…To me the tragedy of Willy Loman is that he gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it. It is the tragedy of a man who did believe that he alone was not meeting the qualifications laid down for mankind by those clean-shaven frontiersmen who inhabit the peaks of broadcasting and advertising offices. From those forests of canned goods high up near the sky, he heard the thundering command to succeed as it ricocheted down the newspaper-lined canyons of his city, heard not a human voice, but a wind of a voice to which no human can reply in kind, except to stare into the mirror at a failure.
Arthur Miller, “The ‘Salesman’ Has a Birthday,” The New York Times, February 5, 1950
The first image that occurred to me which was to result in Death of a Salesman was of an enormous face, the height of the proscenium arch, which would appear and then open up, and we would see the inside of a man’s head. In fact, The Inside of His Head was the first title. It was conceived half in laughter, for the inside of his head was a mass of contradictions. … The Salesman image was from being absorbed with the concept in life that nothing in life comes “next” but that everything exists together and at the same time within us; that there is no past to be “brought forward” in a human being, but that he is his past at every moment and that the present is merely that which his past is capable of noticing and smelling and reacting to.
I wished to create a form which, in itself as a form, would literally be the process of Willy Loman’s way of mind. But to say“wished” is not accurate. Any dramatic form is an artifice, a way of transforming a subjective feeling into something that can be comprehended through public symbols. Its efficiency as a form is to be judged – at least by the writer – by how much of the original vision andfeelingislostordistortedbythistransformation.Iwishedtospeakofthesalesman mostprecisely as I felt about him, to give no part of that feeling away for the sake of any effect or any dramatic necessity. What was wanted now was not a mounting line of tension, nor a gradually narrowing cone ofintensifyingsuspense,butabloc,asinglechordpresentedassuchattheoutset,within whichallthe strains and melodies would already be contained. The strategy … was to appear entirelyunstrategic.
… If I could, I would have told the story and set forth all the characters in one unbroken speech or even one sentence or a single flash of light. As I look at the play now its form seems the form of a confession, for that is how it is told, now speaking of what happened yesterday, then suddenly following some connection to a time 20 years ago, then leaping even further back and then returning to the present and even speculating about the future.
Arthur Miller, Introduction to Collected Plays, 1957
Willy is foolish and even ridiculous sometimes. He tells the most transparent lies, exaggerates mercilessly, and so on. But I really want you to see that his impulses are not foolish at all. He cannot bear reality, and since he can’t do much to change it, he keeps changing his ideas of it.
Arthur Miller was born in Manhattan, New York City, near the lower edge of Harlem in 1915. His father was a comfortably middle-class
manufacturer of women’s coats, and his mother was a schoolteacher. The Miller family moved to Brooklyn in the early l930s because the Great Depression had plunged them into great financial difficulty. These years of poverty and struggle influenced many of his plays.
After he graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Arthur Miller spent the next two and a half years working as a stock clerk in an automobile parts warehouse until he had saved enough money to attend college at the University of Michigan. He finished college with financial aid from the National Youth Administration and from the money he earned as night editor of the Michigan Daily newspaper. While there, Miller began to write plays, several of which were rewarded with prizes. Upon graduating from college in 1938, Miller returned home to New York where he married Mary Grace Slatter and had two children, Jane and Robert. While back home, Miller also joined the Federal Theatre Project, an arts program sponsored by the US government.
However, before his first play could be produced, the project ended. A college football injury kept him from active service in the Second World War. He worked as a fitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and wrote radio scripts, he also wrote two novels during this time – Situation Normal (1944), a volume of material about army life, and Focus (1945) a novel about anti- Semitism.
Miller had not, however, given up on playwriting. In 1944, his play The Man Who Had All the Luck won a prize offered by New York City’s Theatre Guild and received a Broadway production. The show, though, was not very lucky – it closed after only four performances.
It was not until three years later that Miller was able to find success on the stage. His play All My Sons debuted to positive critical reviews in 1947, and it was a big hit with audiences as well. This play established him as a significant voice in American theatre. In his review of Miller’s play, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote, “The theatre has acquired a genuine new talent.” The play also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Donaldson Award, voted upon by subscribers to Billboard Magazine.
Arthur Miller later described the impact of All My Sons on his life:
“The success of a play, especially one’s first success, is somewhat like pushing against a door which is suddenly opened that was always securely shut until then. For myself, the experience was invigorating. It suddenly seemed that the audience was a mass of blood relations, and I sensed a warmth in the world that had not been there before. It made it possible to dream of daring more and risking more.”
Two years later, with Death of a Salesman, Miller did indeed dare and risk more. Likewise, he gained more as well. With this play, Arthur Miller soared to new artistic heights and critics began to regard him as one of the greatest twentieth-century American playwrights. The play was a huge popular success, and ran for 742 performances at the Morosco Theatre, New York. The play also won a Pulitzer Prize.
The next several years were very good for Miller, during which time he had several hit plays, culminating with The Crucible, which debuted on Broadway in 1953, during the height of Senator Joe McCarthy’s congressional investigations into “un-American” activities of US citizens (which mostly meant involvement with the Communist Party). The early l95Os were a very tense time in American history; the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union made many Americans extremely worried about the safety and future of their nation, and Miller reflected the paranoia and hysteria of the time in The Crucible. As a result, Miller was denied a passport to Belgium to attend the opening of The Crucible there. Later, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was asked to tell the committee members the names of U.S. citizens who were involved in Communist activities. Miller refused, and was thus cited with contempt of Congress, a serious crime. This conviction, however, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1958.
The mid-50s were also very turbulent times in Miller’s personal life. In 1956 he divorced his wife and married actress and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, whom he had first met in Hollywood in the early 1950s. This event brought him great notoriety and caused a media sensation, but in 1961 it also ended in divorce. Miller married photographer Inge Morath in 1962. They had two children, Rebecca and Daniel, although Daniel had Down Syndrome and was placed in an institution soon after his birth. Miller still wrote up until his death in 2005, although from the mid-eighties his work was more highly valued in London, where critical and popular success was much warmer than in the United States. He is revered as one of America’s greatest playwrights who helped to define American drama.
Miller was also the author of “The Misfits” (1961), a screenplay for his second wife, Marilyn Monroe; and Timebends: A Life (1987), an autobiography. His books of reportage with photographs by Inge Morath, his third wife, include In Russia (1969) and Chinese Encounters (1979). Among Miller’s other plays are A View from the Bridge (1955), After the Fall (1964), The Price (1968), The Ride Down Mount Morgan (1991), Broken Glass (1994), and Resurrection Blues (2002). Miller won seven Tony Awards, an Olivier Award, an Obie Award, the John F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award 2001 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and the Jerusalem Award.
1915: Arthur Miller is born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and lives in the Upper West Side, where his father maintains a successful tailoring business.
1931: Two years after the New York Stock Exchange crashes, the bankrupt Miller family moves to Brooklyn. Arthur plays football with other boys from Brooklyn including Julius and Philip Epstein, who will become the screenwriters of “Casablanca,” and goes on to play for James Madison High School’s football team. (a football injury that Miller suffers during high school later prevents him from serving in the military during WWII.)
1933: Miller graduates from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.
1934: Already rejected once, Arthur Miller re-applies to the University of Michigan. Upon receiving a second denial, Miller makes a personal appeal to the dean of the university to reconsider. Miller is ultimately admitted on a conditional basis; in order for him to remain at Michigan, he must consistently earn high marks. To pursue his college degree, Miller leaves his job at Chadwick Delamater, a Manhattan automobile warehouse formerly located where Lincoln Center now stands, and moves to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
1938: Arthur Miller graduates from the University of Michigan. during his college career, his writing had earned him two Hopwood awards for drama, in addition to a national scholarship from the theatre guild’s Bureau for New Plays. After returning home to Brooklyn, Miller begins writing radio plays for the Federal Theatre Project and, that summer, marries his high school sweetheart Mary Grace Slattery.
1941: Miller juggles several jobs to support his family: he is a worker in a box factory, a scriptwriter for U.S. war bond advertisements, and a shipfitter’s helper in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He continues to write plays in his free time.
1944: Miller’s play The Man Who Had All the Luck premieres on Broadway and closes after only four performances. Miller’s first child, Jane, is born.
1947: All My Sons opens to great success. It beats Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Comethfor the Drama Desk Award, and Miller celebrates by buying himself a Studebaker convertible. The play also draws interest from the F.B.I., who consider it to be communist propaganda. Miller’s second child, Robert, is born.
1948: Miller builds a small cabin in Roxbury, Connecticut, and begins writing Death of a Salesman there.
1949: Death of a Salesman opens at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway. The play earns Miller a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, and his second Drama Desk Award. Elia Kazan, a frequent collaborator with Miller, directs the play.
1953: Miller premieres The Crucible. The play, dealing with mass hysteria, is partly inspired by the conversations Miller had with Kazan, when Kazan confessed his intention to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and reveal individuals he believed to be communist sympathizers. As a result Miller, believing that this was a betrayal of artistic collaborators, did not speak to him for many years.
1955: Miller premieres two new works in New York: A View From the Bridgeand A Memory of Two Mondays.
1956: While writing The Crucible, Miller begins to court actress Marilyn Monroe. After a costly divorce from his first wife Mary, Miller marries the Hollywood star; Miller refuses to cooperate with HUAC investigators.
1960: Miller works on his second screenplay “The Misfits”, starring his wife Marilyn Monroe. Their four-year-old marriage is already on shaky ground, and, by 1961, the couple divorces.
1962: After meeting on the set of “The Misfits,” photographer Inge Morath and the writer quickly develop a relation- ship and marry in 1962. Their first child together, Rebecca, is born later that year.
1964: Incident at Vichy and After the Fall debut in New York; both plays deal with Miller’s attempts to dramatize the events around the Holocaust.After the Fall also marks Miller’s reunion with Elia Kazan.
1965: Miller is elected to the Presidency of PEN international, an international association of writers whose mission is to advance literature worldwide and protect freedom of expression.
1965–1968: Miller works throughout the nation to raise awareness of and to protest American intervention in Vietnam. Highlights include a teach-in at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, as well as rallies across the northeast, including one on the New Haven green.
1966: Miller’s youngest son, Daniel, is born. Shortly after his birth, Daniel is diagnosed with down’s Syndrome. Following common medical advice at the time, Miller sends him to live in an institution. Miller’s distant relationship with Daniel has been shrouded in secrecy and has been a source of criticism and controversy.
1968: The Price opens in New York. That same year Death of a Salesman sells its millionth copy.
1972: One of Miller’s few attempts at comedy, The Creation of the World and Other Business, opens in New York but closes after twenty performances. Two years later, his musical adaptation of the play, Up From Paradise, opens in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
1977: The Archbishop’s Ceilingopens in Washington D.C. to poor reviews. However, its successful staging in London in 1985 begins an Arthur Miller revival in England.
1980: The American Clockopens but is quickly closed after a tepid response. His play for television about musicians in a Nazi concentration camp, “Playing for Time,” airs.
1982: Elegy for a Ladyand Some Kind of Ladymake their premiere in New Haven at the Long Wharf Theatre, the first plays produced to inaugurate their new building. When the Long Wharf opened in 1965, they produced The Crucible as their first show.
1987–1994: Miller’s plays I Can’t Remember Anything, Clara, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, The Last Yankee, and Broken Glasspremiere in New York. His screenplay “Everybody Wins” is filmed and released.
1997–1998: The Signature Theatre Company in New York dedicates its entire season to staging Miller’s work.
1998: Mr. Peter’s Connection premieres in New York.
2002: Resurrection Blues opens in Minneapolis the same year that Miller’s wife, Inge Morath, dies.
2005: Arthur Miller passes away at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut
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.