Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"
Death of a Salesman is one of the world’s most performed plays. It was first staged in New York in 1949, and has since then been performed continuously on stages world-wide. In all his writing, Arthur Miller speaks up for the underprivileged and the ordinary individual who is up against a harsh environment. His concern for people who are victimised by a capitalist society resulted in a suspicion of possible communist sympathies, which was a serious accusation in the USA in the 40s and 50s. He was cleared after having been investigated by the Un-American Activities Committee.
Death of a Salesman is a genuine tragedy; the title clearly indicates where it is going to end. In a tragedy the protagonist is drawn into an escalating and fatal process inflicted either by a flaw in his own personality or by forces beyond his control.
Willy Loman is a traveling salesman working in the New England area. He is married to Linda, and they have two sons, Biff and Happy. Other characters include Charley, his down-to-earth neighbour and his son Bernard, his employer Howard Wagner and his late brother Ben who appears only in Willy’s illusions.
The structure of the play is somewhat complex as the action takes place on two time levels, in 1928 and 1942. This poses a challenge both for the setting of the stage and for the audience. But there are ways of giving the setting a suggestive form that will indicate what goes on and when. But there is another problem – Willy Loman is unable to distinguish between illusion and reality, which is apparent in his conversations with his dead brother. Hence the setting and the use of lighting are important to give the audience the correct idea of time and illusion versus reality.
Technically the play offers a number of motifs. (A motif is a recurring element which will work as a unifying device and enhance the idea of the work.) The most significant motifs are:
- Being well liked / personal attractiveness. Throughout the play Willy Loman refers to the importance of being well liked.
- The stealing motif. Biff’s stealing and how Willy deals with it cause the climax of the play.
- Vital to New England. This is one of the illusions Willy has built up for himself, and when he gets fired the irony is striking.
- The time motif. “The woods are burning” – time is running out for Willy.
- The debt motif. This is the tragic driving force – Willy has all the time been borrowing money from Charley pretending it to be his wages, and when he dies he is almost clear of debt.
- All used up. Willy complains of how things go broke once they are paid for. Ironically, the day the house is paid for, Willy’s life is also used up.
- Boxed in. This symbolically expresses how Willy is gradually crushed by the forces around him.
The character Ben is also a recurring element who is introduced as Willy’s idolised and successful counterpart.
Follow the links for a brief scene by scene plot summary and comment, and some suggested topics for essay writing on the play.