Death of a Salesman

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DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Key Facts

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

author  · Arthur Miller

type of work  · Play

genre  · Tragedy, social commentary, family drama

language  · English (with emphasis on middle-class American lingo)

time and place written  · Six weeks in 1948, in a shed in Connecticut

date of first publication  ·  1949

original publisher  · The Viking Press

climax  · The scene in Frank’s Chop House and Biff’s final confrontation with Willy at home

protagonists  · Willy Loman, Biff Loman

antagonists  · Biff Loman, Willy Loman, the American Dream

setting (time)  · “Today,” that is, the present; either the late 1940s or the time period in which the play is being produced, with “daydreams” into Willy’s past; all of the action takes place during a twenty-four-hour period between Monday night and Tuesday night, except the “Requiem,” which takes place, presumably, a few days after Willy’s funeral

setting (place)  · According to the stage directions, “Willy Loman’s house and yard [in Brooklyn] and . . . various places he visits in . . . New York and Boston”

falling action  · The “Requiem” section, although the play is not really structured as a classical drama

tense  · Present

foreshadowing  · Willy’s flute theme foreshadows the revelation of his father’s occupation and abandonment; Willy’s preoccupation with Linda’s stockings foreshadows his affair with The Woman; Willy’s automobile accident before the start of Act I foreshadows his suicide at the end of Act II

tone  · The tone of Miller’s stage directions and dialogue ranges from sincere to parodying, but, in general, the treatment is tender, though at times brutally honest, toward Willy’s plight

themes  · The American Dream; abandonment; betrayal

motifs  · Mythic figures; the American West; Alaska; the African jungle

symbols  · Seeds; diamonds; Linda’s and The Woman’s stockings; the rubber hose

Context

A rthur Miller was born in New York City on October 17, 1915. His career as a playwright began while he was a student at the University of Michigan. Several of his early works won prizes, and during his senior year, the Federal Theatre Project in Detroit performed one of his works. He produced his first great success, All My Sons, in 1947. Two years later, Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, which won the Pulitzer Prize and transformed Miller into a national sensation. Many critics described Death of a Salesman as the first great American tragedy, and Miller gained eminence as a man who understood the deep essence of the United States. He published The Crucible in 1953, a searing indictment of the anti-Communist hysteria that pervaded 1950s America. He has won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award twice, and his Broken Glass (1993) won the Olivier Award for Best Play of the London Season.

Death of a Salesman, Miller’s most famous work, addresses the painful conflicts within one family, but it also tackles larger issues regarding American national values. The play examines the cost of blind faith in the American Dream. In this respect, it offers a postwar American reading of personal tragedy in the tradition of Sophocles’ Oedipus Cycle. Miller charges America with selling a false myth constructed around a capitalist materialism nurtured by the postwar economy, a materialism that obscured the personal truth and moral vision of the original American Dream described by the country’s founders.

A half century after it was written, Death of a Salesman remains a powerful drama. Its indictment of fundamental American values and the American Dream of material success may seem somewhat tame in today’s age of constant national and individual self-analysis and criticism, but its challenge was quite radical for its time. After World War II, the United States faced profound and...
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