This American drama was first premiered in 1949. It was an instant success and it also won Arthur Miller a place among one of the best American playwrights of the 20th century. It was a satirical attack on the Great American Dream of prosperity and material wealth and had also challenged the ideals of the past 160 years that constituted such dreams. This exemplary play by Arthur Miller is a modern masterpiece, in which the inherent conditions of human existence and a fierce battle to fight through it, is lived by the protagonist Willy Loman, that finally ends in a tragedy called, death.
Willy Loman is a disillusioned sixty three year old man who has trouble distinguishing between past and present, and reality and illusions. His illusory beliefs draw an iron curtain before his sensibilities and he refuses to see the reality of his abject conditions. His tragedy lies in the fierce determination to fight an impossible battle and to seek facile solutions to his severe economic problems.
In his relentless pursuit of an unrealistic dream Willy Loman submerges himself in a complete disengagement from reality that brings an end even more tragic than his life.
Being an irrepressible old man he never really evaluates or understands the false and incomplete values of a venal American society. He fails to understand the vacuous idea behind the ‘Great American Dream’ and his limitless hope. A similar theme had been portrayed in ‘The Great Gatsby’ (Fitzgerald) where Gatsby was corrupted by money and dishonesty, and the Great American Dream of happiness and individualism disintegrates into mere pursuit of wealth.
Although Gatsby had the power to turn his dream into reality, the character of Nick discovers that both Gatsby’s dream and the American dream is over. In the same way, Will’s persistent struggle against the forces of entropy in his life leads him to neurosis, and finally suicide. Theater is an imagined world, inhabited by imaginary characters, but tragedy strikes one and all, and the nature of tragedy is to hit our deepest consciousness and invade our sensibilities with its prolonged stay.
Robert A Martin says in his essay, “The Nature of Tragedy”: “What the performance of a play gives an audience is less a set of ideas, propositions or abstraction about life and how to live it than what Arthur Miller has called ‘ a felt experience’, the imaginative sharing and participation in the lives and actions of imaginary characters. ” In support of what Robert A Martin says, Willy Loman’s character pulls the audience along with its chain of tragedies and leaves one with a feeling of acute distress, but more than “a felt experience” it also gives one an insight into the inherent realities of human tragedies.
In “Death of a salesman” the audience watch the tragic collapse of a single individual and the tragedy of the entire family, right before their eyes. The audience leave the auditorium with a whole new set of lessons in life and as Martin says “how to live it. ” In his article Robert A Martin also elaborates on the vicarious influences of a tragedy, on the person, who watching it with a detached sense of belongingness. He says, “ Theatre is the art of the possible” and as we read the play we believe that Willy Loman’s tragedies are not unbelievable or fictitious although his character was an imagination of the playwright Arthur Miller.
As Aristotle said that Tragedy is something that evokes the emotions of pity and fear in the presence of an action of a certain magnitude. Willy Loman also falls into the trap of tragedy and as the nature of tragedy is, it brings about a fear in him. Willy tries to run away from that fear and refuses to accept his misfortunes and his failures. It mostly happens with dramatic experiences that our thoughts and emotions often correspond with those of the characters we watch in a play –we weep, smile and get moved by their performances. It continues to stimulate and engage us directly in our social, moral and political questions.
The audience too goes through an inveterate interchange of pity and fear inside his mind as he watches a human being go through a painful hell, which is in Miller’s view due to his own obduracy. “Death of a salesman” is not just a tale of tragedy that happens to a broken, exhausted man, but is also a caustic attack on the American Dream of achieving wealth and success with no regards to principals and values of life. Willy Loman became a household name after the play was released and became a profound example of a tragic life, bowed down by struggles to cope up with a capitalistic society.
Willy Loman’s tragedy does not lie just in his miserable economic condition, but also in his misplaced sense of pride. In the play he takes loans from his neighbor Charley to make both ends meet, but refuses to accept the offer of a better job from him. His warped sense of pride comes in the way of his chances to improve his conditions. His refusal to accept reality is a tragedy bigger than his dismal life, and it exasperates his son Biff with whom he had a troubled relationship. Willy refused to accept that his sons are also ‘failures’ such as him, and in order to make their lives better he falls into a trap of further hopelessness. A man’s descent to failure is horrendous to contemplate. Whatever line of work you are in, we are all salesmen, selling our products, our services, our selves”.
Says Will’s meighbor Charley , in a line that crystallizes the anxiety of uncountable men everywhere, not just in America: “ And when they start not smiling back. ” –employers, partners, customers- “ That’s an earthqauke. ” ( Kilnghoffer, Undying Salesman, 1999). Willy Loman suffered from a feverish and unrealistic hopefulness and guilt of having failed his sons, and also the refusal to accept certain facts of life.
The neurosis that set in him affected his life, and also him led to suicide. His death was perhaps a bigger tragedy than his life because it proved to be the final blow to the grief stricken family. Due to his persistent stubbornness he believed the notion that one is often “worth more dead than alive” (Miller, Pg76) and commits suicide, so that his family gets the insurance money and his sons lead a better life with that money, than he did when he was alive. Willy did not realize that insurance money is invalidated when a person commits suicide.
As Biff says at the graveyard, “ He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong. ” In this play tragedy is on two fronts. One is ‘literal’, when Willy dies after an unrelenting wrestle with his fate, and another is a ‘symbolical’ death, that was the death of the American Dream, or ridding of a false notion of perfection. Willy’s guilt, his idolization of his sons and his constantly haunting memory of his brother turns his life into a pitiful tragedy and he lives through it all with an immature sense of unreality.
In trying to project himself as an ideal father and salesman he plunges himself into an illusory world where he never really grew up. “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. 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 this is where I’m gonna win it for him. ” (Miller, Death of a Salesman, Act2) The misfortune of Willy was that he tried to retrieve his lost dignity and his family’s love and also a magnified image of himself as an ideal salesman and father, on the last day of his life, and loses all.
His complete disengagement from reality is what the tragedy is all about. It evokes the pity and fear that Aristotle spoke about in ‘Poetics’ (330 BC). The character of Willy Loman is befitting the concepts of Aristotle’s’ Tragedy. “True to life” (realistic), “consistency” (true to themselves): meaning, once a character’s motivation and personality are established these should continue throughout the play. “Necessary or probable”: meaning, characters must be logically constructed according to the law of ‘probability or necessity’ that govern the actions of the play.
Finally, “true to life” and yet more beautiful (idealized, ennobled). Death of a Salesman has that true to life aspect, depicting the fact that any middle class man with limited means, would get into the delusionary world of dreams and aspirations of more wealth and the terrifying darkness that lies coiled beneath such unrealism. Consistency of the portrayal is apparent in Loman’s relentless pursuit of an elusive life.
The necessary probability is the fact that such a dogged belief in illusionary world nearly always creates a graph of downward slide in a person’s life. True to life, is the condition of tension that is life and human existence. Death of a Salesman is a modern masterpiece that celebrates, as Chris Bigsby expressively states, “ the miracle of human life, in all its bewilderments, its betrayals, its denials, but finally and most significantly, its transcendent worth. ” (Poet, 723).