‘Death of a Salesman’ is a play that has come to redefine the concept of modern tragedy, whilst simultaneously enrapturing audiences around the globe. A challenge to Philip Sydney’s judgement that ‘tragedy concerneth a high fellow’i, ‘Death of a Salesman’ is the tragedy of the common man, tragedy of Willy low man. ‘One of the major texts in our time’ii, ‘Death of a Salesman’ does not follow the traditional Aristotelian definition of a tragedy. This has ignited passionate debate among critics as to whether it is a tragedy at all, whilst ensuring its position and popularity as the epitome of what has been dubbed ‘modern tragedy’.
It is not the fall of a great man through a predestined flaw (hamartia), and it has been argued that Willy even lacks the self-knowledge to be a true tragic hero. Willy is a man of ‘massive dreams’, not high stature, although Biff calls him a ‘prince’, drawing comparison with Hamlet. His self-knowledge is present, countering those who claim to the contrary.
It is clearly contained in the lines ‘I’m fat. I’m very – foolish’ (of himself) and ‘I’m always in a race with the junk yard’ (of payment of manufactured goods). His flaw lies in his determination to see material wealth as the only path to success.
He is swallowed by ‘the corporate dream machine’iii. The idea of the common man being belittled in this way is able to connect with audiences to an even greater extent now, as capitalism and consumerism advance across the globe, than it could 50 or so years ago.
‘A critique of capitalism’s penchant for chewing people up and spitting them out’iv, the play seems ‘vacuum packed’ v and prescient in its increased relevance in today’s society of ‘downsizing corporations’vi, as Arthur Miller called them, and its portrayal of stress caused by overwork.
It remains timeless by its limited reference to outside events, notably the two World Wars and the depression. As ‘a challenge to the American dream’vii, Willy’s failure in ‘the land of opportunity’viii leads the play to connect well with American audiences who may have encountered the same experience. Conversely, the ability of the common man (Willy) to take on the role of hero (in a tragic sense) can be seen as a demonstration that those worth nothing can achieve anything, and therefore a realisation of the dream.
Despite its criticism of seemingly a solely American experience, the play can still be exported abroad due to the different ways other societies interpret it. In the UK it can almost take on the same significance due to export of American culture. In Arctic circle Norway (as the Daily Telegraph states) it is ‘a saga’ix that ‘goes on forever’x, whilst in China it arouses ‘contempt about a person who is dealing in money’xi and bafflement over ‘romanticising of business’xii.
Perhaps the most important ingredient of the enduring popularity, aside from its ability to relate to the modern experience, is the sheer quality of Miller’s analysis of the psychology of failure and relationships within a family. This surpasses any attempt to define the popularity of the play as exclusively the product of its prophetic nature. As Linda says, Willy is ‘a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him’. It is this which makes audiences able to identify with him, even if he is a fool in bringing about his own ruin.
Meanwhile, Linda is a downtrodden wife, ‘she has developed an iron repression of her exception to Willy’s behaviour’. She is so inarticulate ‘in terms of her ability to handle’xiii Willy’s ‘cruelties’ that she is willing to accept his behaviour (note how she accepts Willy’s behaviour in the opening scene, despite his ‘casual irritation’. She is too inarticulate to argue). The victimised nature of these two characters ensures a strong connection with any audience experiencing similar difficulties.
The relationship of Willy and Biff, described by Arthur Miller as ‘a love story between a man and his son’xiv, is an important point of conflict within the play as Biff loses his idolization of Willy. Following Willy’s death, Biff is finally able to see beyond these ‘phony dreams’ to become self-assured, ‘I know who I am’. It is this which provides the audience with hope that Biff will succeed in a different way from Willy. It also provides a contrast with Happy who has learnt nothing from Willy’s death ‘Willy Loman… ad a good dream’. Biff has conquered his ‘self-loathing’xv.
This examination of relationships is an ‘almost operatic emotional sweep’ xviwhich provides many reference points with which the audience can identify with the characters. Critics have accused the Loman family of inarticulacy in declaration of their desperation. This is especially noticeable in Willy’s confrontation with Howard where he only makes one clear non-contradictory, non-euphemistic statement ‘a man is not a piece of fruit’.
This is unique in the play as the only time where Willy articulates himself fully. This can be seen as failure of ‘Death of a Salesman’ in clearly presenting the Loman’s thoughts on their situation. However, if the Lomans were able to vocalise their desperation any more clearly then they would not accept the situation with which they were presented. Their inarticulacy is realistic for the people they are, everyday people, low men. Willy would reject his ‘phony dreams’ and Linda would leave him.
The colloquial and basic language, which sometimes verges on the poetic (Linda’s ‘strangely rhythmic’xvii sentence ‘Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person’), is able to link with the common man, in the tragedy of the common man. The techniques of staging and presentation of time, which attempt to recreate ‘literally the process of Willy Loman’s way of mind’xviii, are an important feature of the play. They help to captivate the audience within the contradictions of a ‘martyr to a success-driven country’xix.
As Ben Brantley says ‘you experience Willy’s suffering without sociological distance’xx, the powerful effect of the staging could not be better encapsulated. The play’s ability to draw the audience inside Willy’s head (or ‘Inside His Head’ as Arthur Miller was to originally call the play) is created by the contrast of ‘realistic’, inarticulate dialogue, with a minimalist, expressionist stage set, where characters pass through walls, in the bare bones of Willy’s house. As Willy crosses from present to past in his flashbacks, there is no difference for the audience, as the set remains the same.
This draws attention to the words the actors say. Their very presence must communicate the change of scene/scenery. For this to come across correctly, the actor of Willy’s part must communicate his belief that he can manipulate the real world from ‘inside his head’. In essence, he is ‘living’ his own memories indistinguishably from the present. When performed forcibly, the audience is able to see the merging of two worlds within Willy’s mind. This is why only as a stage play, rather than film (where characters cannot pass through walls) can ‘Death of a Salesman’ be properly observed, hence its continued popularity the in the former format. Death of a Salesman’ is a play that has retained popularity for the past 54 years.
If my impression is correct, following my study of it, the play will continue to pull in audiences for another 54. It is incisive in its critique of the experience in ‘a capitalist system that promises unattainable glory’xxi, more so in recent times. It is a portrayal of a failing family striving to stay together, but most of all, it is the tragic death of a man, living in past and present but with no future, who values his worth more in monetary terms, than his person Truly, it is an ‘American classic’xxii.
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