Writing Death of a Salesman

(Arthur Miller wrote the selection on this page for his autobiography, Timebends.)

With [the play] A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams had printed a license to speak at full throat, and it helped strengthen me as I turned to Willy Loman…I had known all along that this play could not be encompassed by conventional realism, and for one integral reason: in Willy, the past was as alive as what was happening at the moment, sometimes even crashing in to completely overwhelm his mind. I wanted precisely the same fluidity in the form [of Death of a Salesman].

“In reality all I had was the first two lines and a death—
‘Willy’’ and ‘It’s all right. I came back.’”

Arthur Miller

By April 1947 I felt I could find such a form, but it would have to be done in a single setting, in a night or a day. I did not know why. I stopped making my notes in our Grace Court house in Brooklyn Heights and drove up alone one morning to the country house we had bought the previous year.

I started writing one morning…[and] wrote all day until dark, and then I had dinner and went back and wrote until some hour in the darkness between midnight and four. I had skipped a few areas that I knew would give me no trouble in the writing andgone for the parts that had to be muscled into position. By the next morning I had done the first half, the first act of two. When I lay down to sleep I realized I had been weeping – my eyes still burned and my throat was sore from talking it all out and shouting and laughing. I would be stiff when I woke, aching as if I had played four hours of football or tennis and now had to face the start of another game. It would take some six more weeks to complete Act II…

Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller

I did not move far from the phone for two days after sending the script to [director Elia Kazan]. By the end of the second silent day, I would have accepted his calling to tell me that it was a scrambled egg, an impenetrable, unstageable piece of wreckage. And his tone when he finally did call was alarmingly sombre. ‘Ive read your play.’  He sounded at a loss as to how to give me the bad news. ‘My God, its so sad.’ ‘Its supposed to be.’  ‘‘I just put it down. I don’’t know what to say. My father…’ He broke off, the first of a great many men – and women – who would tell me that Willy was their father. I still thought he was letting me down easy. “It’s a great play, Artie. I want to do it in the fall or winter. I’ll start thinking about casting.” He was talking as though someone we both knew had just died, and it filled me with happiness.

On the play’s opening night, a woman who shall not be named was outraged, calling it ‘a timebomb under American capitalism.’I hoped it was, or at least under the bullshit of capitalism; this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator waving a paid-up mortgage at the Moon, victorious at last…