows a capitalism where survival is all-important, and exploitation is merely self-preservation.

Roma, in his sales pitch, gets at this, giving an altar call to both the spiritually needy and the greedy: “There’s an absolute morality? May be. And then what? If you think there is, then be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. If you think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won’t live in it. That’s me.”
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