ARTHUR MILLER IN HIS OWN WORDS

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…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, Salesman in Beijing, 1984

Introduction

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INTRODUCTION

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.