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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.


Grade: (F)


Arthur Miller Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Arthur Miller
    -ESSAY: The Crucible: the real witch hunt that inspired Arthur Miller’s play (Christopher Bigsby, June 12, 2023, The Conversation)
-REVIEW: of Arthur Miller: American Witness by John Lahr (Willard Spiegelman, Nov. 10, 2022, WSJ)
-REVIEW: of Arthur Miller (GARRETT EISLER, American Theatre)

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)
    -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 :  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 ( | 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 : Kazan and Miller : Long, Bitter Debate From the '50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics (Richard Bernstein, New York Times, May 3, 1988]
    -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 (
    -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)

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

    -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)