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Death of a salesman certain private…

Death of a salesman certain private conversations in two acts and a… (original 1948; edition 1998)

by Arthur Miller

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning tragedy of a salesman's deferred American dream   Ever since it was first performed in 1949, Death of a Salesman has been recognized as a milestone of the American theater. In the person of Willy Loman, the aging, failing salesman who makes his living riding on a smile and a shoeshine, Arthur Miller redefined the tragic hero as a man whose dreams are at once insupportably vast and dangerously insubstantial. He has given us a figure whose name has become a symbol for a kind of majestic grandiosity--and a play that compresses epic extremes of humor and anguish, promise and loss, between the four walls of an American living room. "By common consent, this is one of the finest dramas in the whole range of the American theater." --Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times "So simple, central, and terrible that the run of playwrights would neither care nor dare to attempt it." --Time… (more)
Title:Death of a salesman certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem
Authors:Arthur Miller
Info:New York : Penguin, 1998.
Collections:Your library

Work details

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1948)

  1. 20
    All My Sons by Arthur Miller (timspalding)
    timspalding: Similar, if not as good.
  2. 20
    Our Town by Thornton Wilder (kxlly)
  3. 11
    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (FFortuna)
  4. 00
    A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller (varwenea)
    varwenea: A shared thread of angst amongst the common men ties these two plays. Both leads are flawed. Both pay for their mistakes.
  5. 01
    1933 Was A Bad Year by John Fante (Babou_wk)
    Babou_wk: Le fils refuse de suivre la carrière professionnelle de son père.

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Even more powerful as a script ( )
  Richj | May 7, 2019 |
Well, that was miserable...

Not my format, not my genre, not my cup of tea. Basically, I was doomed before I even started. ( )
  Sammystarbuck | Apr 13, 2019 |
Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman:
Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem

Reclam, Paperback, 2010.

12mo. 173 pp. Edited by Manfred and Gunda Pütz with notes and Afterword [163-73].

First produced, 1949.
First published, 1955.
Reclam edition, 1984.

Inhalt [Contents]

Death of a Salesman

Editorische Notiz [Editorial Note]
Auswahlbibliographie [Selected Bibliography]
Nachwort [Afterword]


My reason for reading Arthur Miller is purely historical. I think it is useful to read something by the contemporaries of your favourite authors. This is the only way to learn how much of their genius is uniquely their own and how much rather belongs to the times they lived in. For instance, reading something by Kyd and Marlowe is quite illuminating about the genius of Shakespeare. Ergo, as a great fan of Tennessee Williams, it seemed natural that I should read something by Arthur Miller. What better choice than his most successful work, one that lasted for 742 performances when it was first produced on Broadway?[1]

Well, I can’t say I was terribly moved by the play. “Nobody’s too good to be a salesman”, Walter Neff says in Double Indemnity (1944). That may be, but that is not the point Arthur Miller tries to make in this play. What he does say, as far as I’m concerned, is that some people are not good enough to be anything else.

Willy Loman, the eponymous salesman, remained a pathetic rather than a tragic character for me. This is quite a difference. I expected a tragedy, but I got only a trivial family melodrama. When you look carefully at him, Willy is very little more than a vain, rude, irascible, boastful and brutally ignorant man in his sixties. He talks a lot and loudly. He does nothing but make delusional plans. He cannot comprehend why Bernard doesn’t mention he is going to Washington to argue a case in the Supreme Court. Well, some people don’t go around boasting all the time. They do things.

Leaving aside his delusions of grandeur, Willy’s absurd vanity leads him into one trouble after another, not just at his own expense, but at the expense of his whole family. He is twice offered a job that would take him off the road and twice does he turn it down indignantly. Why wouldn’t he work for Charley? It is never made clear, but it must be because Charley is “liked, but not well liked”. This is too humiliating for Big Willy. He is the biggest salesman in New England. He is “vital” there. This is not vanity; it is not even pride, a much less venial sin[2]. This is sheer stupidity. If you want to explain it with Willy’s fitful madness, you’re welcome. But that’s an easy way out, and I don’t buy it.

All this could be excused if Willy showed at least some traces of fighting spirit. But he never did. He cannot beat the system and he succumbs to it. He doesn’t fight it, he doesn’t defy it, he doesn’t even rail much against it: he merely surrenders to it. He is drowned in the ocean of post-war money-obsessed American plutocracy without so much as a kick, a wave or a scream.

Linda Loman, Willy’s wife, is by no means a more engaging character. Rather the reverse! In the first place, her compassion would have been more admirable had it been lavished on a less worthless husband. But the worst thing about her is that she does see, however dimly, through some of Willy’s delusions, yet she does her best to uphold them. And she’s been doing that for decades. Nothing good can ultimately come from such irresponsible (not to use stronger words) behaviour. I would go even further and claim for Linda the honour of being one of the main reasons for Willy’s wretched old age.

Worst of all are the two sons, Biff and Happy. Both are ciphers, worthless bums and womanisers, predictably suffering from the same self-delusions as their father. Biff at least has one great moment in the end with lines like “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” and “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!”, but even that is spoiled (like the “Requiem”) by a piece of final bathos that Miller seems to have found hard to resist. (I don’t what to spoil the great secret about what happened in Boston between Willy and Biff, but I must say I was expecting something more substantial.) In any case, the aimless young man, much like the tired old man, has been done to death in all sorts of fiction from time immemorial. He is not very interesting any more, except in the hands of a writer more exceptional than Arthur Miller.

It’s a good play on the whole, smartly written and very readable, with some sharp lines that expose the American Dream for the consumerist pathology it was in the late 1940s and continues to be, worldwide, to the present day. Charley puts it best of all to Willy: “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 has his moments, for instance when he remarks to Howard that a man is not a fruit (you can’t eat him and throw away the peel), when he exclaims he is always in a race with the junkyard (car, fridge, house not yet paid for yet falling apart already), when he mutters to himself that he talks and jokes too much (a rare case of self-insight), or when he is so happy to have a slut for a mistress (because it can be very lonely on the road). In such moments Willy Loman almost – almost! – reaches tragic heights.

All the same, for my part this is not a great play that leaves a lasting impression waiting to be deepened further on re-reading. Three excellent movie versions with three great actors[3] as Willy didn’t help, and I don’t think any live performance would either. “There is something feeble, and a little contemptible,” Bertrand Russell once wrote, “about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths.”[4] This is what Willy Loman and his whole family have been doing all their lives. How am I supposed to care for them? Even if such characters are more common in real life than generally recognised, that doesn’t make them interesting or inspiring – or worth reading and caring about.

But the play certainly put Tennessee Williams into a context. Miller can do the “memory” stuff far removed from dull realism just as well. But the poetic language and the visceral characters belong to Tennessee’s own genius.

[1] Death of a Salesman is Miller’s most successful play on Broadway by far. It has been revived four times (1975, 1984, 1999, 2012) for a total of 608 performances. Counting the first run in 1949/50, this makes for 1350 shows on Broadway alone. None of his later plays had comparable success. The Price is second with 816 shows, 429 on the first run (1968/9) and 387 during four revivals (1979, 1992, 2000, 2017). A View from the Bridge is third with 733 shows, 149 on the first run (1955/6) and 584 during four revivals (1983, 1998, 2010, 2016). The Crucible, the absolute champion by copies and reviews on this site, has managed only 514 shows so far, 197 on the first run (1953) and 317 during five revivals (1964, 1972, 1992, 2002, 2017). All My Sons, Miller’s first success, managed 328 shows on the first run (1947), but it has been revived only twice so far (1987, 2008/9) for a total of 132 shows. A new production is due to open in April 2019. See Internet Broadway Database.
[2] For a precise definition of the difference between vanity and pride, see “Hic et Ille” in W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand (1962).
[3] Fredric March (1951), Lee J. Cobb (1966) and Dustin Hoffman (1985).
[4] Part II, Chapter 7, “Will Religious Fate Cure Our Troubles?”, from Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954). ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Apr 1, 2019 |
Incredibly tragic and very compelling. ( )
  Zaccer | Jan 2, 2019 |
Incredibly tragic and very compelling. ( )
  Zaccer | Jan 2, 2019 |
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First words
A melody is heard, played upon a flute.
You don't understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life... He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back - that's an earthquake.
He's liked, but he's not well liked.
Biff : Shouldn’t we do anything?

Linda : Oh, my dear, you should do a lot of things, but there’s nothing to do, so go to sleep.
Charley : Howard fired you?

Willy : That snotnose. Imagine that? I named him. I named him Howard.

Charley : Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. 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 : I’ve always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing-

Charley : Why must everybody like you? Who liked J. P. Morgan? Was he impressive?...But with his pockets on he was very well liked.
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