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Death of a Salesman ()


Pulitzer Prize (Drama)

    Don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the
    paper.  He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is
    happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old
    dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person
                  -Linda Loman, Act 1, Death of a Salesman

Why must attention be paid?   Since the play's debut, amazingly over 50 years ago now, that has been the central question : must we pay attention to the demise of Willy Loman?  Even Willy's name seems to be a gauntlet thrown down in the face of the critics.  Where traditional tragedy deals with the high born, the fall of royalty, Arthur Miller quite consciously structures his drama around the fall of a lowly man, a two-bit salesman.  But the answer to the question, as is so often the case, is all in how you ask it.

You see, if the question is, can the life and death of a salesman be tragic?, then, of course, the answer is yes it can.  Nor does it require that he be a "great" man, but it does require that he be a good man.  The problem with trying to imbue this play with the aura of tragedy is not that Willy Loman is a little man, it's that he's not a good man : he's not much of a salesman; he cheats on his wife; he lives vicariously and unfairly through his eldest son, Buck, then makes excuses for that son's pathological misbehavior; he virtually ignores his second son; he's a real bastard to friends, neighbors and extended family; and so on.  Perhaps I missed something, but what quality is it in Willy that should make us regret his departure?

Arthur Miller, who is one of the last unrepentant Marxists, obviously sees Willy as a victim of capitalism.  Willy has bought into the American Dream and it has destroyed him; after a lifetime of toil in the system, he is being disposed of now that he is no longer productive.  The problem with this is that, much like Jay Gatsby (see Orrin's review), Willy has simply failed to understand the promise of that dream.  He believes that the recipe for success is to be "impressive" and "well-liked" and for your children to be identical to you in manner and aspiration.  Toward that end, he is all back-slapping, forced humor, pretense, and bluster and he demands the same of his poor benighted sons.  One doesn't really expect an intellectual to have any real understanding of economics (or much else for that matter) but Miller, in reducing capitalism to nothing more than a kind of cheap hucksterism, has followed in the footsteps of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the like, with equally obtuse results.

It is the genius of capitalism that chaff like the Loman's are ruthlessly winnowed.  Willy and his sons are so transparently phony it makes your flesh crawl just listening to them.  It's not as if Willy had been steadily advancing through the business world and then suddenly hit the wall.  He's spent forty years on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder for a reason.  That reason?, he has been judged inadequate, long before his age caught up to him.  This is a man who should have been a gym teacher and an athletics coach.  But not only has he deluded himself and ignored forty years of messages from the system, he also insists that his sons follow in his clearly misguided footsteps.

It is perhaps most instructive to compare Willy Loman to George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.   George is a truly talented young man who yearns to escape his hometown and put his skills to use elsewhere.  A series of external circumstances intervene and he never gets out, but he does build a vital local business, has a loving family and myriad friends.  Facing economic ruin, through no fault of his own, he despairs that he's worth more dead than alive, but realizes, with the help of a guardian angel, that he's helped hundreds of people and that his selflessness has had a profound effect on those around him.  He decides not to commit suicide and throngs of friends and customers turn up to help him out of his fix.  He's really had a wonderful life.

The narrative structure of Death of a Salesman is even similar, though Miller, perhaps unwisely, eschews the angel.  But as Willy looks back over his life, he sees, not a series of charitable acts, but a series of selfish acts.  When Willy finally does kill himself, there are hardly any mourners, and one has to ask whether even those who are there won't be better off with him gone.

This play is really a relic of the short, unhappy period in the 30's and 40's when American intellectuals had been seduced by Marxism.  It is too doctrinaire in it's assumptions about democracy and capitalism to actually say anything of lasting value.  You know how there are periodic attempts to ban the teaching of certain books in public schools?  Well, I had teachers who taught both this play and The Crucible, that equally morally flaccid piece of tripe and let me just say this : as a parent, I just don't want some nitwit teacher trying to explain this Stalinist propaganda to my kids and telling them that it offers some kind of profound analysis of our society.  If folks think it's important to expose kids to authors who critique capitalism and the American Dream, at least let them read The Great Gatsby, which, though wrong also, is at least great literature.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (F)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Arthur Miller (1915-)(kirjasto)
    -ESSAY : Tragedy and the Common Man : excerpt from the preface Mr. Miller prepared for Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller, The New York Times,  February 27, 1949)
    -ESSAY : Are you now or were you ever...? : The McCarthy era's anti-communist trials  destroyed lives and friendships. Arthur Miller describes the paranoia that swept America - and the moment his then wife Marilyn Monroe became a bargaining chip in his own prosecution (June 17, 2000, Books Unlimited UK)
    -ESSAY : THE FACE IN THE MIRROR: ANTI-SEMITISM THEN AND NOW  (Arthur Miller, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SELECTED LETTERS OF EUGENE O'NEILL Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (Arthur Miller, NY Times Book Review)
    -Arthur Miller Society
    -American Drama 6.1 : The Arthur Miller Issue
    -CurtainUp's Arthur Miller Page (The Internet Theater Magazine Of News and Reviews)
    -PAL: Chapter 8: American Drama - Arthur Miller (1915-)  (Perspectives in American Literature:  A Research and Reference Guide)
    -Arthur Miller (1915- )(Bohemian Ink)
    -Arthur Miller (spartacus)
    -Arthur Miller (playwright, born October 17, 1915, New York, New York) (Kennedy Center Honors)
    -PROFILE : HE WHO IS MOST ALONE (ROGER SHATTUCK, NY Times Book Review)
    -PROFILE :  Miller's testament  : As two Arthur Miller plays open in London, he tells Benedict Nightingale why they are as relevant today as ever  (London Times)
    -ESSAY : Attention Must Not Be Paid : Please don't make me see Death of a Salesman again (Jacob Weisberg, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Arthur Miller's McCarthy Fantasy:  The Crucible and the 1950's (FrontPageMagazine.com | July 26, 2000, Ronald Radosh)
    -ESSAY : Making Willy Loman :  Fifty years ago, Arthur Miller took American theatre into new territory. A look at his personal notebook reveals how he did it. (John Lahr, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY : The Expressionistic Devices in Death of a Salesman (Barbara Lounsberry)
    -ESSAY : Conceptualizing Death of a Salesman as an American Play (Susan Harris Smith)
    -ESSAY : Arthur Miller and Death of a Salesman: Society Re-Examined Through A Probing Eye (Mike Harris,  Composed December 8, 1992)
    -ESSAY : The Significance of a Line From Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman  (Neelum Raza, Junior)
    -ESSAY : The Twisted Hope of Arthur Miller's Tragedies  (Elizabeth Buckingham, International Baccalaureate Extended Essay, George Mason High School, Falls Church, Virginia)
    -ESSAY : The Witches of Arthur Miller (Midge Decter, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Fact & Fiction  (or Picky, Picky, Picky...) (Margo Burns)
    -ESSAY : DUBIOUS AMERICAN IDEAL:    GENDER AND HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE IN THE CRUCIBLE
    -ESSAY : Kazan and Miller : Long, Bitter Debate From the '50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics (Richard Bernstein, New York Times, May 3, 1988]
    -ESSAY : IF WILLY LOMAN READ BOOKS, HE'D HAVE READ THESE  (PETER BAIDA, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : excerpt from the preface of Leonard Moss' Arthur Miller
    -Death of a Salesman (Eugene O'Neill Theater) Must visit site!
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Death of a Salesman (Selena Ward, Spark Notes)
    -Student Guide : Death of a Salesman (Written and Designed by David Biele, Arts in Education Consultant, Eugene O'Neill Theater)
    -Arthur Miller (1915- ) Death of a Salesman : Study Questions (Creighton.edu)
    -STUDY CONSIDERATIONS: Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
    -CLASSROOM MATERIALS : The American Dream and Experience in Literature  (Carol Altieri, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute)
    -CONCORDANCE : ISU Play Concordances: Death of a Salesman
    -ARCHIVES : "arthur miller", play (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of ''SALESMAN'' IN BEIJING By Arthur Miller  (Norris Houghton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of TIMEBENDS: A Life. By Arthur Miller (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -AWARDS : Clinton Confers Awards (National Medal of Arts) On 18 Cultural Figures (KAREN DE WITT, NY Times)
 

FILMS:
    -REVIEW : of The Crucible Miller's Crossing : The Crucible is not great drama, but it is stirring melodrama (David Edelstein, Slate)

GENERAL:
    -ESSAY : Blacklist and Backstory : Hollywood's unexpected embrace of Elia Kazan. (Jacob Weisberg, Slate)
    -ESSAY :  long, Bitter Debate From the 50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of  ELIA KAZAN A Life. By Elia Kazan (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : AMERICAN-JEWISH WRTIERS: ON EDGE ONCE MORE (Ted Solotaroff, NY Times Book Review)

Comments:

If you're going to insult the play, at least get the characters right. The eldest son is Biff not Buck.

- Katie

- May-18-2006, 03:03

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I disagree entirely with your view that either Death of a Salesman or The Crucible is a “morally flaccid piece of tripe.” Let us take into consideration here the context in which either play was written; the former after the effects of the Wall Street Crash leaving Miller unable to attend university for financial reasons, and the latter as a reaction to the “witch-hunt” of McCarthyism. By no means was Arthur Miller a communist; posing a social critique of the American capitalist system does not automatically render someone a communist, and to suggest this is incredibly naïve. In fact, your own staunch belief that to criticise your beloved American Dream and so-called liberal democracy is “wrong” is frighteningly reminiscent of Willy Loman himself. The point of Willy Loman’s character is not that he is a pathetic outcast in an otherwise perfect system, a deluded individual who interpreted the Great American Dream mistakenly, but that he is the epitome of every fool seduced by such notions as “the only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.” Willy is the archetypal lower-middle class American man; there is nothing extraordinary in his actions, and certainly nothing limitlessly virtuous, but neither anything deserving of the lonely suicide that he procures. Your criticism is built upon his fallibility; his “series of selfish acts”; but many of these condemnations are invalid because they stem from Willy’s originally proud fathering. Whether his influence over his children backfires later in the play due to Biff’s discovery of his affair with The Woman is irrelevant; Willy was once Biff and Happy’s hero, and his poignant longing for the idyllic days of their youth, where he reminisces about “the ruddiness of [Biff’s] cheeks” and “always some good news round the corner”, portrays how much Willy has invested in his sons. It is indeed this investment which causes him to commit suicide, or, as Ben describes it, commit himself to “a twenty thousand dollar proposition.” If you are such a steadfast advocate of the ruthless capitalist system of which Willy Loman was a victim, surely you have no qualms with this play as you would agree entirely that, as Willy himself states, he was “worth more dead than alive.” Willy’s suicide would then make complete sense to you; as the suicides following the Wall Street Crash of the 1920s would also doubtless have. His failure as a salesman, by default, has made him a failure at life. Why, then, is Willy’s death so incomprehensible to his wife Linda? Linda is influenced by many of the capitalist ideals; whilst she does not pursue them to the extent that Willy does, she certainly expresses views compatible with his ideology throughout the course of the play. However, she is left unable to cry in the Requiem, movingly telling her husband’s grave: “I search and I search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy.” Linda does not and can not believe that Willy would sacrifice his life and her love for him for the sake of money; she is a capitalist, but not to an extreme. It should also be considered that by no means are those pursuing the American Dream continuously portrayed as equally delusional and abandoned as Willy. Ben, the pioneering capitalist, is a perpetual reminder of the benefits of the system, described by Willy as “success incarnate.” Charley, the “laconic, immovable” neighbour whose son becomes a highly-accomplished lawyer, embodies the quietly hard-working man who earns what he deserves. However, Miller makes the point that for every Charley, Ben or Howard there is a Willy Loman, and, in Linda’s words, “attention must finally be paid to such a man.” Arthur Miller himself denied that Death of a Salesman was an attack on capitalism; instead, he criticised the widespread American view of the time that “a man can touch the stars by standing on top of a refrigerator.” To demand or encourage reform of a system which leaves the Willy Lomans of the world to die for materialism is not a crime; it is a benefit to society. Is Howard Wagner’s heartless dismissal of Willy, who worked for his firm before he was even born, in the words “you gotta admit, business is business”, immoral? Is Willy’s poignant attempt at planting seeds before he commits suicide, in order to leave something substantial behind which will outlive him, tragic? Perhaps you would decide not. However, it is undeniable that Willy perfectly summarises the American Dream when he says: “A man can’t go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has got to add up to something.” This is the philosophy by which Willy Loman lives, and which subsequently leads to his demise. Willy crumbles under the pressure to “add up to something”, beaten down by an unforgiving system with no loyalties. He often reminisces of a day when “you sold your personality first, and your product later”; leading the reader to question whatever happened to a sense of spirituality or intrinsic human worth in a regime where even the essence of your person is there to be sold. Perhaps Charley condenses the play best in his description of the salesman in the Requiem: “He don’t put a bolt to a nut…or give you medicine. He’s a man…riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back - that’s an earthquake.” The ironic futility of the salesman is accurately portrayed here; while pandering to a culture of luxuries and superfluity, a salesman in fact contributes little, if anything, to humanity; yet the salesmen of America were and remain their most important figures. The Wall Street Crash is a realistic testament to this view. Perhaps you are unwilling to recognise that Willy Loman exists everywhere. Consider that not only was Death of a Salesman hugely successful in the US, but also enjoyed a great reception in communist China. It seems that the characters are in fact universally recognisable, whether in a system that preaches equality to the detriment of individuality or competition in the same way. In emphasising the flaws in any sort of regime, an author seeks to promote improvement rather than needless destruction; American capitalism, like any other government, can and will be criticised. For an American capitalist to disregard Arthur Miller’s literature in favour of his country’s gormless and frankly chilling Pledge of Allegiance is like a pro-war campaigner declaring Jessie Pope’s poetry superior to that of Wilfred Owen: foolish, naïve, and ultimately laughable.

- Holly

- May-17-2006, 15:43

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im also studying the DOAS as an AS level and i agree with the assumption that Willy is stupid to be so infatuated by the american dream

- craig webb

- Apr-27-2006, 10:12

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Dont get me wrong i do realise that the play is written by a great author, but i had to study it and do a coursework around D.O.A.S. i dont get it and i think Willy was stupid to follow the american dream becasue it does not excist only in fictional stories.

- Boshra

- Jan-04-2006, 06:42

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ano:

Miller was a Marxist--his message was not that being a good father is more important than economics. However, you're right; it is more important, which is why the Millers of the world failed.

- oj

- Oct-18-2005, 17:05

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the point of the play is not to sympathize with Willy Loman, it is to sympathize with the people that love him. Willy is one that people pity, because of all the lies that he makes himself believe. He is a great father and always loved his boys.

- ano

- Oct-18-2005, 14:44

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Rin:

Yopu make one excellent point there. The point of the play, which is nothing but Soviet agitprop, is that Miller believed that Loman was a failure "due to the limitations society places on him." That idea of man as victim of American social forces is why the Left loves the play and sensible people recognize it as garbage.

- oj

- Sep-18-2005, 07:48

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Here's what I'm thinking: if you can't even manage to know that the eldest son's name is Biff, not Buck, how can we expect an intelligent review on the true value of the book?

Most of what I'm saying has bee said already, but I'll reiterate a bit for you, since apparently it takes more than one read-through for the message to penetrate. DoS is not a play about the "goodness of humanity",nor does it give a shining, unblemished image of life. It's a play about the reality of life and the cruelty of negligence and disappointment. Willy Lowman is to be pitied and, more importantly, NOTED, because he embodies the other side of man: the unsuccessful, the subservient, the down-trodden. Like everyone, he had a dream, but due to the limitations society places on him, he cannot achieve said dream, and thus falls into disgrace and decline. He is not perfect, and he does not truly appreciate his family. Without Linda to give him support, and without his children to bring him hope, Willy has nothing, but still he is the nuclear of the family and they rally around him and looks up to him as a rolemodel. So his downfall is doubly tragic because of his family's dependence upon him. His flaws blemish him, true, but they do not blight him. Despite the lying, the cheating, and the destructive pride, Willy Lowman is still a good man, and deserves to be recognized as one.

That was rather long for someone setting out to only make a short comment, so I'll stop here. But for everyone who has read this page: don't let someone else's opinion prevent you from finding your own. You might regret it otherwise.

- Rin

- Sep-18-2005, 02:26

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nate:

Marxism didn't work. Miller backed the wrong horse.

- oj

- Sep-08-2005, 22:34

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wow, you guys must not understand anything about mid-century american literature if you can't understand this play. i suggest you start by reading moderistic texts dating back to 1890 or so and gradually work your way up to the mid 20th century and maybe you'll understand not only the progression of literature but the genius of arthur miller.

- nate

- Sep-08-2005, 22:24

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Stalinism is Humanism!

- oj

- Jun-13-2005, 08:18

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Talking about doctrinaire... While a critique of capitalism underlies much of Miller's work, a critique played out through engagement with those characters who occupy the margins of society, it is disappointing that your narrow view of the play confines you to such a misrably pedantic appreciation of Miller's work. While Miller was undoutedly a leftist, he was also thoroughly a humanist, begging the question to his audience: why should a person, any person, regardless of their private and public failings, their moral viscitudes, their constitutional flaws be left to die in such a way, to suffer neglect and contempt, and to be abandonned by the societies in which they live. In an age in America and elsewhere of privatisation, cuts to social security and record levels of inequality both within and between countries, the question rings out as stentoriously as ever, hardly the product of temporal annomaly. Miller does not explictly reject capitalism and its by-products, indeed Charlie and Bernard provide examples of health, but he does ask us to consider the proposition of justice in an unjust world.

Moreover, the play is hardly limited to such debates. The characters are brilliantly constructed, complicated and accessible, the inter-generational battle is among the finest ever put on stage and the dialogue is sharp and witty. Shame you choose to see it through such an ideologically clouded lens.

-

- Jun-13-2005, 07:46

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Outstanding!!! You hit the nail on the head about this marxist piece of over-dramatic crap!

- Bryan

- Apr-28-2004, 23:40

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"If folks think it's important to expose kids to authors who critique capitalism and the American Dream..."

I've read through a few of your reviews now and think that this line kind of says it all. Part of me thinks that you can't be quite real, and that you're really a clever black woman trying to play with our heads, but the other part of me is really disturbed by your complete lack of perception and your unwillingness to admit that ANYTHING that critiques your white male existence can be worthwhile.

I, for one, am glad that I was made to read those books because otherwise I might not have the ability to see through your misguided waffle.

As for 'Death of a Salesman', it certainly wasn't Miller's best play, in my opinion, but I think you missed the point entirely. I would take the time out to explain it to you here, but since you obviously enjoyed it so much the first time round, maybe you should go back to it and try again......

- Faye

- Jun-03-2003, 09:46

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