|Written by Arthur Miller|
Original language English
Playwright Arthur Miller
Awards Pulitzer Prize for Drama
|Date premiered February 10, 1949|
First performance 10 February 1949
|Place premiered Morosco Theatre
New York City|
Subject The waning days of a failing salesman
Setting Late 1940s; Willy Loman's house; New York City and Barnaby River; Boston
Characters Willy Loman, Biff Loman, Linda Loman, Happy Loman
Similar Arthur Miller plays, Tragedies, Other plays
Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play written by American playwright Arthur Miller. It was the recipient of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. The play premiered on Broadway in February 1949, running for 742 performances, and has been revived on Broadway four times, winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
Willy Loman returns home exhausted after a cancelled business trip. Worried over Willy's state of mind and recent car accident, his wife Linda suggests that he ask his boss Howard Wagner to allow him to work in his home city so he will not have to travel. Willy complains to Linda that their son, Biff, has yet to make good on his life. Despite Biff's promising showing as an athlete in high school, he flunked senior-year math and never went to college.
Biff and his brother Happy, who is temporarily staying with Willy and Linda after Biff's unexpected return from the West, reminisce about their childhood together. They discuss their father's mental degeneration, which they have witnessed in the form of his constant indecisiveness and daydreaming about the boys' high school years. Willy walks in, angry that the two boys have never amounted to anything. In an effort to pacify their father, Biff and Happy tell their father that Biff plans to make a business proposition the next day.
The next day, Willy goes to ask his boss, Howard, for a job in town while Biff goes to make a business proposition, but both fail. Willy gets angry and ends up getting fired when the boss tells him he needs a rest and can no longer represent the company. Biff waits hours to see a former employer who does not remember him and turns him down. Biff impulsively steals a fountain pen. Willy then goes to the office of his neighbor Charley, where he runs into Charley's son Bernard (now a successful lawyer); Bernard tells him that Biff originally wanted to do well in summer school, but something happened in Boston when Biff went to visit his father that changed his mind. Charley gives the now-unemployed Willy money to pay his life-insurance premium; Willy shocks Charley by remarking that ultimately, a man is "worth more dead than alive."
Happy, Biff, and Willy meet for dinner at a restaurant, but Willy refuses to hear bad news from Biff. Happy tries to get Biff to lie to their father. Biff tries to tell him what happened as Willy gets angry and slips into a flashback of what happened in Boston the day Biff came to see him. Willy had been having an affair with a receptionist on one of his sales trips when Biff unexpectedly arrived at Willy's hotel room. A shocked Biff angrily confronted his father, calling him a liar and a fraud. From that moment, Biff's views of his father changed and set Biff adrift.
Biff leaves the restaurant in frustration, followed by Happy and two girls that Happy has picked up. They leave a confused and upset Willy behind in the restaurant. When they later return home, their mother angrily confronts them for abandoning their father while Willy remains outside, talking to himself. Biff tries unsuccessfully to reconcile with Willy, but the discussion quickly escalates into another argument. Biff conveys plainly to his father that he is not meant for anything great, insisting that both of them are simply ordinary men meant to lead ordinary lives. The feud reaches an apparent climax with Biff hugging Willy and crying as he tries to get Willy to let go of the unrealistic expectations. Rather than listen to what Biff actually says, Willy appears to believe his son has forgiven him and will follow in his footsteps, and after Linda goes upstairs to bed, (despite her urging him to follow her), lapses one final time into a hallucination, thinking he sees his long-dead brother Ben, whom Willy idolized. In Willy's mind, Ben approves of the scheme Willy has dreamed up to kill himself in order to give Biff his insurance policy money. Willy exits the house. Biff and Linda cry out in despair as the sound of Willy's car blares up and fades out.
The final scene takes place at Willy's funeral, which is attended only by his family, Bernard, and Charley. The ambiguities at the funeral of mixed and unaddressed emotions persist, particularly over whether Willy's choices or circumstances were obsolete. At the funeral Biff retains his belief that he does not want to become a businessman like his father. Happy, on the other hand, chooses to follow in his father's footsteps, while Linda laments her husband's decision just before her final payment on the house...
"...and there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear, Willy....we're free...we're free..."
Reality and Illusion
Death of a Salesman uses flashbacks to present Willy’s memory during the reality. The illusion not only “suggests the past, but also presents the lost pastoral life.” Willy has dreamed of success his whole life and makes up lies about his and Biff’s success. The more he indulges in the illusion, the harder it is for him to face reality. Biff is the only one who realizes that the whole family lived in the lies and tries to face the truth.
The American Dream
The American Dream is the theme of the play, but everyone in the play has their own way to describe their American Dreams.
Willy Loman dreams of being a successful salesman like Dave Singleman, somebody who has both wealth and freedom. Willy believes that the key to success is being well-liked, and his frequent flashbacks show that he measures happiness in terms of wealth and popularity. One analyst of the play writes: “Society tries to teach that if people are rich and well-liked, they will be happy. Because of this, Willy thought that money would make him happy. He never bothered to try to be happy with what he had …”. Willy also believes that to attain success, one must have a good personality. According to another analyst, “He believes that salesmanship is based on ‘sterling traits of character’ and ‘a pleasing personality.’ But Willy does not have the requisite sterling traits of character; people simply do not like him as much as he thinks is necessary for success.”
Ben represents the ideal of American Dream. He thinks that the American Dream is to catch opportunity, to conquer nature, and to gain a fortune. He says “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. (He laughs.) And by God I was rich.” Ben symbolizes another kind of successful American Dreams for Willy.
After seeing his father’s real identity, Biff does not follow his father’s “dream” because he knows that, as two analysts put it, “Willy does see his future but in a blind way. Meaning that he can and cannot see at the same time, since his way of seeing or visualizing the future is completely wrong.” Biff has a dream to get outside, to farm, and work hard with his own hands, but his father prevents him from pursuing his dream. Biff realizes his father’s dream is “wrong” during his father's funeral.
Bernard and Charley
One thing that is apparent from the Death of a Salesman is the hard work and dedication of Charley and Bernard. Willy criticizes Charley and Bernard throughout the play, but it is not because he hates them. Rather, it's argued that he's jealous of the successes they've enjoyed, which is outside his standards. The models of business success provided in the play all argue against Willy’s "personality theory." One is Charley, Willy’s neighbor and apparently only friend. Charley has no time for Willy’s theories of business, but he provides for his family and is in a position to offer Willy a do-nothing job to keep him bringing home a salary. (Bloom 51)
In the United States
Death of a Salesman first opened on February 10, 1949, to great success. Drama critic John Gassner wrote that “the ecstatic reception accorded Death of Salesman has been reverberating for some time wherever there is an ear for theatre, and it is undoubtedly the best American play since A Streetcar Named Desire.”
In the United Kingdom
The play reached London on July 28, 1949. London responses were mixed, but mostly favorable. The Times criticized it, saying that “the strongest play of New York theatrical season should be transferred to London in the deadest week of the year.” However, the public understanding of the ideology of the play was different from that in America. Many people, such as Eric Keown, think Death of Salesman as "a potential tragedy deflected from its true course by Marxist sympathies."
The play was hailed as “the most important and successful night” in Hebbel-Theater in Berlin. It was said that “it was impossible to get the audience to leave the theatre” at the end of the performance. The Berlin production was more successful than New York, possibly due to better interpretation.
Compared to Tennessee Williams and Beckett, Arthur Miller and his Death of Salesman were less influential. Rajinder Paul said that “Death of Salesman has only an indirect influence on Indian theatre practitions.” However, it was translated and produced in Bengali as 'Pheriwalar Mrityu' by the theater group Nandikar.
Death of a Salesman was welcomed in China. There, Arthur Miller directed the play himself. As Miller stated, “It depends on the father and the mother and the children. That’s what it’s about. The salesman part is what he does to stay alive. But he could be a peasant, he could be, whatever.” Here, the play focuses on the family relationship. It is easier for the Chinese public to understand the relationship between father and son because “One thing about the play that is very Chinese is the way Willy tries to make his sons successful." The Chinese father always wants his sons to be ‘dragons.’
The original Broadway production was produced by Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried. The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, closing on November 18, 1950, after 742 performances. The play starred Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, Mildred Dunnock as Linda, Arthur Kennedy as Biff, Howard Smith as Charley and Cameron Mitchell as Happy. Albert Dekker and Gene Lockhart later played Willy Loman during the original Broadway run. It won the Tony Award for Best Play, Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Arthur Kennedy), Best Scenic Design (Jo Mielziner), Producer (Dramatic), Author (Arthur Miller), and Director (Elia Kazan), as well as the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Jayne Mansfield performed in a production of the play in Dallas, Texas, in October 1953. Her performance in the play attracted Paramount Pictures to hire her for the studio's film productions.
The play has been revived on Broadway four times:
It was also part of the inaugural season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1963.
Christopher Lloyd portrayed Willy Loman in a 2010 production by the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont, which toured several New England venues.
Antony Sher played Willy Loman in the first Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play directed by Gregory Doran in Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring of 2015, with Harriet Walter as Linda Loman. This production transferred to London's West End, at the Noel Coward Theatre for ten weeks in the summer of 2015. This production was part of the centenary celebrations for playwright Arthur Miller.
Film and television adaptations
Awards and nominations
2012 Broadway revival