Death of a Salesman's Eternal Life

Some plays are so powerful that they serve as a standard by which all others are compared. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which premiered in 1949, is one of these. Willy Loman, the traveling salesman in the title, has become more than a character’s name; he is a brand representing disenfranchised middle-aged men everywhere. But Loman is not a stand-alone invention. He emerges from a complex and fascinating work of art. In order to understand and appreciate him, “attention must be paid” to Miller’s masterpiece as a whole.

First consider the structure and Miller’s audacious method of revealing Willy’s present anxiety and past memories simultaneously. The play begins in the Brooklyn house of 63-year-old Loman and his wife Linda. Their adult sons, Happy and Biff, are visiting.

Willy should be on the road selling, but he has returned home because his mind is wandering. The family is nervous about his health. Adding to the tension, Willy and Biff are arguing. The father is angry that Biff is not building a future, not making any money.

Soon Willy’s delusions are part of the play’s action. Biff and Happy become teenagers again. Their father is a boastful, vaguely underhanded man, who by example is teaching his adoring sons this approach to life. Then, with a change of light and music, the characters and audience are back in the present, where Willy’s ego is crushed by current economic hardships.

The scenes continue to shift between Willy’s memories and the play’s present reality. Seamlessly, Willy shares the stage with his neighbor Charley in real time, and his dead brother, Ben, in a hallucination. These brothers talk of their own “wild-hearted” father, also a traveling man, who walked away when Willy was a boy.

While the theatrical requirements of staging this play are unique, it is the powerful plot that drives the story forward. Though Death of a Salesman is often cloaked in a mystique of reverence, it is a hit play that moves with a thriller’s pace. It reveals clues, secrets, and shocking encounters with a mounting momentum.

But it is the blunt truths embedded in Death of a Salesman that anchor the play and make it timeless. These truths explore the American Dream, and what happens to people for whom it does not come true. The ideal in the American Dream concept is that if men and women work hard they will be rewarded, and their children will have upward mobility. Despite Willy’s flaws, he did his job and expects a fair deal. Yet, this salesman admits, “I put 34 years into this firm…and now I can’t pay my insurance.” Sound familiar?

Other lines ring equally true: “In those days there was personality in it…there was respect, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried,” Willy says of his work routine. Many will also relate to this sentiment: “Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard,” he says.

For Willy and Linda’s sons, the disenchantment is less immediate but no less real. “I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for,” Happy says. “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be,” Biff says of his foray into business.

Arthur Miller’s play will live forever on stages across America and around the world. Right now Pittsburgh audiences have a wonderful opportunity to experience an exceptional production, lovingly produced by the Public Theater, of this profound and moving work of art.