Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman is a play by Arthur Miller. Written in 1949, it is one of the seminal plays of the twentieth century. Viewed by many as a caustic attack on the American Dream of success through economic enterprise, it made both Arthur Miller and lead character Willy Loman household names. It was greeted with enthusiastic reviews, received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949, and turned Miller into a national sensation as a playwright.

Plot synopsis

The play centers on Willy Loman, an aging salesman who is beginning to lose his grip on reality. Willy places great emphasis on his native charm and ability to make friends; once he was known all throughout New England, driving long hours but making unparalleled sales, his sons Biff and Happy were the pride and joy of the neighborhood, and his wife Linda went smiling throughout the day. Unfortunately, time has passed, and now his life seems to be slipping out of control.

Willy has worked hard his entire life and ought to be retiring by now, living a life of luxury and closing deals with contractors on the phone--especially since increasing episodes of depersonalization and flashback are impairing his ability to drive. Instead, all of Willy's aspirations seem to have failed: he is fired from his job--which barely paid enough anyway--by a man young enough to be his son and who, in fact, Willy himself named; Willy is now forced to rely on loans from his only real friend (and the word is used loosely at that), Charley, to make ends meet; none of Willy's old friends or previous customers remember him; Biff, his 34-year-old son, has been unable to 'find himself' as a result of his inability to settle down (caused by Willy's drumming into him of the need to 'make it big within two weeks') ; and Happy (the younger son) lies shamelessly to make it look like he is a perfect Loman scion. In contrast, Charley (who, Willy tells his boys conspiratorially, is not well-liked), is now a successful businessman, and his son, Bernard, a former bespectacled bookworm, is now a brilliant lawyer. We are told how Willy had at least one affair whilst out on business trips, one particularily witnessed by Biff that broke his faith in him. Finally, Willy is haunted by memories of his now-dead older brother, Ben, who at an early age left for Alaska... "And when I walked out, I was rich!" With all this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Willy is having suicidal thoughts, though Biff and Happy--both home for the first time in years--initially have no idea.

The play's structure resembles a stream of consciousness account: Willy drifts between his living room, downstage, to the apron and flashbacks of an idyllicized past, and also to fantasized conversations with Ben. The use of these different 'states' allows Miller to contrast Willy's dreams and the reality of his life in extraordinary detail, and also allows him to contrast the characters themselves, showing them in both sympathetic and villainous light, gradually unfolding the story, and refusing to allow the audience a permanent judgment about anyone. When we are in the present the characters abide by the rules of the set, entering only through the stage door to the left, however when we visit Willy's 'past' these rules are removed, with characters openly moving through walls.

The depths of the problem are gradually revealed. Willy's emphasis on being well-liked stems from a belief that it will bring him to perfect success--not a harmful dream in itself, except that he clings to this idea as if it is a life-preserver, refusing to give it up. His boys are not only well-liked but quite handsome, and as far as Willy is concerned, that's all anyone needs. He pitches this idea to his sons so effectively that they believe opportunity will fall into their laps. (In this way, Biff and Happy can be considered forerunners to the culture of entitlement.) Of course, real life is not so generous, and neither are able to hold much in the way of respectable employment. Willy witnesses his and his sons' failures and clings ever more tightly to his master plan, now placing his hopes vicariously on them: he may not succeed, but they might. His tragic flaw is in failing to question whether the dream is valid. Happy never does either; he has embraced his father's attitude, and at the end of the first act, he convinces Biff to seek financial backing in a get-rich-quick scheme. But when Biff tries to do so, he realizes his father's mistakes, and finally decides not to let Willy get away with it. They attack each other at the play's climax: Biff confronting Willy's neurosis head-on, while Willy accuses Biff of throwing his life away simply to hurt Willy's feelings. Despite a raggedly emotional battle of words, neither is able to make much headway, but before Biff gives up, he breaks down in tears: "Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" Willy is touched: Biff still cares for him after all.

As the rest of the family retires, Ben reappears over Willy's shoulder, talking about how far Biff will go if he were to have, say, $20,000 dollars to his name--which happens to be the exact amount of Willy's life insurance policy. The two collaborate in ecstatic cahoots, and the neighborhood is drawn out of bed by the roar and smash of Willy's car: the salesman, in what is either his most noble or most absurd gesture, has bought his family financial independence with his life instead of during it.

The plays requiem serves as the final statement, or observation of the progress that the characters have made throughout the play. Willy has obviously died, trapped in between the two dreams of material success and rural independence. Happy has been oblivious to the dangers of this entrapment, and vows to 'live the dream of a salesman...the only dream you can have'. He gets angered when challenged in his beliefs by Biff - who is the only character to realise that Willy 'had all the wrong dreams'. The play ends on an optimistic note, with Miller showing that his criticism of Capitalist America was not all encompassing - that there is still reason to have hope.

Themes and points of interest

  1. One central point of the play is the idea of "greatness." Willy longs to achieve great things and to be remembered after his death, and instills that hope in both of his sons. All three fail, while Ben, Charlie, and Bernard succeed. Why? Do the Loman men have a tragic flaw? What could it be?
  2. The differing interpretations of the American Dream are another major theme throughout the play. Biff and Willy both have very different ideas about what it is - Biff dreams purely of the free and open (shown through his desire to be 'out there...working with our hands'), whilst Willy is trapped in between this dream and that of the capitalist materialistic modern society.
  3. The premium we place on superficial qualities is another common theme throughout the play. The physical good looks of Biff, the importance of being liked and even the attendance at one's own funeral are traits that drive Willy to his demise.
  4. Self-Deception and Illusion are important in this play. All of the characters deceive themselves away from reality through lies. Willy lives in the past to escape the finanical troubles of reality. He also has a false image of success as requiring only easy wealth and popularity.
  5. The question is often asked of whether the play can be correctly described as a tragedy (with Willy being our tragic hero), because of the conflicting ideas over whether he is to blame for his downfall (in which case it would be tragic) or if it is society's fault (in this case it would be a social drama).

Film and television versions



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