When this American drama premiered in 1949, Death of a Salesman was an instant success and secured Arthur Miller's place as one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century. Considered both an attack on the ideals that had, for the last 160 years, constituted the American dream for prosperity and material wealth as well as a compelling portrayal of a man trapped by his past, Death of a Salesman manages the most delicate of balances. The play is an authentic and realistic portrayal of family in the middle of the twentieth century, but it's also a deeply symbolic, expressionistic drama.
Overview: Death of a Salesman
Miller wanted his set to be a two-story family house in which a working-class family, the Lomans, live. The father of the house, Willy Loman, is the salesman of the title: an aging, disgruntled man who finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that his life--a life in which he has done his best to get ahead by being "well liked"--is, in fact, a failure.
When the play begins his eldest son, Biff, is visiting home. Biff and Willy fight because Willy wants him to get a good job and, like him, get on. Linda, Willy's wife, confides in her two sons that recently she has noticed Willy speaking to himself. Then, we see this for ourselves when we enter into his fantasy world--the memories of the past crowd into Willy's mind. He remembers his cousin Ben who went off into the jungle and came out a rich man; he remembers Biff as a boy (when he had hopes of being a football star); and he remembers the day Biff visited him at work, only to find him in a hotel room with a woman.
Back in the present day, Willy's life slowly falls apart: he is sacked from the job he has been working at for years and Biff, who has been trying to get a job, realizes that he is entirely unsuited to work because he has believed in a fantasy life that his father sold him.
In the final moments of the play, Willy, who had previously attempted to commit suicide, wildly drives off in his car, crashes off a bridge, and dies. The final miniature act or "requiem" (as Miller calls it), is set at Willy's funeral. A minor character delivers a speech in which he suggests that the dreams that Willy had, though finally dangerous, had their own importance to Willy: "Nobody darst blame that man."
A Dream of a Life: Death of a Salesman
In Miller's opening stage directions he says that the stage design should do its best to give the impression that the events on stage are like a "dream." This direction is very much in keeping with Miller's central theme: the dream-like nature of Willy's life in particularly and everyday American life in general. Eschewing the naturalism that had gripped the American stage up to that point, Death of a Salesman allows us to follow Willy's mind in its wanderings, transporting us back into the past in an attempt to understand the life that he has led.
The more we see, the more we start to understand that Willy is more a product of a mass illusion, the belief that anyone can get ahead in American society as long as they try hard, are well liked, and are a success in business. In actuality, Willy and his family only just manage to get along, constantly living on, Miller's own words, "a smile and a shoeshine."
Despite the dramatic technique of letting the play drift away from the firm moorings of naturalism, Death of a Salesman is an excellent portrayal of a real American family, and Miller delves into his own past to create believable and likable characters. The central relationship between Willy and his wife Linda is both believable and touching in their inability to connect. Despite his betrayal of her in the past, Linda truly loves her husband and attempts to, even when he reaches his lowest point, give him some sense of dignity.
Death of a Salesman is a visceral and powerful play, and one that has had a hold on audiences since it was first shown on Broadway in the late 1940's. As well as being an indictment of the way that people lived at the time, it also includes a number of powerful universal themes that keep Willy Loman's tragedy fresh and believable.