Let Willy have the last word

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In the outpouring of tributes, encomia and obituaries for Arthur Miller last week, there wasn't a huge amount of quotation from the works.

In the outpouring of tributes, encomia and obituaries for Arthur Miller last week, there wasn't a huge amount of quotation from the works. He wasn't really that kind of writer, even though his best plays had the force of an aphorism in the mind. For all their high seriousness (and would it even be possible for a contemporary playwright to be so grandly, uncynically serious?) they were also what Hollywood calls "high concept"; that is, their essential content can be described in a couple of sentences.

What they aren't, though, is highly quotable. Do the lazy - or the hurried - thing and look up Miller quotations on the web, and you'll find in most cases that journalistic quotations from him outweigh those taken from his dramatic works. This isn't because Miller had no command of the concisely memorable; for example, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cites this newspaper as one source for his crisp summation of the coercive drama of life in the Eastern bloc, which he described as "a theatre where no one is allowed to walk out and everyone is forced to applaud".

Miller always gave good interview - and that's all about being quotable. But that lapidary quality didn't often transfer to the plays. The best the ODQ can do with The Crucible - one of the durably significant plays of the last century - is this pronouncement: "All organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition just as two objects cannot occupy the same space." Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

There was one quotation from the works that leapt out at me, though, and that was largely because I'd had it quoted at me in anger years ago. The line was from Death of a Salesman, when Willy Loman berates his boss over his shrinking earnings. "You can't eat the orange and throw away the peel," he says. This - in more ways than one - has pith, and it had clearly stuck in the mind of the geography teacher who, as the commander of our school cadet force, had to absorb the news that the Signals Corps would in future be malfunctioning without me. To put it mildly, the cadets had something of a personnel retention problem when boys reached the sixth form and were allowed, for the first time, to decide for themselves whether to spend Wednesday afternoons rehearsing First World War fire-and-movement manoeuvres. And the only thing this man had to counter desertions was his very conspicuous exasperation and Willy's cry of indignation.

It was only as I was walking away that it occurred to me to ask what you should do with the peel when you've eaten an orange, or why any sane person would feel they owed it some moral obligation. I seem to recall from recent newspaper articles that orange peel can be made into eco-friendly plastic and is also a rich source of anti-cholesterol compounds - but I don't think that's what Willy Loman had in mind. He was clutching for some way to protest at his abandonment - and in doing so he stumbled into a bleak comedy.

That's the point about the line, surely: that it doesn't entirely make sense. Willy simultaneously misses the point and gets it - because in his branch of American capitalism you are only as good as your last sale. "A man is not a piece of fruit," he continues, adding another twist of bathos to his anguish, but from the narrow perspective of profit and loss there isn't much difference. The value has been extracted and what's left needs to be disposed of tidily.

Elsewhere in the play, Willy delivers another slightly skewed aphorism: "The world is an oyster, but you don't crack it open on a mattress." You get his point, of course, but could you borrow this phrase for its wisdom without a slight sense of discomfort? The image is just a little too comical for the remark to be adaptable to any circumstance. If you quoted it, you would end up being Willy Loman for a moment - and who would want to do that?

The mistake my geography teacher made was to use a dramatic line as if it was a literary one. The distinction is Miller's; in his autobiography Timebends he notes that "there is stageworthy dialogue and literary dialogue and no one quite knows why one is not the other, why a dramatic line lands in an audience and a literary one sails over its head". "Lands" is good: does it land like a bird or a blow, or a bit of both?

Whichever is the case, Willy's line lands. It isn't just an argument, stuck in his mouth by Miller, but a revelation of the innocence that is essential to his tragedy. Why is why, with the odd exception, most people have been happy to leave his best lines to him.