Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller was first performed in 1949 on Broadway and was an immediate success. This deceptively simple story of the tragic road to suicide of a traveling salesman struck an emotional chord with American audiences. It was critically acclaimed and won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the production ran for 742 performances before it closed. Since then Death of a Salesman has become one of the most performed and adapted plays in American theatrical history.
Miller packed the play with issues that many Americans had to deal with in 1949, a time of great change in our nation after two world wars and the great depression. Like Willy, who faces the end of his career, what was to happen to millions of Americans working in obsolete industries? What was a family to do on the brink of dire economic circumstances? How would one generation deal with the shifting values of the next? We find ourselves asking similar questions today. It should be no surprise, then, that Death of a Salesman continues to speak to us about our own condition. Set amidst a racially and economically diverse Brooklyn in the 1940s, the Lomans’ tale takes on a larger significance both then and now.
While Miller tackles the social question of the effect the capitalistic American Dream myth has on an ordinary family, its enduring appeal seems to lie in the fact that Miller tapped into the hopes and fears of not only an American but a global public. Universal human questions about the nature of happiness and success, of aging and of family responsibility are tackled. Willy Loman has the quality of an everyman, whose struggle to attain his dreams of success resonates within us all.
But it is not just the themes of the play that ensured its success. Miller was so innovative with form and skilled with language that he created a style that was accessible to any audience yet produced a multi-layered piece of theatre.
These qualities have confirmed the play’s place in the canon of ‘classic literature’ and ensured that since its premiere, there has never been a time when Death of a Salesman was not being performed somewhere in the world.