Oedipus, Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Othello or Willy Loman. Must classic tragedy embrace just the Aristotelian "fall of princes," or may it also include the modern common man? Playwright Arthur Miller believes that the common man can be a center of dramatic interest, and he demonstrated this belief in Death of a Salesman, a tragedy about a very common common-man: a salesman from Brooklyn.
Winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for 1949, Death of a Salesman combines realism and surrealism in the story of a small man swallowed up in a world of sham and shoddy values. Willy Loman is bewildered, well-intentioned, and unsuccessful: "Suddenly I realize I'm going sixty miles an hour, and I don't remember the last five minutes."
His sons are upset by his peculiar behavior and his hallucinatory conversations with the figures from a happier past, and they worry about the effect on their compassionate mother, who loves her husband and recognizes that his actions stem from the brutal difference between fact and fancy.
This story of a common man, victimized by his own fake values and those of modern America, caught the imagination of theatre audiences immediately. Months prior to its premier Feb. 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway, the word was out and the public was storming the box office. This time the public was right. Critics acclaimed Death of a Salesman as "a great play of our day," and lavished upon it such accolades as "superb," "rich," and "memorable." John Chapman's review called it "a very fine work in the American Theatre, with script, staging, setting, and acting all in perfect combination." John Glassner proclaimed the play "one of the most powerful and moving plays of our time, representing a culmination of American playwrights' efforts to create a significant American drama." (Arthur Miller, incidentally, was barred from an after-opening-night supper held on the set. The waiters didn't recognize him.)
Death of a Salesman was forceful enough to warrant superlatives and the honors it received, but what a year on Broadway! The 1949 competition was fierce. Opening that season were The Madwoman of Challiot, Anne of a Thousand Days, Summer and Smoke, South Pacific, a revival of Private Lives, Light Up the Sky, and Kiss Me Kate. Lee J. Cobb was the original Willy Loman. Dustin Hoffman, long an admirer of the play, played the leading role in a greatly acclaimed production in 1984.
So, we must ask what is behind the honors. If this modern story is destined to challenge classic tragedy, or perhaps to take its place alongside, we must look behind the glitz and glitter to find a message.
If for instance, as Miller suggests in his autobiography, Timebends, the struggle in Death of a Salesman was simply between father and son for recognition and forgiveness, it would diminish in importance.
However, he continues, when the struggle extends itself out of the particular family circle and into the lives of each of us, it broaches the questions that trouble all of us: social status, social honor and recognition, success. When we are brought to feel what Willy Loman feels, the play expands its vision and moves from the specific toward the fate of man. We become Willy Loman, and his struggle becomes our struggle.
In an essay titled "The Family in Modern Drama," Miller expands this concept: "We are all part of one another, all responsible to one another. The responsibility originates on the simplest level, our immediate kin. But this vital attachment is germinal and with the maturing of the person extends beyond its initial source."
The family is pivotal, he suggests, but beyond the immediate family is the family of mankind. Connection with others, the need to feel others as a part of ourselves and ourselves as a part of them is an impulse native to all of us. We call people without this connectedness "sick." Yet we see this prime impulse constantly being impeded and crippled. Miller's work dramatizes and depicts the forces that induce these impediments.
"All plays we call great," he continues, "let alone all those we call serious, are ultimately involved with some aspect of a single problem: how may a man make of the outside world a home? How and in what ways must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome if he is to find safety, love, ease of soul, identity, and honor?"
Miller repeatedly searches in his writing for answers to these questions. In Situation Normal, Watson, a soldier training to be an officer is afraid his backwardness in mathematics may lead to his rejection for commission as an officer, which would seem to him like a betrayal of his company companions, to whom he has become deeply attached.
This expression of a bond among "brother" combatants in the army is echoed in All My Sons, the story of a manufacturer whose defective airplane parts cause the death of his son and other aviators in wartime. The "sinner" defends his malfeasance as being perpetrated on behalf of his family, and is brought to understand that to his son, Chris, there is indeed something bigger than the family: there is the family of mankind.
Proctor, in The Crucible, chooses to die rather than live and besmirch his "name," and in The Price, one son gives up opportunities which might have led to success equal to that of his brother, and the son has done this on behalf of a father who was hardly worth the sacrifice.
"What is the matter with you people?" asks a character in The Victor. "Nothing in the world you believe, nothing you respect. How can you live? You think that's the smart thing . . . that's so hard what you're doing. Let me give you a piece of advice. It's not that you can't believe nothing, that's not so hard, it's that you've still got to believe it. That's hard. And if you can't do that, my friend, you're a dead man."
Miller's work has variety but also an essential, overriding unity. Willy Loman speaks not of "success," so much as of being "well liked." He has given up a small inclination toward carpentry in order to become a salesman because it promises a brighter future of ease and affluence, and by turning away from himself he has become an utterly confused person. He dreams the American legend: the brother who walked into the jungle and came out of it rich. "William when I walked into the jungle I was 17. When I walked out I was 21. And . . . I was rich." Willy sees everything in this light: the good will of the boss, the business contact, glad-handing, being impressive. He can no longer recognize his own reality, or why he has failed. "Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it."
Thus he wreaks havoc on his own life and that of his family. Unaware of what warped his mind and behavior, he commits suicide in the conviction that a legacy of $20,000 is all that is needed to save his beloved but also damaged offspring all that is standing between them and success.
When Miller was asked in what way his plays were related to the events of his life, he replied that in a sense all his plays were autobiographical. He was born in Manhattan in 1915, middle class and Jewish. His grades were not high, and he apparently didn't read a serious book before he was seventeen. Finally gaining entrance to the University of Michigan, he wrote a play which won several small prizes, and he realized he could indeed become a playwright.
Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe from 1956 to 1961. He wrote about her in Timebends: "Comics on the whole are deeper, are somehow closer to the crud of life and suffer more than do the tragedians, who are at least accorded professional credit for seriousness as people.”
He also tells us in Timebends about Manny Newman, his uncle, who was a salesman. Manny greeted the Broadway opening of All My Sons with the information that "Buddy (Manny's son) is doing very well."
"I thought I knew what he was thinking," Miller writes, "that he had lost the contest in his mind between his sons and me. There in the lobby I still felt some of the boyhood need of his recognition. At the same time I knew that in reality he was not much more than a bragging and often vulgar little drummer. I had not the slightest idea of writing about a salesman then, but that was the genesis. I suppose, however, that if Willy Loman could be taken apart, five or six salesmen I have met would be found in him."
Miller has captured the tragedy of the American common man. He knows our lower middle class as few others do, and Willy Loman is his supreme character creation. Loman is a pathetic fool, but he is totally recognizable to laugh at, to commiserate with, or to deplore. At his funeral a friend points out, "Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."