Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play by Arthur Miller and is one of his most famous and commonly revived works. Viewed by many as a caustic attack on the American Dream of achieving wealth and success without regard for principle, Death of a Salesman made both Arthur Miller and the character Willy Loman household names. Some of the other titles Miller considered for the play were The Inside of His Head and A Period of Grace. It was greeted with enthusiastic reviews, received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949, the 1949 Tony Award for Best Play, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Death of a Salesman was the first play to win these three major awards. Produced on six of seven continents, the searing drama helped to confirm Miller as an internationally-known playwright.
The play centers on Willy Loman, an aging salesman who is beginning to lose his grip on reality. Willy places great emphasis on his supposed native charm and ability to make friends; stating that once he was known 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 claims to have 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 drumming into him 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 while out on business trips: one in particular was discovered by Biff, and broke his faith in his father. Finally, Willy is haunted by memories of his now-dead older brother, Ben, who at an early age left for Africa; "And when [he] walked out, [he] was rich!". Ben has constantly overshadowed Willy, and he is in many ways the man that Willy wanted to be. Ben's approach is heralded by idyllic music, showing Willy's idolisation of him, and in flashbacks we see Willy asking for Ben's advice on parenting.
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 judgement 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. Whereas the term 'flashback' as a form of cinematography for these scenes is often heard, Miller himself rather speaks of 'mobile concurrences'. In fact, flashbacks would show an objective image of the past. Miller's mobile concurrences, however, rather show highly subjective memories. Furthermore, Willy destroys the boundaries between past and present, and the two start to exist in parallel.
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 that Biff still cares for him after all.
As the rest of the family retires, Ben reappears over Willy's shoulder. Willy proclaims that in taking his own life, the attendance at his funeral would make a show to his doubting son of how popular he was in life, and that, if handled to look accidental, the payout from his life insurance policy will allow Biff to start his own business. The neighborhood is drawn out of bed by the roar and smash of Willy's car, despite Ben's warnings that the insurance policy won't be honored in the event of suicide. Thus Willy's grand gesture - and indeed his earlier assertion that one is often "worth more dead than alive" - leaves his family (and especially his wife, Linda) in even worse a position than before.
The Requiem of the play takes place at Willy's funeral, which is attended by Charley, Bernard, Linda, Biff, and Happy. Charley makes a very moving speech as Biff accuses Willy of not knowing what he really wanted in life.
Linda remarks that it is sad that no one went to Willy's funeral as they leave for home, which shows that she herself has remained as deluded at the end of the play by Willy's dreams as he himself was. Biff is the only character to come to terms with who he really is, and has tried without result to shatter the bubble of delusion that the rest of his family is surrounded by. Happy says in the Requiem "Willy Loman did not die in vain", and says that he will 'fight' for Willy's, and his own corrupted version of the American Dream. At the graveyard, Biff correctly says, "He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong." Happy tries to defend Willy, as he cannot see the reality that Biff does.
Themes and points of interest
Film and television versions
Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, by Scott A. Sandage (Harvard University Press, 2005).