Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is, perhaps, to this time, the most mature example of a myth of Contemporary life. The chief value of this drama is its attempt to reveal those ultimate meanings which are resident in modern experience. Perhaps the most significant comment on this play is not its literary achievement, as such, but is, rather, the impact which it has had on spectators, both in America and abroad. The influence of this drama, first performed in 1949, continues to grow in World Theatre. For it articulates, in language which can be appreciated by popular audiences, certain new dimensions of the human dilemma.
—Esther Merle Jackson, “Death of a Salesman: Tragic Myth in the Modern Theatre”
It can be argued that the Great American Novel—that always elusive imaginative summation of the American experience—became the Great American Drama in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Along with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Miller’s masterpiece forms the defining myth of the American family and the American dream. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the play’s only rival in American literature in expressing the tragic side of the American myth of success and the ill-fated American dreamers. A landmark and cornerstone 20th-century drama, Death of a Salesman is crucial in the history of American theater in presenting on stage an archetypal family drama that is simultaneously intimate and representative, social and psychological, realistic and expressionistic. Critic Lois Gordon has called it “the major American drama of the 1940s” that “remains unequalled in its brilliant and original fusion of realistic and poetic techniques, its richness of visual and verbal texture, and its wide range of emotional impact.” Miller’s play, perhaps more than any other, established American drama as the decisive arena for addressing the key questions of American identity and social and moral values, while pioneering methods of expression that liberated American theater. The drama about the life and death of salesman Willy Loman is both thoroughly local in capturing a particular time and place and universal, one of the most popular and adapted American plays worldwide. Willy Loman has become the contemporary Everyman, prompting widespread identification and sympathy. By centering his tragedy on a lower middle-class protagonist—insisting, as he argued in “Tragedy and the Common Man,” that “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were”—Miller completed the democratization of drama that had begun in the 19th century while setting the terms for a key debate over dramatic genres that has persisted since Death of a Salesman opened in 1949.
Miller’s subjects, themes, and dramatic mission reflect his life experiences, informed by the Great Depression, which he regarded as a “moral catastrophe,” rivaled, in his view, only by the Civil War in its profound impact on American life. Miller was born in 1915, in New York City. His father, who had emigrated from Austria at the age of six, was a successful coat manufacturer, prosperous enough to afford a chauffeur and a large apartment over-looking Central Park. For Miller’s family, an embodiment of the American dream that hard work and drive are rewarded, the stock market crash of 1929 changed everything. The business was lost, and the family was forced to move to considerably reduced circumstances in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in a small frame house that served as the model for the Lomans’ residence. Miller’s father never fully recovered from his business failure, and his mother was often depressed and embittered by the family’s poverty, though both continued to live in hope of an economic recovery to come. For Miller the depression exposed the hollowness and fragility of the American dream of material success and the social injustice inherent in an economic system that created so many blameless casualties. The paradoxes of American success—its stimulation of both dreams and guilt when lost or unrealized, as well as the conflict it created between self-interest and social responsibility—would become dominant themes in Miller’s work. As a high school student Miller was more interested in sports than studies. “Until the age of seventeen I can safely say that I never read a book weightier than Tom Swift, and Rover Boys,” Miller recalled, “and only verged on literature with some of Dickens. . . . I passed through the public school system unscathed.” After graduating from high school in 1932 Miller went to work in an auto parts warehouse in Manhattan. It was during his subway commute to and from his job that Miller began reading, discovering both the power of serious literature to change the way one sees the world and his vocation: “A book that changed my life was The Brothers Karamazov which I picked up, I don’t know how or why, and all at once believed I was born to be a writer.”
In 1934 Miller was accepted as a journalism student at the University of Michigan. There he found a campus engaged by the social issues of the day: “The place was full of speeches, meetings and leaflets. It was jumping with Issues. . . . It was, in short, the testing ground for all my prejudices, my beliefs and my ignorance, and it helped to lay out the boundaries of my life.” At Michigan Miller wrote his first play, despite having seen only two plays years before, to compete for prize money he needed for tuition. Failing in his first attempt he would eventually twice win the Avery Hopwood Award. Winning “made me confident I could go ahead from there. It left me with the belief that the ability to write plays is born into one, and that it is a kind of sport of the mind.” Miller became convinced that “with the exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human could do.” He would embrace the role of the playwright as social conscience and reformer who could help change America, by, as he put it “grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck.” Two years after graduating in 1938, having moved back to Brooklyn and married his college sweetheart, Miller had completed six plays, all but one of them rejected by producers. The Man Who Had All the Luck, a play examining the ambiguities of success and the money ethic, managed a run of only four performances on Broadway in 1944. Miller went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, tried his hand at radio scripts, and attempted one more play. “I laid myself a wager,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I would hold back this play until I was as sure as I could be that every page was integral to the whole and would work; then, if my judgment of it proved wrong, I would leave the theater behind and write in other forms.” The play was All My Sons, about a successful manufacturer who sells defective aircraft parts and is made to face the consequences of his crime and his responsibilities. It is Miller’s version of a Henrik Ibsen problem play, linking a family drama to wider social issues. Named one of the top-10 plays of 1947, All My Sons won the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award over Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The play’s success allowed Miller to buy property in rural Connecticut where he built a small studio and began work on Death of a Salesman.
This play, subtitled “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem,” about the last 24 hours of an aging and failing traveling salesman misguided by the American dream, began, as the playwright recounts in his introduction to his Collected Plays, with an initial image
of an enormous face the height of the proscenium arch which would appear and then open up, and we would see the inside of a man’s head. In fact, The Inside of His Head was the first title. . . . The image was in direct opposition to the method of All My Sons—a method one might call linear or eventual in that one fact or incident creates the necessity for the next. The Salesman image was from the beginning absorbed with the concept that nothing in life comes “next” but that everything exists together and at the same time within us; that there is no past to be “brought forward” in a human being, but that he is his past at every moment. . . . I wished to create a form which, in itself as a form, would literally be the process of Willy Loman’s way of mind.
The play took shape by staging the past in the present, not through flashbacks of Willy’s life but by what the playwright called “mobile concurrency of past and present.” Miller recalled beginning
with only one firm piece of knowledge and this was that Loman was to destroy himself. How it would wander before it got to that point I did not know and resolved not to care. I was convinced only that if I could make him remember enough he would kill himself, and the structure of the play was determined by what was needed to draw up his memories like a mass of tangled roots without ends or beginning.
At once realistic in its documentation of American family life and expressionistic in its embodiment of consciousness on stage, Death of a Salesman opens with the 63-year-old Willy Loman’s return to his Brooklyn home, revealing to his worried wife, Linda, that he kept losing control of his car on a selling trip to Boston. Increasingly at the mercy of his memories Willy, in Miller’s analysis, “is literally at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present.” Reflecting its protagonist, “The way of telling the tale . . . is as mad as Willy and as abrupt and as suddenly lyrical.” The family’s present—Willy’s increasing mental instability, his failure to earn the commissions he needs to survive, and his disappointment that his sons, Biff and Happy, have failed to live up to expectations—intersects with scenes from the past in which both their dreams and the basis for their disillusionment are exposed. In the present Biff, the onetime star high school athlete with seeming unlimited prospects in his doting father’s estimation, is 34, having returned home from another failed job out west and harboring an unidentified resentment of his father. As Biff confesses, “everytime I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life.” His brother, Happy, is a deceitful womanizer trapped in a dead-end job who confesses that despite having his own apartment, “a car, and plenty of women . . . still, goddammit, I’m lonely.” The present frustrations of father and sons collide with Willy’s memory when all was youthful promise and family harmony. In a scene in which Biff with the prospect of a college scholarship seems on the brink of attaining all Willy has expected of him, both boys hang on their father’s every word as he exults in his triumphs as a successful salesman:
America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ’cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own.
Triumphantly, Willy passes on his secret of success: “Be liked and you will never want.” His advice exposes the fatal fl aw in his life view that defines success by exterior rather than interior values, by appearance and possessions rather than core morals. Even in his confident memory, however, evidence of the undermining of his self-confidence and aspirations occurs as Biff plays with a football he has stolen and father and son ignore the warning of the grind Bernard (who “is liked, but he’s not well liked”) that Biff risks graduating by not studying. Willy’s popularity and prowess as a salesman are undermined by Linda’s calculation of her husband’s declining commissions, prompting Willy to confess that “people don’t seem to take to me.” Invading Willy’s memory is the realization that he is far from the respected and resourceful salesman he has boasted being to his sons as he struggles to meet the payments on the modern appliances that equip the American dream of success. Moreover, to boost his sagging spirits on the road he has been unfaithful to his loving and supportive wife. To protect himself from these hurtful memories Willy is plunged back into the present for a card game with Bernard’s father, Charley. Again the past intrudes in the form of a memory of a rare visit by Willy’s older brother, Ben, who has become rich and whose secrets for success elude Willy. Back in the present Willy is hopeful at Biff’s plan to go see an old employer, Bill Oliver, for the money to start up a Loman Brothers sporting goods line. The act ends with Willy’s memory of Biff’s greatest moment—the high school football championship:
Like a young god. Hercules—something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out—Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!
The second act shatters all prospects, revealing the full truth that Willy has long evaded about himself and his family in a series of crushing blows. Expecting to trade on his 34 years of loyal service to his employer for a nontraveling, salaried position in New York, Willy is forced to beg for a smaller and smaller salary before he is fired outright, prompting one of the great lines of the play: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit.” Rejecting out of pride a job offer from Charley, Willy meets his son for dinner where Biff reveals that his get-rich scheme has collapsed. Bill Oliver did not remember who he was, kept him waiting for hours, and resentfully Biff has stolen his fountain pen from his desk. Biff now insists that Willy face the truth—that Biff was only a shipping clerk and that Oliver owes him nothing—but Willy refuses to listen, with his need to believe in his son and the future forcing Biff to manufacture a happier version of his meeting and its outcome. Biff’s anger and resentment over the old family lies about his prospects, however, cause Willy to relive the impetus of Biff’s loss of faith in him in one of the tour de force scenes in modern drama. Biff and Happy’s attempt to pick up two women at the restaurant interconnects with Willy’s memory of Biff’s arrival at Willy’s Boston hotel unannounced. There he discovers a partially dressed woman in his father’s room. Having failed his math class and jeopardized his scholarship, Biff has come to his father for help. Willy’s betrayal of Linda, however, exposes the hollowness of Willy’s moral authority and the disjunction between the dreams Willy sells and its reality:
Willy: She’s nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.
Biff: You—you gave her Mama’s stockings!
Willy: I gave you an order!
Biff: Don’t touch me, you—liar!
Willy: Apologize for that!
Biff: You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!
Willy’s guilt over the collapse of his son’s belief in him leads him to a final redemptive dream. Returning home, symbolically outside planting seeds, he discusses with Ben his scheme to kill himself for the insurance money as a legacy to his family and a final proof of his worth as a provider of his sons’ success. Before realizing this dream Willy must endure a final assault of truth from Biff who confesses to being nothing more than a thief and a bum, incapable of holding down a job—someone who is, like Willy, a “dime a dozen,” no better than any other hopeless striver: “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!” Biff’s fury explodes into a tearful embrace of his father. After Biff departs upstairs the significance of his words and actions are both realized and lost by the chronic dreamer:
Willy, after a long pause, astonished, elevated Isn’t that—isn’t that remarkable? Biff—he likes me!
Linda: He loves you, Willy!
Happy ,deeply moved Always did, Pop.
Willy: Oh. Biff! Staring wildly: He cried! Cried to me. He is choking with his love, and now cries out his promise: That boy—that boy is going to be magnificent!
Doggedly holding onto the dream of his son’s prospects, sustained by his son’s love, Willy finally sets out in his car to carry out his plan, while the scene shifts to his funeral in which Linda tries to understand her husband’s death, and Charley provides the eulogy:
Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
Linda delivers the final, heartbreaking lines over her husband’s grave: “Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. We’re free and clear. We’re free. We’re free . . . We’re free. . . .”
The power and persistence of Death of a Salesman derives from its remarkably intimate view of the dynamic of a family driven by their collective dreams. Critical debate over whether Willy lacks the stature or self-knowledge to qualify as a tragic hero seems beside the point in performance. Few other modern dramas have so powerfully elicited pity and terror in their audiences. Whether Willy is a tragic hero or Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy in any Aristotelian sense, he and his story have become core American myths. Few critics worry over whether Jay Gatsby is a tragic hero, but Gatsby shares with Willy Loman the essential American capacity to dream and to be destroyed by what he dreams. The concluding lines of The Great Gatsby equally serve as a requiem for both men:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.