When I teach a course in contemporary drama, I always include the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. At the end of the class, I get my students to vote on their favourite. In this survey, which contains many of the great plays since Ibsen or Chekhov, Death of a Salesman always come in first or second, usually first.
That the story of a down on his luck salesman penned over half a century ago should resonate as it does surprised me a bit at first. Clearly, it still speaks to young people so many years later, a different time and a different place.
The heart of it, I think, has something to do with a speech by Willy Loman’s wife Linda that goes as follows:
. . . I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person . . .
Attention must be paid. Surely one of the reasons we go to the theatre or study literature is to come across lines like this one that transcend their context and possibly become dictums that can influence our behaviour and how we go about living our lives.
No surprise to my readers, I am not here to talk about Arthur Miller or Death of a Salesman, at least any more than I already have, other than this idea that attention must be paid.
Last night, I attended the Stardale Aboriginal Girls Christmas party. (I wrote about my teaching experience with the girls in October in the post titled Do No Harm. You can find it in the archive section on the left side of the screen.)
Their confidence and charm and humour came through in all aspects of the evening. So much care and preparation went into the Stardale Christmas party that when I arrived and saw all of them dressed up to the 9’s, I almost felt like running home and putting on my best suit. (If I had a car, I probably would have!)
The girls actually got up and performed some theatre improv games. They’ve been working on theatre and acting with Jamie Dunsdon and the folks from Verb Theatre. (They do so many things, they work with so many great people, it’s impossible to list them all.) I was impressed that they could get up and perform in front of a bunch of people the way they did. Of some of them, an old theatre gentleman like myself could actually say, “She’s got it!”
All in all for a host of different reasons, it was perhaps the finest Christmas party I have ever attended. No matter what else happens to me this Christmas season, I have a warm feeling from last night that will last me through the holidays and well into next year.
Many of the girls end up at Stardale after a horrendous journey earlier in their lives that would simply debilitate many of us. I’m sure they have their own bleak moments, same as the rest of us. And I know they have many rivers to cross yet as their young lives unfold. You have no idea how much I admire them for their courage and spirit. But last night, at least for a few hours, everything in the world seemed right.
Looking around the room at the staff and volunteers who help make Stardale work, your eye is always brought back to Helen McPhaden, the director of Stardale, whose energy and enthusiasm for this program is nothing short of infectious, probably it’s even miraculous.
I realized last night – and this is why Linda Loman’s speech was going through my mind – that Helen, more than anything else she does, pays attention. If she has an agenda other than the good fortune of these girls, I’ve never seen her push it on anyone. Stardale is not a government initiative or a program run by a board of education. It is, more than anything, one extremely well-intended and generous person, with the help of many of her wonderful friends, paying attention to a group of girls that we, as a society, tend to ignore. To our shame. To her credit. To their benefit.
Attention, attention must be paid. And in this case, it is.
Thanks for reading.