Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman
DeathOfASalesman.jpg
First edition cover (Viking Press)
Written byArthur Miller
CharactersWilly Loman
Linda Loman
Biff Loman
Happy Loman
Ben Loman
Bernard
Charley
The Woman
Howard
Date premieredFebruary 10, 1949
Place premieredMorosco Theatre
New York City
Original languageEnglish
SubjectThe waning days of a failing salesman
GenreTragedy
SettingLate 1940s; Willy Loman's house; New York City and Barnaby River; Boston

Death of a Salesman is a 1949 stage play written by American playwright Arthur Miller. The play premiered on Broadway in February 1949, running for 742 performances. It is a two-act tragedy set in the 1940s New York told through a montage of memories, dreams and arguments of the protagonist Willy Loman, a travelling salesman who is disappointed with his life and appears to be slipping into senility. The play contains a variety of themes, such as the American Dream, the anatomy of truth, and betrayal. It explores the psychological chaos of the protagonist and the capitalist society's impact on his life.[1][2] It won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. It is considered by some critics to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.[3]

Since its premier the play has been revived on Broadway four times,[4] winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival. It has been adapted for the cinema on ten occasions, most notably in 1951 by screenwriter Stanley Roberts, starring Fredric March.

Characters[edit]

  • William "Willy" Loman: The salesman. He is 63 years old and unstable, insecure, and self-deluded. Willy tends to re-imagine events from the past as if they were real. He vacillates between different eras of his life. Willy seems childlike and relies on others for support, coupled with his recurring flashbacks to various moments throughout his career. 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 who will not succeed; however, this popular interpretation of his last name was dismissed by Miller.[5]
  • 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 Willy to help Biff do so.
  • Biff Loman: Willy's elder son. Biff was a football star with a lot 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 feels happy. He likes being outdoors and working with his hands, yet wants to do something worthwhile so Willy will be proud of him. 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 has 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 toward 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 he is willing to cheat a little in order to do so, by taking bribes. He is always looking for approval from his parents, but he 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 wisecracking 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 envious 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. 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. Willy worked originally for Howard's father Frank and claims to have suggested the name Howard for his newborn son. However, he 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.

Plot[edit]

Willy Loman returns home exhausted after a business trip he has cancelled. 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 promise as a football star in high school, he failed in mathematics and was unable to enter a university.

Biff and his younger 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 him 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 go to summer school to make up for failing math, 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 him adrift.

Biff leaves the restaurant in frustration, followed by Happy and two girls that Happy 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, Charley and Bernard (Bernard says nothing at the funeral, but in the stage directions, he is present). The ambiguities 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.

Themes[edit]

Reality and illusion[edit]

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.[6]

Willy Loman[edit]

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.[7] 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 ..."[8] Willy also believes that to attain success, one must have a suitable 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."[9]

Uncle Ben[edit]

Ben symbolizes another kind of successful American Dream for Willy: to catch opportunity, to conquer nature, and to gain a fortune. His mantra goes: "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."[7]

Biff[edit]

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."[7]

Charley and Bernard[edit]

The hard work and dedication of Charley and Bernard are apparent from the Death of a Salesman. Willy criticizes Charley and Bernard throughout the play, but it is not because he hates them. Rather, it's argued that he is envious of the successes they have enjoyed, which is outside his standards.[9]

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.[9]

Reception[edit]

In the United States[edit]

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."[10]

In the United Kingdom[edit]

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. Some people, such as Eric Keown, think of Death of a Salesman as "a potential tragedy deflected from its true course by Marxist sympathies."[10]

In Germany[edit]

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"[by whom?] at the end of the performance. The Berlin production was more successful than New York, possibly due to better interpretation.[10]

In India[edit]

Compared to Tennessee Williams and Beckett, Arthur Miller and his Death of a Salesman were less influential. Rajinder Paul said that "Death of a Salesman has only an indirect influence on Indian theatre practitions."[10] However, it was translated and produced in Bengali as 'Pheriwalar Mrityu' by the theater group Nandikar. Director Feroz Khan adapted the play in Hindi and English by the name "Salesman Ramlal" played by Satish Kaushik and with the role of his son portrayed by Kishore Kadam.[11][12]

In China[edit]

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.'[13]

Productions[edit]

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.[14]

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.[16]

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 Noël Coward Theatre for ten weeks in the summer of 2015. This production was part of the centenary celebrations for playwright Arthur Miller.[17]

The play ran until Saturday, 4 January 2020 at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, starring Sharon D. Clarke and Wendell Pierce.[18]

Adaptations in other media[edit]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Original Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1949 Tony Awards Best Play Won
Best Author of a Play Arthur Miller Won
Best Producer of a Play Kermit Bloomgarden & Walter Fried Won
Best Featured Actor in a Play Arthur Kennedy Won
Best Director Elia Kazan Won
Best Scenic Design Jo Mielziner Won
New York Drama Critics' Circle Best American Play Arthur Miller Won
Theatre World Award Cameron Mitchell Won
Pulitzer Prize Drama Arthur Miller Won

1975 Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1976 Tony Award Best Actor in a Play George C. Scott Nominated

1984 Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1984 Tony Awards Best Revival Won
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Dustin Hoffman Won
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play John Malkovich Won
David Huddleston Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Revival Won
Outstanding Debut Performance John Malkovich Won

1999 Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result nothing
1999 Tony Awards Best Revival of a Play Won
Best Actor in a Play Brian Dennehy Won
Best Featured Actor in a Play Kevin Anderson Nominated
Howard Witt Nominated
Best Featured Actress in a Play Elizabeth Franz Won
Best Direction of a Play Robert Falls Won
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Brian Dennehy Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Kevin Anderson Won
Howard Witt Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play Elizabeth Franz Nominated
Best Director of a Play Robert Falls Nominated
Outstanding Music in a Play Richard Woodbury Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Revival of a Play Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Play Brian Dennehy Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play Kevin Anderson Won
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play Elizabeth Franz Nominated
Outstanding Director of a Play Robert Falls Nominated
Drama League Award Distinguished Production of a Revival Won

2012 Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2012 Tony Awards Best Revival of a Play Won
Best Actor in a Play Philip Seymour Hoffman Nominated
Best Featured Actor in a Play Andrew Garfield Nominated
Best Featured Actress in a Play Linda Emond Nominated
Best Direction of a Play Mike Nichols Won
Best Lighting Design of a Play Brian MacDevitt Nominated
Best Sound Design of a Play Scott Lehrer Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Philip Seymour Hoffman Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Play Bill Camp Nominated
Outstanding Director of a Play Mike Nichols Won
Outstanding Lighting Design Brian MacDevitt Won
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Revival of a Play Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Philip Seymour Hoffman Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play Andrew Garfield Nominated
Outstanding Director of a Play Mike Nichols Nominated
Outstanding Lighting Design Brian MacDevitt Nominated
Drama League Award Distinguished Revival of a Play Won
Theatre World Award Finn Wittrock Won
Clarence Derwent Awards Most Promising Male Performer Won

2019 West End production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2019 Critics' Circle Theatre Award[20] Best Actress Sharon D. Clarke Won
Evening Standard Theatre Award[21][22] Best Actor Wendell Pierce Nominated
Best Director Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell Nominated
2020 Laurence Olivier Award[23] Best Revival Nominated
Best Actor Wendell Pierce Nominated
Best Actress Sharon D. Clarke Won
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Arinzé Kene Nominated
Best Director Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell Won

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Synopsis: Death of a Salesman". Utah Shakespeare Festival. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  2. ^ "Death of a Salesman: Death of a Salesman Play Summary & Study Guide | CliffsNotes". www.cliffsnotes.com. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  3. ^ "Death of a Salesman". www.therep.org. Archived from the original on February 5, 2017.
  4. ^ "Death of a Salesman". ibdb.com. Retrieved March 6, 2011.
  5. ^ Gottfried, Martin (2004). Arthur Miller: His Life and Work. Perseus Books Group. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-306-81377-1.
  6. ^ Koon, Helene. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of Salesman. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  7. ^ a b c Bradford, Wade. "The American Dream in "Death of a Salesman"". About.com.
  8. ^ Sarkar, Saurav. The American Dream in Context of Death of A Salesman. Academia.
  9. ^ a b c Bloom, Harold (2009). The American Dream. Infobase Publishing.
  10. ^ a b c d Meserve, Walter (1972). Studies in Death of Salesman. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-675-09259-3.
  11. ^ "Salesman Ramlal leaves audience spellbound". The Times of India. TNN. December 8, 2009. Retrieved August 22, 2020.
  12. ^ Sharma, Aditi. "SALESMAN RAMLAL - Hindi play review". www.mumbaitheatreguide.com. Mumbai Theatre Guide. Retrieved August 22, 2020.
  13. ^ Arthur, Miller. Salesman in Beijing. New York: Viking Press.
  14. ^ Sullivan, Steve. Va Va Voom, General Publishing Group, Los Angeles, California, p.50.
  15. ^ Gans, Andrew."Starry Revival of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' Opens on Broadway" Archived 2012-03-17 at the Wayback Machine playbill.com, March 15, 2012
  16. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (August 25, 2010). "Christopher Lloyd stars in 'Death of a Salesman'". The New York Times. Retrieved September 8, 2010.
  17. ^ Porteous, Jacob (April 8, 2015). "Arthur Miller Classic Death Of A Salesman To Make West End Transfer". LondonTheatreDirect.com. Retrieved April 22, 2015.
  18. ^ "Death of a Salesman". londonboxoffice.co.uk. November 7, 2019. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  19. ^ "BBC Radio 3 — Drama on 3, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller". BBC. Retrieved November 27, 2017.
  20. ^ "2019 Results | Critics' Circle Theatre Awards". February 11, 2020. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
  21. ^ "The 2019 Evening Standard Theatre Awards shortlist in full". www.standard.co.uk. November 4, 2019. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
  22. ^ Paskett, Zoe (November 25, 2019). "The 2019 Evening Standard Theatre Awards winners in full". www.standard.co.uk. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
  23. ^ "Olivier Awards 2020 with Mastercard - Theatre's Biggest Night". Olivier Awards. Retrieved January 18, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

Editions[edit]

  • Miller, Arthur Death of a Salesman (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1996) ISBN 9780140247732. Edited with an introduction by Gerald Weales. Contains the full text and various critical essays.

Criticism[edit]

External links[edit]

At Playbill Vault[edit]