Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman

2nd edition cover (Viking Press)
Written by Arthur Miller
Characters Willy Loman
Linda Loman
Biff Loman
Happy Loman
Date premiered 10 February 1949
Place premiered Morosco Theatre
New York City
Original language English
Subject The waning days of a failing salesman
Genre Tragedy
Setting Late 1940s; Willy Loman's house; New York City and Barnaby River
IBDB profile

Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play by American playwright Arthur Miller and is a classic of American theater. The play ran for 742 performances, directed by Elia Kazan with Lee J. Cobb starring in the leading role.

Death of a Salesman made both Arthur Miller and the character Willy Loman household names. The play raises a counterexample to Aristotle's characterization of tragedy as the downfall of a great man: though Loman certainly has Hamartia, a tragic flaw or error, his downfall is that of an ordinary man (a "low man"). Like Sophocles' Oedipus in Oedipus the King, Loman's flaw comes down to a lack of self-knowledge; unlike Oedipus, Loman's downfall threatens not the city but only a single, bourgeois household. In this sense, Miller's play represents a democratization of the ancient form of tragedy; interestingly, the play's protagonist is himself obsessed with the question of greatness, and his downfall arises directly from his misperception of himself as someone capable of greatness.

It is said that Miller is criticizing America and capitalism as a promoter of socialism. It is demonstrated through Willy, the protagonist during the story, who struggles to support his family and even himself. It is the story of a man at the end of his life, who realizes he has wasted his years in pursuit of a goal that is not only unattainable, but was never real to begin with.


[edit] Characters

[edit] Major characters: The Loman Family

Willy Loman
A middle-aged salesman who is no longer able to earn a living. He receives only a small commission as he ages, and he slowly loses his mind and attempts to kill himself by inhaling gas from the water heater or from crashing his car. Idolizes Dave Singleman to become well liked and rich. Spends most of his time dreaming instead of actually acting. He is obsessed with the post-war interpretation of the American Dream. Willy finally at the end of the play does come to killing himself by speeding his car and crashing it.
Linda Loman
Willy's wife, aids in shielding Willy from reality. Enables Willy and despite obvious faults, she continues to allow Willy to make mistakes and does not help him. Also tries to rationalize many of Willy's actions, including his attempted suicide.
Biff Loman
The older son of Willy and Linda, he is the all-star athlete of the family. After discovering his father had an affair, he abandoned all of his dreams and set out to make his own way.Unfortunately he cannot escape his path or what he was taught as child. He comes to realize that he was only fooling himself into believing in lies about his life.
Harold 'Happy' Loman
The younger son of Willy and Linda, epitomizes all of Willy's negative points, such as Willy's blind following of the American dream, as discussed above. Happy is generally supportive of his father. He seems to only worry about making his parents notice him even if it mean making up lies."Willie Loman did not die in vain, he had a good dream- He had a good dream. it's the only dream you can have- to come out number one man. He fought it out here, and I'm going to win it for him"
Ben Loman
Willy's wealthy and recently deceased older brother, who only appears during his time shifts. Willy looks up to him - and his successful tapping of diamonds from Africa. He is the subject of many of Willy's hallucinations.

[edit] Other characters

  • Howard Wagner: Willy's boss. Inherited company from father; fires Willy shortly before the end of the play. Insensitive, he parades a tape recorder before Willy which he knows he is unable to afford. A symbol of the modern businessman - professional, clinical, and ultimately ruthless. He puts the firm first, and when Willy is no longer able to contribute, he is too professional to arrange a new job for him, and fires him, despite the friendship between his father and Willy.
  • Charley: Willy's neighbor. Sympathetic to Willy's plight, his job offer to Willy was rejected mainly out of hubris. He is forced to stand by and watch Willy's death as his help is rejected.
  • Bernard: Charley's son. Is the antithesis of Biff, mostly due to the parenting of his father. A "anaemic", worried, "worm" of a boy, he grows to become a successful lawyer and gets to the top of his profession. He tries to help Biff by asking him to study before his Regent's exam, but is shunned by Willy, who emphasises likeability and personality above braininess. As an adult, he doesn't push his success into Willy's face when he encounters him, but remains sympathetic and tactful.

[edit] Minor characters

  • Stanley: A waiter. Refuses Willy's money and lends a hand to help Willy return home after his sons leave him.
  • Miss Forsythe: A woman that Biff and Happy meet in the restaurant where Stanley works. Most likely a prostitute; she draws Biff and Happy away from the dinner they planned with their father.
  • Letta: A woman that Biff and Happy meet, friend of Miss Forsythe.
  • The Woman: Willy's mistress, referred to by Willy as 'Miss Francis'. Sight of her with Willy forever scars Biff.
  • Bill Oliver: Biff's previous boss. His failure to recognize Biff fifteen years on causes the revelation that most of Biff's life has been a lie.
  • Jenny: Charley's secretary.
  • Dave Singleman: A very old but successful salesman. His death at 84, and subsequent funeral, drew a far-reaching crowd that inspired Willy to try for the same.“What could be more satisfying than to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? - when he died, hundreds of salesman and buyers were at his funeral"
  • Mr. Birnbaum: Biff's high school teacher. Flunked Biff in math, which led to Biff's discovery of Willy's affair.

[edit] Plot summary

One night, Willy Loman, a beaten-down traveling salesman based in New York City, returns home from a long business trip. His patient and loving wife, Linda, is surprised to see him but greets him warmly. From their ensuing conversation, it is revealed that Willy's early homecoming is due to his growing senility. Linda dotes on him and tells him to come to bed. Willy agrees but eventually remains in the kitchen, reminiscing, aloud to himself, about better times. His two sons, Biff and Happy, eventually awaken to Willy's loud mutterings but they remain in their beds to share a conversation. Biff, who had been working on a farm in Texas, talks to Happy about working outside, and how this house brings back bad memories, and boxes him in. Throughout the play, Willy also exhibits skills that would be more suited to an outside life, but he does not see these skills, primarily his ability to build and repair the house, as useful. The only success he can accept is the materialistic success of the 'American dream', which is beyond him. Willy goes outside and flashes back to Biff's childhood: Biff is the star quarterback of his high school football team. His father continuously dotes on Biff, while ignoring Happy. When Biff confesses to "borrowing" a football from his school's locker room, Willy simply writes off his behavior as initiative. Biff's classmate and neighbor, Bernard, arrives to help Biff study for math, but Willy and his sons ignore him and carry on playing football. Later on in the flashback, Willy goes inside, where Linda talks to him about their budget. Willy is reminded of a flirtatious encounter he had with The Woman, during which he gave her some silk stockings, originally meant for his wife. When he returns from the flashback, he sees Linda mending some stockings and snatches them away in guilt. Later, he and Charley engage in a card game (casino), during which Willy is reminded of his brother Ben. Ben begins a dialogue with him, and Willy contemplates why he can't become successful. Throughout the play, Willy has these imaginary conversations with Ben, during most of which he asks Ben how he made his millions. Ben had tried to go to Alaska to find their father but ended up in Africa. In Africa, he "stumbled" upon the diamond business and became wealthy by the time Willy was old enough to care about his own career. Willy feels that he can also become successful by luck alone. However, it is made apparent that Ben never spent much time with the rest of the Lomans and gave only rudimentary descriptions of how he gained his wealth. For instance, whenever Willy asks Ben (in his flashbacks) how he made his millions, Ben only answers "When I walked into the jungle, I was 17. When I walked out, I was 21, and by God I was rich." In addition, Willy worked for a man who only had to wake up in the morning, put his slippers on, and make phone calls, and had made millions of dollars. Willy assumes that one does not need to work hard or develop skill and experience, but that all that one needs is a "smile and a shoeshine" to be successful. In a sense, Willy's dream is the American Dream of material success. Willy has no interest in spiritual values or altruism.

As a salesman, Willy has been reduced to working for commission alone, has to travel long distances, and even has to borrow money from Charley to make ends meet. In order to escape from his own failure, he pressures his sons to make something of themselves, then is crushed when they don't live up to his expectations. The family discovers he's tried to kill himself when Linda finds a tube and "a new little nipple" on the heater, at which point Linda mentions he's deliberately crashed the car on several occasions. Biff has just returned from Texas after several years, during which he never contacted his family, and he is therefore not entirely welcome. In an effort to please their father, Biff and Happy plan to start a sporting goods business in Florida and put on exhibitions for publicity. Willy is excited by this plan, though it is ludicrous, and the boys plan to ask Bill Oliver, Biff's past employer, for startup money. Willy asks his current employer for a job in New York, so he doesn't have to travel so much. His employer instead fires him. Willy is outraged, and goes on a rant about the immorality of it, to which his employer responds "I have to see some people, can you hurry this up?" Willy walks out, and goes to where Charley works. There, he runs into Bernard, who mentions that, during Biff's last year in high school, Biff went to Boston to visit Willy, but after he returned, had lost all interest in school, thereby failing math. Willy denies anything happened in Boston. Charley mentions that Bernard is going to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, which astounds Willy. Charley offers Willy a job when he finds out that Willy has been fired, but Willy is too proud to accept.

Later, at a restaurant, Biff tells Happy about his encounter with Bill Oliver; he never got a chance to speak with Oliver, as he didn't even remember who Biff was. Infuriated, Biff stole Oliver's fountain pen and fled, at which point he realized his life was a lie and he was only a shipping clerk to Oliver. When Willy arrives, Biff tries to tell Willy the truth, but Willy so desperately wants good news that he forces Biff to lie. When Biff resists, Willy starts to pace, demanding to know why Biff didn't pass math. Biff takes pity on Willy, and lies that his encounter with Oliver went well, which allows Willy to continue denying reality. Willy has another flashback, during which he relives the night Biff found him in Boston; Biff walked in on Willy and The Woman, where Willy desperately tried to cover up his affair, but Biff saw through his lies and fled back to New York. Willy then wakes up in the bathroom, where he had somehow dozed off, and goes back home, where he begins planting seeds outside and talking to Ben. When Biff returns, he admits that he hadn't called because he had been in jail for a long time, and confronts Willy by showing him the tube with which Willy had attempted suicide. In a heated debate between Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy, Biff pleads with Willy to be free of his judgment, to "take this phony dream and burn it." Biff, Linda and Happy then go to bed. Willy then follows the voice of Ben, calling him to his car, and Willy drives off with the intent of killing himself in order to give Biff the settlement from his life insurance. As a failed salesman, Willy is worth more dead than alive.

The Requiem is a funeral scene, with Happy, Biff, Linda, Charley and Bernard standing over Willy's grave. At that point, Biff has learned to accept himself for what he is, Happy still wants to carry on Willy's dream of success in the city, and Linda ends the play with a monologue alone. In this monologue, she explains that she can't cry, and that she had made the last payment on the house, ending with the words "We're free... We're free..."

[edit] Style

The play is mostly told from Willy's point of view, and it shows previous parts of Willy's life in his time shifts, sometimes during a present day scene. It does this by having a scene begin in the present time and adding characters onto the stage that only Willy can see and hear, representing characters and conversations from other times and places. One example of this is during a conversation between Willy and his neighbor Charley. During the conversation, Willy's brother Ben comes on stage and begins talking to Willy while Charley speaks to Willy. When Willy begins talking to his brother, the other characters do not understand who he is talking to and some of them even begin to suspect that he has "lost it". However, at times it breaks away from Willy's point of view and focuses on the other characters, Linda, Biff and Happy. During these parts of the play, the time and place stay constant without any abrupt flashbacks as usually happens while the play takes Willy's point of view. Willy dies self deceived.

The play's structure resembles a stream of consciousness account: Willy drifts between his living room, downstage, to the apron and flashbacks of an idyllic 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 lights, 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. 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, as Willy's mental state deteriorates, the boundaries between past and present are destroyed, and the two start to exist in parallel.

[edit] Productions

The original production won the Tony Award for: Best Play; Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Arthur Kennedy); Best Scenic Design (Jo Mielziner); Producer (Dramatic); Author (Arthur Miller); Best Director (Elia Kazan). The play won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jayne Mansfield, a Hollywood actress once compared, in some ways, to Marilyn Monroe, performed in a production of the play in Dallas, Texas in October, 1953. Her performance in the play attracted Paramount Pictures to hire her for the studio's film productions.[1]

The play has been revived on Broadway three times since:

[edit] Adaptations

In 1951, it was adapted by Stanley Roberts into a film which was directed by László Benedek who won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Fredric March), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Kevin McCarthy), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mildred Dunnock), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.


[edit] Awards and nominations

  • 1949 New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play
  • 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
  • 1949 Tony Award for Best Play
  • 1984 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival
  • 1984 Tony Award for Best Reproduction
  • 1999 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play
  • 1999 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play

[edit] References

  1. ^ Va Va Voom by Steve Sullivan. Loved the book Group, Los Angeles, California, Page 50

[edit] Further reading

  • Hurell, John D. (1961). Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A streetcar Named Desire. New York: Scribner. pp. 82–8. OCLC 249094. 
  • Sandage, Scott A. (2005). Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 067401510X. 

[edit] External links

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