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On February 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre in New York, Death of a Salesman opened. It was immediately acclaimed as a perfect blend of script, setting, staging, and acting. The New Yorker called the play a mixture of "compassion, imagination, and hard technical competence not often found in our theater."
Death of a Salesman swept the award field in 1949, winning the Drama Critics' Circle award, the Tony, Theatre Club, and Front Page awards, as well as the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize. Road companies took it on tour. European productions in translations played to full houses. The printed edition was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and set a sales record for plays in book form. The movie rights were snapped up, and for months it was the most popular play for college and amateur productions. In fact, Salesman was a triumph that Miller has not been able to repeat - whatever the success or the true merit of his later work.
When you read this play, take special care to remember the difference between the work of a playwright and that of a novelist. Novelists may imagine their audience as an individual with book in band, but a playwright writes with a theater full of people in mind. Playwrights know that the script is just the blueprint from which actors, producers, stagehands, musicians, scenic designers, make-up artists, and costumers begin. You will need to use an extra measure of imagination to evaluate this play before you see the Goodman production.
Sidebars: How does writing a script differ from writing a novel? Do you think it is easier to write in one form than the other? Why or why not?
Death of a Salesman was a major success not only on the stage, but also in book form as well.
Try to bear this in mind as you read. Try to visualize the action on the stage. In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller uses a dramatic approach to the problem of presenting time (and its passage and meaning) onstage. Dramatists have used many devices to deal with the problem of the movement of time through the ages - from the classical Greek chorus simply telling the audience that time has passed, to minutely realistic aging of the characters through make-up.
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Death of a Salesman Characters
Willy Loman: The central character in the play. He has been employed for 36 years by the Wagner firm as a traveling salesman. Now, at the age of 63, he has been removed from salary and placed on straight commission, a sign that he is no longer as valuable to the company as he once was.
Linda Loman: Willy's wife. She is devoted to the welfare of her husband and has made many sacrifices in order to sustain him. She tries to support and encourage Willy. Despite her efforts, he grows increasingly depressed.
Biff Loman: Willy's 34 year-old son, the elder of the two children. As a high school student, he was a star football player and showed great promise; however, he has spent the past 14 years doing various odd jobs around the company attempting to find meaning in life.
Happy Loman: Willy's 32 year-old son, the younger of the two brothers. Happy lives in his own apartment and works for a department store. He feels rejected by his father, who always preferred Biff.
Charley: A next-door neighbor and lifetime friend of the Lomans. When Willy is put on commission, Charley lends him money each month. He is more down-to-earth than Willy and more successful.
Bernard: Charley's son. As a child, he was Biff's friend and has gone on to become a successful attorney.
Death of a Salesman Plot Summary
As the play opens, Willy Loman, who has been a traveling salesman for 36 years, returns home after having just left for a sales trip to New England. He tells his wife Linda that he can no longer go on the road because he cannot keep his mind on driving.
At the same time, his elder son Biff is visiting the Brooklyn home after being away for many years. Willy reminisces about Biff's potential, 14 years earlier, when he was playing high school football and being offered athletic scholarships by numerous university teams.
When we meet Bill, he is discussing future job prospects with his younger brother Happy. Biff considers going to see Bill Oliver, a man for whom he had worked many years earlier, and asking him for a loan to get started in a sporting goods business. Biff and Happy tell Willy of this plan, and he gets very excited with the idea. He emphasizes that Oliver really liked Biff and we begin to see Willy's fixation with the idea that one only needs personal attractiveness to be successful in the business world.
In fact, Willy decides that he too will see his boss the following day and ask for a New York position rather than a traveling job. The first day ends with the bright hope that Willy, Biff and Happy will achieve their goals for the following day. The three of them plan to meet for dinner after they have been to their respective meetings.
Unfortunately, Willy is not successful in his meeting with Howard Wagner, his current boss and son of the deceased owner. In fact, Howard fires Willy because he believes the elder salesman is doing the firm harm. Willy is crestfallen and goes to see his old friend and neighbor, Charley. Charley loans Willy enough money to pay his life insurance premium. Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy cannot bring himself to accept it. While at Charley's office, Willy meets Bernard, Charley's son, who has become a very successful lawyer. Bernard wonder's why Biff lost his initiative 14 years ago. This angers Willy and causes him to reflect on the past.
Biff and Happy meet in the restaurant for dinner. Biff explains that he has had some important realizations about himself. Apparently, Oliver kept him waiting all day and then could not remember who Biff was.
Biff was so upset by this turn of events that he stole Oliver's fountain pen. This leads him to reconsider all of his previous jobs, most of which he lost because he stole from his employers.
Willy arrives at the restaurant and tells Biff that he has been fired. When Biff begins to tell Willy that he stole Oliver's pen and has been a failure all his life, Willy refuses to listen and retreats to the wash room. Biff leaves the restaurant and asks Happy to make sure Willy is all right, but Happy rejects Willy and departs with two girls he has picked up.
When Biff arrives home later in that evening, Linda is furious with him for deserting his father. Willy is in the backyard planting seeds and holding an imaginary conversation with his dead brother, Ben, who had been a very successful man.
Death of a Salesman's Structure
Death of a Salesman's structure is central to its reputation as a brilliantly conceived and executed work of drama. Miller structures the play in such a way that it plays with our concept of time through flashbacks and intricate staging. Miller has stated that the "ultimate matter with which the play will close is announced at the outset and is the matter of its every moment from the first." The plot is not laid out in chronological order, but rather in a bit-by-bit piecing together of events.
The play begins in the present as Willy is shown in the grips of a crisis. The source of this conflict is not totally shown to the audience, but Miller tells us what we need to understand through a series of flashbacks and daydreaming sequences. We soon discover that Willy's lack of self-worth derives from experiences related to his son Biff, to his waning career as a salesman and to his inability to make life wonderful for his wife Linda. It is the story of an aging man who considers himself a failure but is incapable of consciously admitting it. His debts prey on him like so many chains and daggers, and he reaches the point where everything seems to break down before it is "paid for."
Through a process of zigzagging that spans the past, present and future, Miller presents his central character in the midst of a crisis which he resolves at the play's end. The reality' of his problems is too much for him to bear, and he is constantly searching for a way out. The setting varies from Willy's house to Charley's office, from Ebbets Football Field to a hotel in Boston, and several other locations as well. The most important location, however, is the inner mind of Willy Loman - it is there we see much of the action unravel since the drama lies not so much in certain events but in Willy's perception and recollection of those events.
The drama takes place in two acts without specified scene divisions. Miller has created two blocks of drama within one play, separated by an intermission. Since all the action leads to the resolution of the crisis, there is a constant pounding away of tension, conflict, emotion, and human passion. Each word spoken is necessary and carries layers of meaning which contribute to the work as a whole.
Jenny: Charley's secretary.
Ben: Willy's dead brother. As a young man he left home and became very wealthy. He is the man Willy was never able to be. He appears in Willy's daydreams as the only man Willy ever met "who knew the answers." Howard Wagner: Willy's boss at the Wagner company and the son of the original owner. Miss Francis: A woman from Willy's past.
Letta & Miss Forsythe: Two young women Happy picks up. Stanley: A young waiter at Frank's Chop House.
Sidebars: One of the most famous people to portray Willy Loman was actor Dustin Hoffman, here seen in a 1981 version, which was televised on national TV.
Actors around the world have portrayed Salesman's various characters. Which characters do you think these actors (from a production in Taiwan) are portraying? Which scene from the play is being shown?
These descriptions only scratch the surface of Miller's complex characters. To help you better understand the play, you might want to create your own, more detailed descriptions.
Death of a Salesman's Symbols & Imagery
Symbolism runs throughout Death of a Salesman. There are examples in almost every scene. One example that Miller uses often is the stockings which Linda darns and which Willy presents as a gift to Miss Francis. They can be seen as a symbol of Willy's career, his self-worth, and his 'product.' At home, his life is in crisis and the stockings are full of holes. Linda, the loving wife, attempts to mend their life in the same way that she mends holes in the stockings. Willy is enraged at this action and orders her to throw the stockings in the garbage. This action is symbolic of his desire to be free of problems at home and enjoy a life of success and harmony. When Biff discovers his father with Miss Francis, he is most angered by the fact that Willy has given her "Mama's stockings." Again, the garments represent a bond of integrity and happiness that has been violated.
Willy's car plays a symbolic role as well. In this car, Willy, quite literally, is driving himself to death. We learn from Linda that Willy has staged several previous car accidents. These "accidents" were perhaps early attempts to commit suicide, but they were definitely attempts to draw attention to his condition. The car represents power, movement forward, acceleration and mobility - all of which are symbols in Willy's life of hopelessness, decay, and despair. It should therefore come as no surprise that Willy consider this vehicle as an instrument with which to kill himself.
The fountain pen that Biff steals is symbolic of Biff's inadequacies. He has no need for the pen, nor is it meaningful in any conscious manner. Rather, it serves to highlight the absurdity of theft, the demeaning quality of taking from someone something which you do not need. Biff has lived a life based on Willy's values, but when he discovers that these values are not good for him, he abandons them in search of his own. The pen can therefore also be seen as the symbol of someone else's values, of someone else's possessions. Biff discards it in favor of integrity and belief in himself. He wishes to get rid of his life-long habit of taking from others (such as the football back in high school). He has spent time in prison, and this symbolically represents how he has spent much of his life imprisoned by his father's mentality.
At the end of the play, Willy purchases some seeds for his garden and begins to plant them late at night. He is close to suicide but realizes that he must leave something "real" behind for his sons. The planting of the seeds is symbolic of Willy's desire to grow big and tall; ironically, Biff is the one who will secure growth in life. Happy, in his determination to continue Willy's action can be seen as the weed in the Loman's garden.
In terms of imagery, one of the most important is that of "the woods are burning." Willy's brother Ben made a success of himself early in life and compared the process of success-building to entering a jungle. Willy constantly remembers Ben saying "When I was I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out...And by God I was rich!" The jungle was the locale of Ben's success, but for Willy, the forest is burning and there is little time left. The burning woods image is symbolic of Willy's feeling that everything is closing in on him: time, debts, human relationships. Even the apartment buildings in his neighborhood are closing in on him and he cannot bear the pressures. That is why he considers throwing himself into the fire and committing suicide.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
1. Why do you think an author uses symbols and images in her/his writing? What purpose do they serve?
2. How does Miller's use of symbols and images affect your response to the play? Does it make reading it and/or seeing it a richer experience for you or does it not affect the way you respond to the play at all?
3. Did you notice any other symbols and/or images in Death of a Salesman? What do you think they represented?
4. Can you think of other plays and/or movies that use symbols and images? How did they compare to the ones in Death of a Salesman?
Miller's Inspirations for Salesman
Death of a Salesman began as a short story that Arthur Miller wrote at the age of seventeen while he was working for his father's company. The story told of an aging salesman who cannot sell anything, who is tormented by the company's buyers, and who borrows change for the subway from the story's young narrator. After finishing the story, Miller wrote a postscript on the manuscript saying that the real salesman on whom the story is based had thrown himself under a subway train. Many years later, on the eve of the play's Broadway opening, Miller's mother found the story abandoned in a drawer.
Sidebar: Arthur Miller's inspiration for Death of a Salesman came from many sources; most importantly however, it came from paying close attention to the lives of the people around him.
In his autobiography Timebends, Miller related that he found inspiration for that short story and the play in his own life. Miller based Willy Loman largely on his own uncle, Manny Newman. In fact, Miller stated that the writing of the play began in the winter of 1947 after a chance meeting he had with his uncle outside the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where his All My Sons was having its pre-Broadway preview. Miller described that meeting in this way:
"I could see his grim hotel room behind him, the long trip up from New York in his little car, the hopeless hope of the day's business. Without so much as acknowledging my greeting he said, 'Buddy is doing very well.'"
Miller described Newman as a man who was "a competitor at all times, in all things, and at every, moment." Miller said that his uncle saw "my brother and I running neck and neck with his two sons [Buddy and Abby] in some horse race [for success] that never stopped in his mind." He also said that the Newman household was one in which you "dared not lose hope, and I would later think of it as a perfection of America for that reason...It was a house trembling with resolution and shouts of victories that had not yet taken place but surely would tomorrow." The Loman home was built on the foundation of this household.
Manny's son Buddy, like Biff in Miller's play, was a sports hero, and like Happy Loman, popular with the girls. And like Biff, Buddy never made it to college because he failed to study in high school. In addition, Miller's relationship with his cousins was similar to Bernard's relationship with Biff and Happy in Salesman. As Miller stated:
"As fanatic as I was about sports, my ability was not to be compared to [Manny's] sons. Since I was gangling and unhandsome, I lacked their promise. When I stopped by I always had to expect some kind of insinuation of my entire life's probable failure, even before I was sixteen."
In Timebends Miller described Manny's wife as the one who "bore the cross for them all" supporting her husband, "keeping up her calm enthusiastic smile lest he feel he was not being appreciated." One can easily see this woman honored in the character of Linda Loman, Willy's loyal but sometimes bewildered wife, who is no less a victim than the husband she supports in his struggle for meaning and forgiveness.
Miller met many other salesmen through his Uncle, and they influenced his perception of all salesmen. One man in particular struck Miller because of his sense of personal dignity. As Miller stated in Timebends, this man "like any travelling man...had, to my mind, a kind of intrepid valor that withstood the inevitable putdowns, the scoreless attempts to sell. In a sense [all salesmen are] like actors whose product is first of all themselves, forever imagining triumphs in a world that either ignores them or denies their presence altogether. But just often enough to keep them going, one of them makes it and swings to the moon on a thread of dreams unwinding out of himself." Surely, Willy Loman is such an actor, getting by "on a smile and a shoeshine," staging his life in an attempt to understand its plot.
Because he was so deeply involved in the production of All My Sons, Miller did not give the meeting with his uncle more than a passing thought, but its memory hung in his mind. In fact, Miller described the event as the spark that brought him back to an idea for a play about a salesman that he had had ten years previously - the idea that he had written as a short story. In April 1948 he drove up to his Connecticut farm and began to write the play that would become Death of a Salesman. As he sat down before his typewriter in his ten- by twelve-foot studio, he remembered "all I had was the first two lines and a death." From those humble beginnings, one of American theater's most famous plays took shape.