Arthur Miller is one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century. Perhaps more important, however, is the way that his plays are crafted directly out of the context of his time (think AO5!) He was born in New York in 1915: A View from the Bridge (1957) is set there, as is part of Death of a Salesman (1949). His family were Jewish immigrants, and A View from the Bridge deals with the problems faced by an immigrant community – a theme that is clearly applicable today. Along with countless others, Miller’s father lost his money in the Great Depression of the 1930s; his After the Fall (1964) and The Price (1968) are set during this time, whilst The Last Yankee" (1987) and The Ride Down Mount Morgan (1992) point out the connections between the Depression and the contemporary context of 1980’s wealth, greed and selfishness. All My Sons (which won two Tony Awards) deals with the aftermath of profiteering during the Second World War, and the moral compromises decent people make at such a time – again, a topic of great relevance today.
Miller was married to one of the great contextual icons of the Twentieth century, Marilyn Monroe ; the surreal and personal After the Fall(1964) and his last play, Finishing the Picture(2004), both focus on this failed relationship.
Perhaps most notably, his play The Crucible (1952), whilst ostensibly concerning the Salem witch trials in 1692 where innocent people were forced to implicate others in the practice of witchcraft or face torture and death, was in fact a thinly-veiled condemnation of the McCarthy communist witch-hunt: McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were pursuing a vigorous anti-communist campaign, inculcating the came climate of fear. In 1956 Miller was convicted for contempt of Congress following his refusal to co-operate with the Committee. In 2000 he published an article, “Are you now or were you ever?” about this period. As he wrote here, “The Crucible straddles two different worlds to make them one, but it is not history in the usual sense of the word, but a moral, political and psychological construct that floats on the fluid emotions of both eras.” A perfect iteration of the vital importance of contextual examination. For AQA English students, this is AO5 unmasked.
The Death of a Salesman(1949) is equally written out of its context, and arguably also has resonances with all contexts, straddling “two different worlds to make them one.” A good example of this is found in Miller’s diary, Salesman in Beijing(1986). A quarter of a century after the play, set in capitalist America, was written, Miller was faced with the problem of helping to produce it in Communist China, and showing that even in this vastly different context, the resonances were still relevant.
The Death of a Salesman is Arthur Miller’s most successful play, winning three Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize. It deals with Willy Loman, a failed salesman, in a time when America was concerned with success, wealth and progress, having weathered the Great Depression, and successfully concluded the Second World War without incurring the huge economic burdens faced by the European nations. (Indeed, Great Britain only finished paying off its war loans to America – an adjusted equivalent of £104 billion – in 2006.) Contextually, the play then centres on “The American Dream” – that in such a vibrant, wealthy country, anyone can be a success through their own efforts. Willy is not a success – and cannot abandon his belief in the American Dream, for that would mean abandoning himself. As Charlie says in the final scene, The Requiem, “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Miller’s concern, then, is to look at the human cost of unrealistic expectations and of the drive for success with no concern for human suffering. Ben’s dictum, “Never fight fair with a stranger”, shows this clearly. When Willy cries to Howard on being sacked after 19 years working with the firm, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit”, Miller is ironically showing that, in the drive for success, the human cogs that make up the economic machine are discarded once they have lost their usefulness. As in all of his plays, one of his themes is the weakening of the bonds that should bind people together: a condemnation of his context, but also of ours (wherever and whenever we are reading this.) In an interview with Richard Eyre, he argues that his plays show what happens when people forget that “… man is a social animal and, whether we know it or not or want to believe it, what happens around us is crucial to the way we are.”
Arthur Miller shows that Willy is torn by another “dream” – the “Pioneer Dream” of America. This is a looking back to the time of the frontier, where men could make a life for themselves by working with their hands and with the sweat of their brows. However, Miller shows this to be incompatible with the “American Dream”. Willy’s father epitomises this dream a man who travelled from state to state selling flutes – but he is not a “salesman”: he sells something that he himself has made, whilst Willy sells, ironically, women’s underclothes – he is dependent upon the corporate apparatus, whilst Willy’s father is only dependent upon himself. Miller voices this through Charley: “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don't know that.” Willy, of course, ends the play with nothing he can sell – except himself, hoping that his expired life assurance policy will pay up.
Ben is an ironic addition to this theme of the play. He is Willy’s successful brother, a man who seems to embody the “Pioneer Dream”, a man who walked into the jungle at the age of seventeen, “And by twenty-one, I walked out. And by God, I was rich!" However, Miller deliberately problematises the character. Ben’s success seems accidental: he tries to follow his father to Alaska, but accidentally ends up in Africa. The character of Ben in Willy’s mind confirms Willy’s resolution to kill himself for the $20,000 insurance payout. He is dead – recently so – and only appears in Willy’s “flashbacks”, therefore forcing the audience to rely on Willy’s memory. He is implicitly linked, therefore, to Dave Singleman, the salesman Willy takes as an avatar of his profession, and whose memory spawns the title of the play: “he died the death of a salesman”.
Biff too is seen to be torn between the two dreams. His father’s expectations prevent him from knowing himself: in his father’s eyes he should be the golden boy from Ebbet’s Field, and yet he is happiest when working on a ranch with his shirt off. He is also tormented by knowing, as he sees it, the truth about his father – that he has had affairs, and is a “phony little fake”: “The man never knew who he was.” Although as audience we see Biff’s discovery about himself as a positive, one of the few in this bleak play, we also feel that his judgement of his father is not something we necessarily share. However, we recognise that Miller uses him to show what it is that has destroyed Willy: the dreams upon which a capitalist society depends for its success. Proleptically, Biff cries “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” Miller also makes clear that the dream is endemic: whilst Biff might have made his discovery that he is happy to be “a dime a dozen”, Happy perpetuates the fallacy: “He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man.”
Another important context is that of genre. First, we must remember that the text is a play: Miller uses theatrical conventions to illustrate his themes. First the set: it is a blend of the realist and the symbolic – we can see it as “plastic theatre”, a term coined by Tennessee Williams in his production notes for The Glass Menagerie (1945). The set itself even before the entrance of “The Salesman” prepares the audience for its themes: the skeletal representation of the house is oppressed by the backdrop of threatening tenement blocks looming over it, and the sky threatens with an “angry glow of orange”.
Miller also uses the house outline to show the difference between present events and the events in Willy’s memory. When we are in the past, the actors ignore wall lines, both helping the audience to see when events are taking place, but underlining the tenuous grip Willy has on reality. The working title of the play was The Inside of his Head: indeed, in an interview in 2000 with Sir Richard Eyre, Director of the National Theatre, Miller said that he originally intended the set to be Willy’s head: “I was going to have the inside of a head right up to the proscenium, and all the scenes would be taking place in various parts of his head. I gave that up.”
The structure of his play, then, determines the set; in the memory sequences, the lighting changes from the oppressive city orange glow to a green, fresh back light, and leaves show that the trees, symbolic of hope and life and cut down to make room for the tenement buildings, are present in Willy’s memories. The memory sequences are not “flashbacks”; they are instead integral to the audience’s understanding of their vitality in the mind of Willy, who cannot let go of his dreams without letting go of these memories that so make up himself.
Another aspect of plastic theatre is the use of sound motif. At the beginning of the play, “A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon” – ironically, all things that are lacking in Willy’s present when he enters the stage. The music, half-heard by Willy, represents both the Pioneer Dream, and also his semi-mythical father, whom he only half-remembers. Ben’s entrances are also accompanied by the music of the flute – it functions as his leit-motif – whilst the early memory sequences are signalled by the “gay music of the boys. Darker uses of sound are the insistent laughter of the Woman that punctuate Willy’s memories, leading us to the moment of Biff’s discovery – what Aristotle might call “anagnorisis, a “change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.” (Aristole’s Poetics) – of his father’s flawed nature; Miller is also here forcing Willy consciously to understand his part in Biff’s failure, showing us how the character has striven against acknowledgement of his own guilt. Finally, the cacophony of sound representing Willy’s crash and death at the end of the play segues into the Requiem with the repetition of a funeral-like note played on a cello: “As the car speeds off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound, which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello string.” This prepares the audience for the movement from play to Requiem, the movement from our helpless role of audience of the play to our involvement in it.
The Requiem is a vital part of the play. By calling it “Requiem”, “a Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead”, Miller is suggesting a number of things: first, that it is an opportunity to reassess Willy in the light of what is said about him; second, it serves to enhance his status from the Biff’s judgement that he is “a dime a dozen”; and finally, that although a representation of the burial, it is non-representational and therefore symbolic as well as literal.
As has already been said, the Requiem directly challenges the audience. There is no “grave” on stage: the actors stand at the edge of the stage, and in effect turn the audience into the grave. We are given, perhaps, therefore a choric role by Miller: like the Chorus of Greek tragedy, we can take no part in the action, simply sitting powerlessly, and, like the choric Alfieri in Miller’s A View from the Bridge, “Watch it run its bloody course” – but Miller does not allow us the luxury of feeling uninvolved. Indeed, we are also perhaps invited to recognise our own guilt for what has happened to Willy and all the other “low men and women” in our society. Finally, by being placed in Willy’s grave, if not his shoes, we are asked to consider the various judgement and reactions we hear from the four mourners.: “Biff: He never knew who he was.” “Charley: Nobody dast blame this man.” “Happy: I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain.” These quotations, combined with Linda’s human mourning on a personal level for her husband – she 'more than loves him, she admires him” – do not present the audience with any easy answers, but force us to consider what we have witnessed, and how it relates to our own context.
Another generic question is commonly asked: is Death of a Salesman a tragedy? Clearly this depends on our definition of tragedy; but here we need care. In literature, tragedy, of course, is not “sad things happening”, and so the “death” in the title is not necessarily a proof of genre. Similarly, it would be a mistake to rely on Aristotle’s definition of tragedy : the downfall of a great man who is essentially good, but not in the first rank of goodness, whose fall comes about through a fault not his own, and whose downfall fills the audience with pity and fear, producing “catharis”, usually translated as “purgation”. Aristotle was first of all writing descriptive, not prescriptive criticism: he was showing what features the plays held as “tragedies” had in common. Secondly, he was writing, of course, only of plays written in Athens in the 5th century BC. So how relevant can it be to apply his definition to twentieth century drama?
Likewise, A.C. Bradley is a dangerous critic for the careless. In his treatise on Shakespearean tragedy treatise on Shakespearean tragedy , Bradley shows that Shakespeare’s heroes do not suffer their downfall because of the operations of blind fate of the gods, as with much of Greek tragedy, but “The calamities of tragedy do not simply happen, nor are they sent; they proceed mainly from actions, and those the actions of men.” Shakespeare’s heroes may be of noble birth, but they are human in a way that the Greek heroes (arguably) are not. However, to reduce his views to the argument that heroes possess a “fatal flaw” that causes their downfall is inaccurate and untrue. For Bradley, tragedy is character in action; and indeed the closest he comes to this truncated view is arguing that many of Shakespeare’s characters have a focus that gives them greatness but often becomes a fatal gift: such as, perhaps, Coriolanus’s genius for warfare. So, Bradley is often misunderstood on Shakespearean tragedy – indeed, as F.R. Leavis pointed out, Othello, perhaps the only character for whom the phrase “fatal flaw” might be apt, is specifically excluded from this by Bradley, who feels that Iago is the sole reason behind his downfall.
It is worth noting that Miller seems to be playing with concept of tragedy in his title. If the word “Death” might suggest tragedy, especially because of the suggestion of an inevitable ending to the play, the word “Salesman” works against this. The classical and Shakespearean tragedies usually have eponymous heroes – Oedipus Tyrannus, Faustus, Hamlet – Miller deliberately depersonalises his protagonist in the title. The word “a” is also deliberate: Miller is making clear that this play is not about “the downfall of a great man”: Willy Loman is “a dime a dozen”. Furthermore, his choice of name for his main character reinforces this: Loman suggests “low man”, suggesting not only is he too far down the social scale to be considered a classical “tragic hero” but also that he a a representative, a type (like Everyman in John Skot’s medieval morality play, Everyman) and so not individualised enough to make this a tragedy. Conversely, the name “Willy” further complicates this – a personal name, but a diminutive, arguably lacking the dignity deemed necessary to give tragic status.
As an aside, it is interesting that Willy’s brother, the successful Ben, calls him “William” – yet he too carries a diminutive. “Ben”, however in Hebrew, means “son” – is Miller depersonalising Willy’s brother who, in the play, only exists in Willy’s memory, to suggest that Ben too is part of Willy’s dream landscape? It is also significant that Miller calls him after Benjamin, the Patriarch of one of the tribes of Israel, the Benjamites: his mother Rachel died giving birth to him and named him Benoni, "son of my sorrow" (interesting that Ben and Willy’s mother is never mentioned in the play); his name was changed to Benjamin, in Hebrew “"son of the fight hand"(Genesis 35:17 – and a fitting name for the brother who tells Biff “Never fight fair with a stranger”): remember that Miller’s family were Jewish immigrants. It is also important to note that Willy’s sons, Happy and Biff, also carry their childhood nicknames into their adulthood (and, indeed, often have even these names further altered: “Hap”; Biffo”. Conversely, the successful Howard (who has inherited his wealth and position from his father, Frank) and Bernard (who has worked for his success and neither boasts nor dreams about it) have names that are not foreshortened.
So, what is tragedy? It has often been said to be the depiction of a person who is suffering pressures that he or she are unable to bear. Certainly that is true of Willy Loman. Willy may be “a dime a dozen”, but his individual circumstances are human and affecting. Miller uses the character of Linda to underline this:
Finally, a tragedy needs a sense of the inevitable. We have already discussed the word “Death” in the title, but inevitability pervades the play. Linda, hearing Willy’s entrance at the beginning of the play, wakes in fear; both Happy and Howard proleptically mention Willy’s car crashes; and it is clearly no coincidence that Linda tells us early on that the insurance policy has threatened not to cover any more accidents, and that they are in arrears with the insurance payments. We are not allowed the luxury of hope in the play: even after the grand planning for the future, Happy and Biff’s ideas for a line of sporting goods, Willy’s determination to gain a desk job in New York, the Act ends ironically with the glow of the gas light illuminating the piping Willy has installed with thoughts of suicide.