The Hard Sell: Salesmen as Carriers of the American Myth

By Tom Creamer

This article originally appeared in the Goodman’s OnStage Magazine, September 1998

America is a country founded by dreamers. Religious idealists, political experimentalists, gold-fevered opportunists all possessed faith in a better future. In America dreams come true if we try our best. All of us are believers.

In America, if we don’t have a dream of our own to believe in, we can buy one. The vast construct that is American consumerism is based on this fact. The agents of the American dream-buying wish have appeared to us in a variety of avatars: ad-men, scammers, preachers, con artists, real estate agents, the staff at Best Buy—salesmen of dreams.

We want to put our faith and trust in the one doing the selling, faith in that what he says is so: that this car is the best, that you must protect your family with this insurance, that this is the golf club that will cure your slice. The problem is that we get burned all the time—we discover that the slice is worse than ever, that the sunroof leaks, that we have been had. Our trust takes a beating, yet we still want to believe. Somewhere there is a product, a health cure, a religion that will satisfy us.

Our eagerness to pursue our dreams and our willingness to buy them if necessary has swept America along from the 17th into the 20th Century, and evidence of it pops up in our culture in all kinds of places. It has become one of the dominant themes of American literature, appearing in novels like Elmer Gantry, and in some of the greatest plays of the century, including Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

One of its most charming expressions is in the musical The Music Man, set in heartland Iowa near the turn of the century. Fly by night scam artist Harold Hill, posing as a professor of music, has persuaded the townspeople to buy a wagonload of cornets and trombones for their bored and unruly children. Professor Hill promises to turn the kids into a town band using his bogus “think system” of musical education: by simply thinking hard and believing in their ability to play their instruments, the children would be turned into virtuosos. Hill, of course, plans to be out of town before the think system is tested. In the end, wanting to save the man who has brought them dreams, the fledgling band “thinks” its hardest and, by miraculously squeaking out “the Minuet in G,” keeps Professor Hill from a tar-and-feathering.

The Music Man 2019

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is set in an altogether darker and more real place, with none of the nostalgia that The Music Man basks in. Willy Loman is the salesman “riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” as his neighbor Charlie says in Miller’s play. His success depends on his being “well-liked,” not just “liked” as the play puts it. His gladhanding, jokes, and stories, his insistent optimism are the tools of his trade. But as the play begins we learn that Willy’s tools aren’t working, that his shoeshine is scuffed and that he can’t make the sale anymore. Willy’s tragedy lies in his adherence to an idea that has passed its prime.

“Every man,” said Arthur Miller in 1949, “has an image of himself which fails in one way or another to correspond with reality. It’s the size of the discrepancy between illusion and reality that matters. The closer a man gets to knowing himself, the less likely he is to trip up on his own illusions.” Willy Loman clings to the illusion, tries to force it on his sons to perpetuate it. But he has lost the touch, and Biff, after agonizing struggle, can’t buy it anymore. Biff is left with a terrifyingly clear vision of the truth. It contains no illusions, no faith in a far off future. Willy, however, cannot let go of his visions, and they bear him away in the end.

Death of a Salesman 1998

Hickey, the hero of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, is a traveling salesman too, arriving at Harry Hope’s bar for his annual birthday bash. But Hickey comes this time as an anti-salesman: he has brought the truth with him, and with a missionary zeal he sets out to break up the illusions, the “pipe dreams” as O’Neill puts it, that have paralyzed the alcoholic denizens of the bar. Hickey uses all his salesmanship to convince them to take action now, rather than dreaming about a future they will never reach. The effort nearly kills them; they are saved only when they can convince themselves that Hickey is crazy and that his advice about confronting their dreams is just mad talk. They retreat to the bottle and snuggle down with their old pipe dreams, happy again.

The Iceman Cometh 2012

English critic Michael Billington wrote in his review of a production of Iceman that, “it confronts the great theme that dominates modern drama from The Wild Duck to A Streetcar Named Desire: whether human happiness depends on consoling life-lies or confrontation with reality.” In this struggle lies the tragedy of Miller and O’Neill’s great plays, and it also provides the substance of The Music Man’s comedy. The question: Is it better to slap ourselves awake to face the bitter truth? Or should we celebrate our potential to dream?

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