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Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, written in the years following World War II (WWII), is widely considered to be among America’s most celebrated theatrical works. Willy Loman, the play’s protagonist, is a salesman whose dwindling commission can no longer afford to maintain the lifestyle his family leads. As the plot unravels, what is revealed is a contrarian depiction of the “American Dream,” the notion that wealth, material comfort, and the happiness they supposedly provide can be attained with hard work. The play was massively popular because it shed light on what many Americans felt was an unrealistic pressure placed on their shoulders; rather than work to be happy, Americans were working to be financially wealthy. The discontent of Willy and his descent into darkness, both moral and mental, embodied the reality of the American middle class. Life in American pop culture was a saccharine, morally whitewashed stereotype, presenting expectations to which few could live up.
Pressured to work and achieve the financial successes expected in a post-war society that covets monetary excess, Willy is slowly driven into a state of emotional and mental ruin. Essentially, Willy dies doing all the “right” things a typical American man in the Post-War Era ought to. Scholar Gerald Weales asserts that “for Miller, Willy’s tragedy lies in the fat that he had an alternative he did not take, [and] having chosen the wrong star he reached fro it until he died of stretching”. A significant part of the play’s popularity is grounded in this clash of ideology – the sparring concepts of American wealth and prosperity with individuality and reality. Terry Otten writes in Temptation of Innocence in the Dramas of Arthur Miller that Death of a Salesman, “probably more than any other dramatic play, provokes critical [arguments] about the viability of tragedy in the modern age and particularly in American culture”. Willy’s descent is found in all aspects of his life, from the stock character of the nuclear family to gainful employment and the desire to achieve and earn more in life. Members of his immediate family – his wife, Linda, and his youngest son, Happy, in particular – reinforce the notions that drive Willy into his state of despair. Ironically, Willy can never shake himself free of the shackles he fastens to his own life by holding onto the illusory notion that he can somehow become wealthy by simply living life the way he thinks it should be lived. He still looks up to Ben, an older relative who built his wealth off African diamond mines. The only Loman to leave material gain behind is Willy’s eldest son, Biff, who with his work in Texas represents the agrarian icon of American life glorified before financial gain dominated the cultural zeitgeist.
Consequently, Willy looks down on him to a degree, concluding that Biff can never attain the dream in his current role. Ironically, Biff is perhaps the sole character in the play to accurately observe what happens to his father, and disillusioned by Willy’s state, decides to seek his own path to happiness and the “American Dream.” The concept of the dream is something that is debilitating to Willy; the more he pursues it, the further he descends, growing increasingly delusional in his encounters with his sons. His moral fiber, a concept valued possibly even more in Protestant America than money, wanes as he takes on a mistress despite his wife’s devotion. In keeping with the concept of materialism eroding the human spirit and morality, Biff, the character least associated with Willy’s lifestyle, is the one to gain the most from Willy’s suicide, a path upon which the salesman ventured in order to provide his eldest son with a life insurance settlement. At the end of the play, it is revealed that Linda has made the final payments on the house she and Willy spent their lives paying off, stating that they are finally “free.”
Arthur Miller’s story of the destruction of a middle class American worker follows the structure of a classic protest play, or a stage play with a social message. Dan Vogel writes on the complexity of Willy’s character and the plot at large, stating that despite Willy’s end, his story is not necessarily a tragedy since Death of a Salesman “merely tells the story of a little man succumbing to his environment, rather than a great man destroyed through his greatness”; there is “no question of grandeur in such a tragedy”.
I. R. Choudhuri notes the irony of the American Dream is what draws its audience, stating that “democracy proclaims the individual in society to be free, and American democracy, in addition, approves the myth of [Willy’s] infinite success and happiness”; and yet, these same “laws and social conventions constrain and frustrate him in what he has come to believe as the birth-right of a member of the greatest open society”. For Choudhuri, Miller’s approach to the theme of the play is drawn through “undistinguished citizens,” everyman-type characters whose appeal to the typical American audience is in their mundane nature. Willy’s circumstances are not outlandish and fantastical. He is not a Danish prince avenging the death of his father, nor is he a Moor in Venice struggling against the machinations of a society that ostracizes him.
Loman’s downfall is perhaps the most appealing part of the play and the component of Miller’s work that made Death of a Salesman so popular. Willy’s demise is not something out of a fairy tale – it is by his own hand metaphorically and in the end quite literally. Loman “cuts himself off from any help he might get from his neighbor, his sons, and his wife”; unsure even of his “performance as a salesman – should he act the rugged individualist or play at casual charm? – Willy feels deeply guilty about his past performances as a breadwinner, father, and husband”. The pressure placed on Willy warps the “values of the family and leaves the protagonist unsure of his identity,” which leads to his destruction and ultimately made the play palatable for an audience who may very well have been a collection of Lomans.
- Bigsby, C.W.E. (2000) Modern American Drama, 1945-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge U P.
- Bloom, Harold (ed). (1991) Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
- Bloom, Harold (ed). (1996) Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
- Bloom, Harold (ed). (2000) Arthur Miller. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.
- McConachie, Bruce. (2003) American Theater in the Culture of the Cold War: Producing and Contesting Containment. Iowa City: U of Iowa P.
- Miller, Arthur. (2005) Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books.
- Otten, Terry. (2002) Temptation of Innocence in the Dramas of Arthur Miller. Columbia: U of Missouri P.
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