William "Willy" Loman: The salesman. He is 63 years old and very unstable, insecure, and self-deluded. Willy tends to re-imagine events from the past as if they are real. He vacillates between different perceptions of his life. Willy seems childlike and relies on others for support. His first name, Willy, reflects this childlike aspect as well as sounding like the question "Will he?" His last name gives the feel of Willy's being a "low man," someone low on the social ladder and unlikely to succeed; however, this popular interpretation of his last name was dismissed by Miller.
Linda Loman: Willy's loyal and loving wife. Linda is passively supportive and docile when Willy talks unrealistically about hopes for the future, although she seems to have a good knowledge of what is really going on. She chides her sons, particularly Biff, for not helping Willy more, and supports Willy lovingly even though Willy sometimes treats her poorly, ignoring her opinions over those of others. She is the first to realize that Willy is contemplating suicide at the beginning of the play, and urges Biff to make something of himself, while expecting Happy to help Biff do so.
Biff Loman: Willy's older son. Biff was a football star with lots of potential in high school, but failed math his senior year and dropped out of summer school when he saw Willy with another woman while visiting him in Boston. He wavers between going home to try to fulfill Willy's dream for him as a businessman or ignoring his father by going out West to be a farmhand where he is happiest. He likes being outdoors and working with his hands, yet wants to do something worthwhile so Willy will be proud. Biff steals because he wants evidence of success, even if it is false evidence, but overall Biff remains a realist and informs Willy that he is just a normal guy and will not be a great man.
Harold "Happy" Loman: Willy's younger son. He's lived in the shadow of his older brother Biff most of his life and seems to be almost ignored, but he still tries to be supportive towards his family. He has a restless lifestyle as a womanizer and dreams of moving beyond his current job as an assistant to the assistant buyer at the local store, but is willing to cheat a little in order to do so, by taking bribes. He is always looking for approval from his parents, but rarely gets any, and he even goes as far as to make things up just for attention, such as telling his parents he is going to get married. He tries often to keep his family's perceptions of each other positive or "happy" by defending each of them during their many arguments, but still has the most turbulent relationship with Linda, who looks down on him for his lifestyle and apparent cheapness, despite his giving them money.
Charley: Willy's somewhat wise-cracking yet kind and understanding neighbor. He pities Willy and frequently lends him money and comes over to play cards with him, although Willy often treats him poorly. Willy is jealous of him because his son is more successful than Willy's. Charley offers Willy a job many times during visits to his office, yet Willy declines every time, even after he loses his job as a salesman.
Bernard: Charley's son. In Willy's flashbacks, he is a nerd, and Willy forces him to give Biff test answers. He worships Biff and does anything for him. Later, he is a very successful lawyer, married, and expecting a second son ‒ the same successes that Willy wants for his sons, in particular Biff. Bernard makes Willy contemplate where he has gone wrong as a father.
Uncle Ben: Willy's older brother who became a diamond tycoon after a detour to Africa. He is dead, but Willy frequently speaks to him in his hallucinations of the past. Ben frequently boasts, "when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich." He is Willy's role model, although he is much older and has no real relationship with Willy, preferring to assert his superiority over his younger brother. He represents Willy's idea of the American Dream success story, and is shown coming by the Lomans' house while on business trips to share stories.
The Woman: A woman, whom Willy calls "Miss Francis," with whom Willy cheated on Linda.
Howard Wagner: Willy's boss. He was named by Willy, but sees Willy as a liability for the company and fires him, ignoring all the years that Willy has given to the company. Howard is extremely proud of his wealth, which is manifested in his new wire recorder, and of his family.
Jenny: Charley's secretary.
Stanley: A waiter at the restaurant who seems to be friends or acquainted with Happy.
Miss Forsythe: A girl whom Happy picks up at the restaurant. She is very pretty and claims she was on several magazine covers. Happy lies to her, making himself and Biff look like they are important and successful. (Happy claims that he attended West Point and that Biff is a star football player.)
Letta: Miss Forsythe's friend.
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..."
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 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.
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)
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.”
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:June 26, 1975, at the Circle in the Square Theatre, running for 71 performances. George C. Scott starred as Willy.
March 29, 1984, at the Broadhurst Theatre, running for 97 performances. Dustin Hoffman played Willy. In a return engagement, this production re-opened on September 14, 1984, and ran for 88 performances. The production won the Tony Award for Best Revival and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival.
February 10, 1999, at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, running for 274 performances, with Brian Dennehy as Willy. The production won the Tony Award for: Best Revival of a Play; Best Actor in Play; Best Featured Actress in a Play (Elizabeth Franz); Best Direction of a Play (Robert Falls). This production was filmed.
February 13, 2012, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, in a limited run of 16 weeks. Directed by Mike Nichols, Philip Seymour Hoffman played Willy, Andrew Garfield played Biff, and Linda Emond played Linda.
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.1951: Adapted by Stanley Roberts and directed by László Benedek who won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Fredric March), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Kevin McCarthy), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mildred Dunnock), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.
1960: In USSR (1960) directed by Theodore Wolfovitch as "You can't cross the bridge".
1961: En Handelsresandes död starring Kolbjörn Knudsen and directed by Hans Abramson (in Swedish)
1968: Der Tod eines Handlungsreisenden starring Heinz Rühmann and directed by Gerhard Klingenberg
1966 (CBS): Starring Lee J. Cobb, Gene Wilder, Mildred Dunnock, James Farentino, Karen Steele and George Segal and directed by Alex Segal.
1966 (BBC): Starring Rod Steiger, Betsy Blair, Tony Bill, Brian Davies and Joss Ackland and directed by Alan Cooke.
1985: Starring Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid, John Malkovich, Stephen Lang and Charles Durning and directed by Volker Schlöndorff.
1996: Starring Warren Mitchell, Rosemary Harris, Iain Glen and Owen Teale and directed by David Thacker.
2000: Starring Brian Dennehy, Elizabeth Franz, Ron Eldard, Ted Koch, Howard Witt and Richard Thompson and directed by Kirk Browning.
2016: Play within a film acts as counterpoint to the main plot. Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, and directed by Asghar Farhadi.
New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play (win)
Pulitzer Prize for Drama (win)
Tony Award for Best Play (win)
Tony Award, Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic)- Arthur Kennedy (win)
Tony Award, Best Scenic Design — Jo Mielziner (win)
Tony Award Author — Arthur Miller (win)
Tony Award Best Director — Elia Kazan (win)
1975 Broadway revival
Tony Award Best Actor in Play — George C. Scott (nominee)
1979 West End revival
Olivier Award Director of the Year — Michael Rudman (nominee)
Olivier Award Actor of the Year in a Revival — Warren Mitchell (win)
Olivier Award Actor of the Year in a Supporting Role — Stephen Greif (nominee)
Olivier Award Actress of the Year in a Supporting Role — Doreen Mantle (win)
Evening Standard Theatre Awards Best Actor — Warren Mitchell (win)
1984 Broadway revival
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival (win)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actor in a Play — Dustin Hoffman (win)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play — John Malkovich (win); David Huddleston (nominee)
Tony Award for Best Reproduction (win)
1999 Broadway revival
Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play (win)
Tony Award Best Actor in Play — Brian Dennehy (win)
Tony Award Best Featured Actor in a Play — Kevin Anderson (nominee); Howard Witt (nominee)
Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Play — Elizabeth Franz (win)
Tony Award Best Direction of a Play — Robert Falls (win)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play (win)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actor in a Play — Brian Dennehy (win)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress in a Play — Elizabeth Franz (nominee)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play — Kevin Anderson (win); Howard Witt (nominee)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director of a Play — Robert Falls (nominee)
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Music in a Play — Incidental music by Richard Woodbury (nominee)
2012 Broadway revivalTony Award for Best Revival of a Play (win)
Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play — Mike Nichols (win)
Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play — Philip Seymour Hoffman (nominee)
Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play — Andrew Garfield (nominee)
Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play — Linda Emond (nominee)
Tony Award for Best Lighting Design of a Play — Brian MacDevitt (nominee)
Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play — Scott Lehrer (nominee)
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play — Philip Seymour Hoffman (nominee)
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play (nominee)
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play — Mike Nichols (win)
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design — Brian MacDevitt (win)