A play written by: Arthur Miller In two acts and a requiem (1915 – 2005) About the Author Arthur Miller, considered one of the most distinguished contemporary American playwrights, explores themes of individual and social commitment, familial relationships, and moral obligation. His ten major works have sparked controversy and enjoyed acclaim. They continue to have a stirring effect on audiences as well as readers. Death of a Salesman in 1949 brought Miller the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
It also had the distinction of being the only play ever selected for circulation by the Book-of-the-Month Club. It took Miller only six weeks to write the play that had probably been germinating in his mind since his job with his father’s manufacturing company (he worked there in high school briefly, but abhorred the job because of the way the clothing buyers treated his father and the company’s salesmen with arrogant contempt). Considered a masterpiece by theater critics and historians, the play condemns a society that compels individuals to forsake their natural talents and their dignity in favor of achieving material success.
The opening night audience in Philadelphia was overwhelmed; long after the standing ovations and final curtain calls, theatergoers, identifying with Willy and his sons, refused to go home. In 1952 Miller’s most controversial play, The Crucible, was produced. Although it won him a Tony award, the merits of the play were obscured by the political attitudes toward it. There was an obvious parallel between the mass hysteria of the 1692 witch trials and the mass hysteria of the McCarthyism in the 1950’s. Historical Background The United States emerged from World War II with unrivaled economic power.
All other industrial countries had suffered devastation, but the factories, farms, and research laboratories of the United States had grown and flourished. After the war United States agriculture became the granary for a Europe on the brink of starvation, and American banks became the financiers for a Europe on the verge of bankruptcy. Two challenges confronted the US in 1945: to dismantle the wartime system of rationing, allocations, and price controls without setting off inflation; and to return millions of demobilized soldiers and huge war industries to civilian production without plunging the country back into the Depression.
The removal of wartime controls did prompt a sharp rise in consumer prices in 1946, but the wartime improvements in technology had increased productivity so greatly that production of consumer goods and foodstuffs soared, and the price levels were soon fully stabilized. Likewise, after a brief recession, the economy experienced a prolonged boom. The postwar period was frenzied. Demobilization was rapid; in 1946, there were 35,000 discharges a day. People had accumulated savings during wartime austerity, and now they were ready to spend.
A peacetime value system of the pursuit of personal happiness replaced the wartime one of sacrifice. A mania developed for such consumer items as beef, ice cream, alcohol, cars, and toys; tickets for sporting events, theater, and travel were in short supply; housing was at a premium. With the war’s end, President Truman turned to the completion of the New Deal’s social and economic programs. Although his requests for health insurance, increases in Social Security benefits, and regional development projects were ignored, he did get Congress to pass an Employment Act in 1946, committing the government to fostering full employment.
The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, also known as the “GI Bill of Rights” provided billions of dollars in educational, housing, unemployment, and medical benefits to the returning servicemen. The single-minded pursuit of delayed careers and the devotion to deferred families that the GI Bill allowed became the American dream of success. It was against this social and economic background that Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman. Acknowledging the capacity and opportunity for the average person to fulfill the American dream, Miller shows the perversion of the fantasy.
Willy Loman and his sons epitomize the failure of middle-class values inherent in the expectation of success-phony advertising, backslapping, and flashy salesmanship at the expense of personal honor. Setting In Death of a Salesman, the physical characteristics help to establish the mood, or atmosphere, of the action and to highlight the theme. The action takes place in a succession of scenes that flow freely through time. Some are in the present, some are in the objective past, some are in the past as Willy sees it, and some scenes are entirely in Willy’s imagination.
It is sometimes difficult to tell which time period is which. This confusion mirrors the deeper confusions of the characters in the play. Much of the action takes place in and around the Loman house, described as a relic of a time when the area was full of homes and gardens. Now it is overshadowed by looming apartment buildings, permitting too little sun to grow anything. Willy Loman, like his house, is trapped by events of the past and present. Like it, he feels boxed in. The house itself is transparent or shown in skeletal form so that the kitchen and the parent’s and boys bedroom are always visible.
The stage apron is used as the backyard as well as the locale of the Boston and New York scenes and all of Willy’s imaginings. Whenever the action is in the present, the actors observe the imaginary walls of the house; in scenes from the past or from Willy’s illusions, these boundaries are broken, and the characters step through the walls. Although the time of the play encompasses barely twenty-four hours, both the memories and illusions give us a much larger view of Willy’s life. Thus the physical environment of the play reinforces the difference between illusion and reality.
Influences When Arthur Miller began reading plays in college, Greek tragedies made a profound impression on him. He says that he was drawn to the Greeks “for their magnificent form, the symmetry. ” While he claims he barely understood the characters or comprehended the stories, he recognized the classic construction. “That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in. ” As soon as Death of a Salesman opened, critics began writing about its relation to Greek tragedy, usually pointing out that Willy doesn’t qualify as a tragic hero.
Without mentioning his critics, Miller replied with an essay titled “Tragedy and the Common Man. ” Death of a Salesman does have a shattering emotional impact that corresponds to that of a Greek tragedy. There are some other similarities- the inevitable movement toward death of the protagonist with growing self-awareness, the single story without subplots, the unity of time (Death of a Salesman takes place within the course of twenty-four hours) but they are of limited significance. More important for an understanding of the form of Death of a Salesman is a familiarity with German expressionism.
Expressionism sought to depict the inner life of characters. It went further than realism or naturalism, which traced the lineal development of a story through external details of environment (like The Red Badge of Courage). Expressionism used symbols to evoke the unseen and the unconscious, and so expressionist plays were “cool” in their approach: objective, stylized, impersonal. Miller took the form and made it “warm” and humane. He later wrote that Death of a Salesman “desired the audience to forget it was theater even as it broke the bounds, I believe, of a long convention of realism.
Its expressionistic elements were consciously used as such, but since the approach to Willy Loman’s characterization was consistently and rigorously subjective, the audience would not ever be aware- if I could help it –that they were witnessing the use of technique which until then created only coldness, objectivity, and a highly stylized sort of play. ” The incidents from the past that Willy recalls in the present are and “expression,” or dramatization, or what’s going on inside Willy’s mind. An observer in the present would simply see