It was a summer weekend afternoon when I went into the Anchorage museum to meet my wife. I saw Connie Jones, who was head of the Municipal Cultural and Recreational Affairs Department, which included the museum. She was talking to a someone. She looked at me and said, "Steve, have you met Arthur Miller? He's waiting for his wife to meet him." And that was how I ended up spending 20 minutes talking to one of America's greatest playwrights. What did we talk about? I can't really remember, but I didn't learn any great insights about his life or work. Mostly I think we talked about Alaska. If I'd have been blogging back then, I'd be able to tell you what we talked about, maybe even had some video.
Today would be his 100th birthday as I earlier included in Famous People Born in 1915.
Alaska played a small but important role in Miller's most famous play, Death of a Salesman.
Willy Loman is getting older and he's estranged from his favorite son, his business contacts have all died off, and he's been demoted at work. As he thinks about his life and lost opportunities, Alaska seems to have played a role in his life it has for many - the chance for adventure and fortune as well as the natural world compared to New York.
I've excerpted some parts of Act II that mention Alaska from the script.
The play moves back and forth between the present and Willy Loman's memories. Here Willy is playing poker with his neighbor Charley. Ben, Willy's dead brother is talking in Willy's head:
BEN: I must make a tram, William. There are several properties I’m looking at in Alaska.
WILLY: Sure, sure! If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different.
CHARLEY: Go on, you’d froze to death up there.
WILLY: What’re you talking about?
BEN: Opportunity is tremendous in Alaska, William. Surprised you’re not up there.
WILLY: Sure, tremendous. . .
BEN (laughing): I was going to find Father in Alaska.
WILLY: Where is he?
BEN: At that age I had a very faulty view of geography, William. I discovered after a few days that I was heading due south, so instead of Alaska, I ended up in Africa. LINDA: Africa!
WILLY: The Gold Coast!
BEN: Principally diamond mines.
LINDA: Diamond mines!
BEN: Yes, my dear. But I’ve only a few minutes...
WILLY: No! Boys! Boys! (Young Biff and Happy appear.) Listen to this. This is your Uncle Ben, a great man! Tell my boys, Ben!
BEN: Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. (He laughs.) And by God I was rich.
WILLY (to the boys): You see what I been talking about? The greatest things can happen!
BEN (glancing at his watch):I have an appointment in Ketchikan Tuesday week.
Here, with his boss, Howard:
WILLY (angrily): Business is definitely business, but just listen for a minute. You don’t understand this. When I was a boy — eighteen, nineteen — I was already on the road. And there was a question in my mind as to whether selling had a future for me. Because in those days I had a yearning to go to Alaska. See, there were three gold strikes in one month in Alaska, and I felt like going out. Just for the ride, you might say.
HOWARD (barely interested): Don’t say.
WILLY: Oh, yeah, my father lived many years in Alaska. He was an adventurous man. We’ve got quite a little streak of self-reliance in our family. I thought I’d go out with my older brother and try to locate him, and maybe settle in the North with the old man.
But he met a salesman, who changed his life . .
And I was almost decided to go, when I met a salesman in the Parker House. His name was Dave Singleman. And he was eighty-four years old, and he’d drummed merchandise in thirty-one states. And old Dave, he’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his green velvet slippers — I’ll never forget — and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-
four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? Do you know? When he died — and by the way he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston — when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral.
Linda is Willy's wife:
WILLY: Oh, Ben, how did you do it? What is the answer? Did you wind up the Alaska deal already?
BEN: Doesn’t take much time if you know what you’re doing. Just a short business trip. Boarding ship in an hour. Wanted to say good-by.
WILLY: Ben, I’ve got to talk to you.
BEN (glancing at his watch): Haven’t the time, William.
WILLY (crossing the apron to Ben): Ben, nothing’s working out. I don’t know what to do.
BEN: Now, look here, William. I’ve bought timberland in Alaska and I need a man to look after things for me.
WILLY: God, timberland! Me and my boys in those grand out-doors?
BEN: You’ve a new continent at your doorstep, William. Get out of these cities, they’re full of talk and time payments and courts of law. Screw on your fists and you can fight for a fortune up there.
WILLY: Yes, yes! Linda, Linda! (Linda enters as of old, with the wash.)
LINDA: Oh, you’re back?
BEN: I haven’t much time.
WILLY: No, wait! Linda, he’s got a proposition for me in Alaska.
LINDA: But you’ve got... (To Ben.) He’s got a beautiful job here.
WILLY: But in Alaska, kid, I could...
LINDA: You’re doing well enough, Willy!
BEN (to Linda): Enough for what, my dear?
LINDA (frightened of Ben and angry at him): Don’t say those things to him! Enough to be happy right here, right now.
(To Willy, while Ben laughs.) Why must everybody conquer the world? You’re well liked, and the boys love you, and someday —
(To Ben) — why, old man Wagner told him just the other day that if he keeps it up he’ll be a member of the firm, didn’t he, Willy?
WILLY: Sure, sure. I am building something with this firm, Ben, and if a man is building something he must be on the right track, mustn’t he?
BEN: What are you building? Lay your hand on it. Where is it?
WILLY (hesitantly): That’s true, Linda, there’s nothing.
(To Ben.) There’s a man eighty-four years old –
WILLY: That’s right, Ben, that’s right. When I look at that man I say, what is there to worry about?
WILLY: It’s true, Ben. All he has to do is go into any city, pick up the phone, and he’s making his living and you know why?
BEN (picking up his valise): I’ve got to go.
WILLY (holding Ben back): Look at this boy! (Biff, in his high school sweater, enters carrying suitcase. Happy carries Biffs shoulder guards, gold helmet, and football pants.)
WILLY: Without a penny to his name, three great universities are begging for him, and from there the sky’s the limit, because it’s not what you do, Ben. It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts, Ben, contacts! The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the Commodore Hotel, and that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked! (He turns to Biff.) And that’s why when you get out on that field today it’s important. Because thousands of people will be rooting for you and loving you. (To Ben, who has again begun to leave.) And Ben! When he walks into a business office his name will sound out like a bell and all the doors will open to him! I’ve seen it, Ben, I’ve seen it a thousand times! You can’t feel it with your hand like timber, but it’s there!
Here's a radio version of the whole play on Youtube: