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Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller ( ) 35
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Introduction Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway on February 10, 1949, and ran for over 742 performances. Hailed as a masterpiece, it won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The preeminent theatre critic of his day, Brooks Atkinson reviewed Salesman for The New York Times: Miller and Kazan “Arthur Miller has written a superb drama. From every point of view, Death of a Salesman … is rich and memorable. … Miller has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theatre. Under Elia Kazan’s masterly direction, Lee J. Cobb [as Willy Loman] gives a heroic performance, and every member of the cast plays like a person inspired. … For they all realize that for once in their lives they are participating in a rare event in the theatre.”
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Introduction continued… Death of a Salesman has been revived several times on Broadway: in 1975, starring George C. Scott; in 1984 with Dustin Hoffman; and in 1999 with Brian Dennehy. Death of the Salesman is a very American play, filled with images of American culture, including sports, cars, public schools, all kinds of gadgets, and more. Miller has said that the play is “culture-bound” and that “Willy Loman has sprung out of a world of business ambition, a society infested with success fever.” Certainly, Salesman raises fundamental questions about America, its social values, its family values, and the America Dream. Yet the play has met with success throughout the world – including Beijing in Miller himself was surprised: “China was more than ninety percent peasant and most living Chinese had been taught proletarian socialist values, the very antithesis of those Willy strives for.” Consider what universal elements in the play transcend its Americanness.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Arthur Miller Arthur Miller was born in 1915 and lived in Manhattan, attending school in Harlem, until age 13 when his family moved to Brooklyn after his father’s business failed. In 1932, Miller graduated high school, where he focused more on athletics than his studies. He would be exempt from military service because of a knee injury suffered while playing high school football. After graduation, he worked a series of jobs before finding steady work in an automobile parts warehouse. In 1934, Miller enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he began to write seriously.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Miller continued … After receiving an undergraduate degree, Miller returned to New York and wrote briefly for the Federal Theatre Project, worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and wrote plays for radio. After his first play failed in 1944 (The Man Who Had All the Luck), he scored a hit with All My Sons in 1947, which is still regularly produced. Two years later, with Death of a Salesman, Miller was touted as a significant new voice in the American theater. Miller’s next major success came in 1953 with The Crucible, which is often read as a metaphor for the strongarm tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Investigated and forced to testify by McCarthy, Miller was denied a passport to Belgium for the opening of The Crucible.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Miller continued … In 1956, Miller’s first marriage ended in divorce. He quickly married Marilyn Monroe, and their marriage ended in divorce in In 1962, Miller married photographer Inge Morath. The couple had two children and remained together until Morath’s death in Miller is the author of memoirs, short stories, essays, and a novel, but he is most celebrated for his plays. In addition to All My Sons, Salesman, and The Crucible, his other major works include A View from the Bridge (1955), After the Fall (1964), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The American Clock (1980), and Broken Glass (1994). Along with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Miller is cited as one of the three greatest American playwrights.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Realism in Death of a Salesman In many ways, Death of a Salesman continues the tradition of social realism as presented on stage beginning in the late nineteenth century with Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Shaw. Like these playwrights, Miller presents recognizable characters – here a working-class family – who interact through colloquial dialogue and who confront common but deep problems associated with their class and times. Like the earlier social realists, Miller creates complex characters whose internal conflicts are as dramatic as the external action.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Expressionism in Salesman To reveal Willy’s internal conflict, his mental disorientation and spiritual dislocation, Miller uses expressionistic techniques. Expressionism results in a distortion of external reality to reveal the internal workings of a character. The expressionist moves away from the method of verisimilitude to objectify the character’s internal experience. Note Miller’s use of lighting and his stage directions. As the play opens, he directs the audience to be aware of Willy’s “small, fragile-seeming home” and the “towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides.” What does this setting suggest about Willy’s state of mind?
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Expressionism in Salesman continued… Throughout the play, Miller calls for the music of a flute. Consider its implications. The flute is associated with Willy’s father and suggests how Willy is still haunted by his father’s desertion. Note the expressionist techniques in Willy’s scenes with his brother Ben. To Willy these scenes unfold in the present. They are not flashbacks.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Expressionism and The Inside of His Head “I wished to create a form,” Miller said, “which, in itself as a form, would literally be the process of Willy Loman’s way of mind.” The working title of Salesman was The Inside of His Head, which reveals insight into the content and setting of the play. Miller even thought of erecting a huge face, the height of the proscenium arch, which would open up at the beginning of the play. Would this have been effective? Which parts of the play are actually set in Willy’s head? Miller said this title was “conceived half in laughter, for the inside of [Willy’s] head was a mass of contradictions.”
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 “To dramatize Willy’s mental disorientation and spiritual dislocation, Miller adopts a somewhat expressionistic form, in which memories weave in and out, through free association, to reveal the guilt-ridden, accusatory, ruminative process of Willy’s mind. The play’s structure is not a sequence of flashbacks, Miller insists, but instead a ‘mobile concurring past and present.’” ― Thomas P. Adler, Mirror on the Stage
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Miller on the 1951 Film The 1951 film version of the play failed because the expressionistic techniques were replaced by flashbacks. “There is an inevitable horror in the spectacle of a man losing consciousness of his immediate surroundings to the point where he engages in conversations with unseen persons. The horror is lost – and drama becomes narrative – when the context actually becomes his imagined world. … Indeed, his terror springs from his never-lost awareness of time and place. … the tension between now and then was lost. … that friction, collision, and tension between past and present was the heart of the play’s particular construction.” – Arthur Miller
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Willy Loman “He was the kind of man you see muttering to himself on the subway, decently dressed, on his way home or to the office, perfectly integrated with his surroundings excepting that unlike other people he can no longer restrain the power of his experience from disrupting the superficial sociality of his behavior. Consequently he is working on two logics which often collide. … He is literally at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but as loud as the voice of the present.” ― Arthur Miller
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Willy Loman continued … Willy is in his sixties and has reached that point in life when he realizes his dreams will never come true. He is frustrated, confused, unpredictable and often volatile. He is profoundly disappointed with his life. Just about everyone and everything Willy comes in contact with remind him of his failure. Linda’s mending of stockings reminds him of his failure as a husband and father. Charley’s weekly loans remind him of his professional failure, and all the mechanical breakdowns in his home remind him of his inability to prosper in the modern world.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 The Wrong Dream Willy’s failure results largely because he followed the wrong dream. Willy should have worked with his hands, as a carpenter perhaps, not as a salesman. He deludes himself into thinking that sales is his proper career. He wants to emulate not only Dave Singleman, but also his father and brother. Sales, for Willy, becomes an approximation of their careers. His father traveled across the country selling flutes, while his brother claims to have traveled to Africa and Alaska to gain his wealth. Willy charts new territory for his company, but New England hardly suggests the same sense of adventure, and Willy is, if we believe Ben’s reports, far less successful.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 The Wrong Dream continued… Through sales, Willy believes he could find the respect of men, something he always craved and never seems to have attained. This need for being “well-liked” seems to rise directly from his being denied a father’s and brother’s love. Willy directs Biff into sports so he can acquire the respect of men.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Willy’s Suicide Willy considers himself a failure. He can no longer deceive himself. As he tells Biff, “… I haven’t got a story left in my head.” One reason he commits suicide is because he realizes he is worth more dead than alive, a clear acknowledgment of failure for one who places such an emphasis on money. Willy is also, as Linda says, “exhausted.” The struggle for success as well as the facade has worn him down. But there is no simple explanation for Willy’s suicide.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Willy’s Suicide continued… “The image of suicide so mixed in motive as to be unfathomable and yet demanding statement. Revenge was in it and a power of love, a victory in that it would bequeath a fortune to the living and a flight from emptiness. With it an image of peace at the final curtain.” – Arthur Miller We sympathize with Willy as he has never recovered from his father’s abandonment. He never realized, and never had anyone to tell him, that that was the root of his problems. As Willy tells Ben, “Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel – kind of temporary about myself.”
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 “Willy Loman's particular terror goes to the core of American individualism, in which the reputable self and the issue of wealth are hopelessly tangled. ‘A man can't go out the way he came in,’ Willy says to Ben. ‘A man has got to add up to something.’ Willy, who, at sixty, has no job, no money, no loyalty from his boys, is sensationally lacking in assets and in their social corollary – a sense of blessing.” ―John Lahr in The New Yorker, January 25, 1999
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 The Names of the Characters Loman is a fitting name for Willy, who seems doomed to remain a “low man,” economically, intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally. This is a fitting surname for his sons as well. Happy, no doubt, will remain a “low man,” and his first name reflects his boyish optimism and cheerfulness. He may end up just like his father, who also has a boyish first name in Willy as well as a childish perspective on life. There is more hope for Biff, who will most likely not achieve economic wealth, but will gain psychological and emotional health as his words and actions indicate at the end of the play. Biff suggests ruggedness and an individual more physical than intellectual – which Biff accepts about himself at the end of the play.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Linda Loman Linda lives the role of a conventional housewife. She is the home manager, she cooks, she cleans, she is a loving mother, and she is a supportive wife. But is Linda too supportive of Willy? She enables him to perpetuate his delusions, and she refuses to confront him about his possible suicide. Linda must bear some responsibility for the continual lying. As Biff says, “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” Yet she is not as passive as this might suggest. She confronts her sons’ treatment of Willy with authority and certitude. Consider why Linda has difficulty crying at Willy’s funeral. Does she not feel her loss yet? Is she angry that Willy has abandoned her? Is she content realizing that Willy is at peace? Can her emotional ambiguity be explained by a combination of these possibilities?
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Treatment of Women While clearly Willy and his sons love Linda, they have little or no respect for other women, and Willy demonstrates little respect for Linda: he cheats on her, tells her to “shut up,” and tries to minimize her influence on their sons, especially Biff. To the male Lomans, women fulfill needs: they cook, clean, provide sex, and become the means for Happy to attack his superiors at work. Willy, with his sons, tries to construct an all-male realm of sports and cars. Jenny and the Woman. Both represent Willy’s demeaning treatment of women. Willy makes offensive ribald comments to Jenny, Charlie’s secretary, and the woman who Biff discovers in the hotel room says she feels like a football. As seen in the restaurant, Biff and Happy demonstrate the same disrespect for women.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Biff Biff is one of the most fascinating characters in the play. Consider his life in three stages: First 17 years. Willy took control of rearing Biff, his favored son. He trained him to be an athlete and a leader, even at the expense of academics and morals. Biff idolized his father, and he enjoyed working alongside him as he repaired the home or polished the car. He believed his father could solve all problems, even failing a math test. Biff’s attitude toward his father changes when he discovers him with another woman in a hotel room. From that point, he sees his father as a fraud.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Biff continued… Age years. Biff rejects Willy, and seeks revenge on him for adultery. He determines to hurt his father by failing out of school, since Willy has invested much of himself and his success philosophy in his sons. As Willy accurately says, Biff lived to spite him. The Future. By the end of this play, Biff has reconciled himself with his father. He no longer needs to seek revenge, which has cost him as much as his father. As his lines in the Requiem indicate, he accepts himself as he is, and has come to understand and forgive his father. He can now carry on with his life in a more productive manner. The turning point in the play for Biff occurs as he runs from Oliver’s office with a stolen pen. He experiences an epiphany in which he realizes that he does not belong in an office or a city, but under the sky in the West.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Happy Happy has always idolized his older brother. Late in Act Two and in the Requiem, Biff tries to get Happy to see the truth of the family’s situation and the truth about each other. But Happy clings to the false hope that Willy’s dream was a good one, and the Loman brothers are truly exceptional men who will see the dream into reality – once they catch a few breaks. Biff is frustrated with his inability to reach Happy.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Charley and Bernard Charley and Bernard balance the political point of view. Some critics argue that, through Salesman, Miller is attacking the capitalist culture that produces greedy corporate heads who callously dismiss loyal employees when they are no longer productive. But Charley is very successful economically and very generous to Willy. He graciously and regularly lends him money and tolerates Willy’s abuse because of his concern for his friend. Charley keeps the political and humanistic vision of the play from being too bleak. Miller called Charley “the most decent man in Death of a Salesman.” With his son who has become a highly successful lawyer, Charley demonstrates the possibility of achieving the American Dream and maintaining integrity and humility. Despite years of sometimes cruel teasing, Bernard does not use his success to further humiliate Willy. He is, in fact, reticent about his accomplishments. It might also be noted that Bernard did not have any public advantages over the Loman children. He attended the same public school and sat in many of the same classes as Biff.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Salesman as Tragedy Since its initial production, Death of a Salesman, some have argued, should not be considered a tragedy as it does not fulfill the “guidelines” suggested by Aristotle in Poetics. The play, according to the argument, is not sufficiently elevated nor does Willy Loman have the tragic stature of heroes like Oedipus, Hamlet, or King Lear. Consider Miller’s response: “I set out not to ‘write a tragedy’ in this play, but to show the truth as I saw it. However, some of the attacks upon it as a pseudo-tragedy contain ideas so misleading, and in some cases so laughable, that it might be in place here to deal with a few of them. … The lasting appeal of tragedy is due to our need to face the fact of death in order to strengthen ourselves for life.” – Introduction to Collected Plays (Viking)
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Salesman as Tragedy continued… Consider Miller’s response: “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were. On the face of it this ought to be obvious in the light of modern psychiatry, which bases its analysis upon classic formulations, such as the Oedipus and Orestes complexes, for instance, which were enacted by royal beings, but which apply to everyone in similar emotional situations.” – “Tragedy and the Common Man” “It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time – the heart and spirit of the average man.” – “Tragedy and the Common Man”
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 “In the intervening years, Willy Loman has become our quintessential American tragic hero, our domestic Lear, spiraling toward suicide as toward an act of selfless grace, his mad scene on the heath a frantic seed-planting episode by flashlight in the midst of which the once-proud, now disintegrating man confesses, ‘I’ve got nobody to talk to.’ His salesmanship, his family relations, his very life—all have been talk, optimistic and inflated sales rhetoric; yet, suddenly, in this powerful scene, Willy Loman realizes he has nobody to talk to; nobody to listen. Perhaps the most memorable single remark in the play is the quiet observation that Willy Loman is ‘liked … but not well-liked.’ In America, this is not enough.” ― Joyce Carol Oates
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 The Title Willy uses the phrase “death of a salesman” when he refers to Dave Singleman, the superior salesman who achieves the kind of respect that has always eluded Willy. Dave died on a business trip, and his funeral was attended by hundreds of buyers and fellow salesmen from several states. Willy hoped for a similar fate. When we contrast Willy’s death and funeral with Dave’s, we realize how completely Willy failed at achieving his dreams. Willy’s funeral is attended only by his immediate family, Charley, and Bernard. There are smaller deaths for Willy throughout his life: –the death of his relationship with Biff –the death of an era when business included “respect, and comradeship, and gratitude,” when all was not so “cut and dried” –the death of his hope that Biff will be a star athlete –the death of his hope for a home that provides serenity and privacy as urban high rises dominate his space, symbolically blocking the sunlight from his garden.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 Conclusion “Death of a Salesman was the first play to dramatize this punishing – and particularly American – interplay of panic and achievement. Before Salesman, Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1946) raised the issue in the eerie calm of Harry Hope's bar, whose sodden habitues have retreated from competitiveness into a perverse contentment; as one of the characters says, ‘No one here has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go.’ But in Willy Loman, Miller was able to bring both the desperation and the aspiration of American life together in one character.” ― John Lahr in The New Yorker, January 25, 1999
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 35 For Further Consideration Arthur Miller once said that Willy has “his feet on the subway stairs and his head in the stars.” Is this an accurate description of Willy? Explain. Why is Willy so desperate for success? Is he more desperate than most people? Explain. You might refer to your own experiences and observations of those you have encountered. Willy’s philosophy of success might be summarized as, "Be liked and you will never want." How does this statement apply to Willy? To his sons? To Charley? To Howard? To Bernard? Is being “well-liked” a factor in a successful career today? Explain. Compare and contrast Willy's conflicting feelings toward Biff. Why does he both defend and criticize his son? What portrait of American life and business emerges from this play?