Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy
Death of a Salesman is typically classified as a modern tragedy. This implies that it follows the example of the classic Greek tragedies, Roman tragedies and Shakespearian and Jacobean tragedy. There are, however, subtle but vital differences between these forms. Aristotle’s classic view of tragedy saw the form as one which only properly deals with the fate of gods, kings and heroes. In the twentieth century, such a restricted definition would consign tragedy to the waste bin of literary history. Consequently, in Death of a Salesman, Miller challenges this view and presents us with an entirely new one.
Our increasingly secular world no longer believes in gods, and kings and heroes are increasingly humbled, brought down to the level of ordinary men and women. Miller therefore embarked upon a project to reinvigorate the classic tragic form in order to make it more relevant to the world we live in.
Miller uses elements of the classical tragedy to create a new and compellingly human drama, one which is true to tradition but conceived on a domestic scale so that audiences can identify with the chief protagonist and draw parallels with their own lives.
The basic elements of the Aristotelean tragedy may be summarised as follows: • A play with an unhappy ending.
• Serious, wide in scope, and complete in itself.
• Having a “hero” who, because of a particular tragic flaw, goes from happiness to misery and death. • Frequently having a sense of waste at the death of the tragic hero, together with relief that he no longer has to endure pain or suffering. • A point at which the tragic hero recognises both his fate and the weaknesses in himself that have brought him to it - this is often referred to as anagnorisis. • A catharsis or purging of emotions at the end, often leading to a sense of ultimate peace and regeneration or the rebuilding of lives and societies.
Miller’s redefinition of the tragic form
In Death of a Salesman, Miller suggests that the natural hero of the tragedy is the man in the street, you and me, the individual attempting to gain his rightful place in society. Yet, the life of the tragic hero must have intensity. Miller argued that, in Willy Loman, the audience recognises the human passion to surpass his given bounds, a fanatical insistence upon his self-conceived role (and a struggle to define what this might be – salesman, father, husband, hunter-gatherer…) Furthermore, his thinking must be dominated by the issues of, for instance, the survival of the race, the relationships of man to God – the questions, in short, whose answers define humanity and the right way to live so that the world is a home, instead of a battlefield.
Implications of this redefinition for a modern audience
If Miller’s redefinition of the form of tragedy is correct, there are profound implications for both playwrights and audiences. In this redefinition of ‘modern’ tragedy, the writer has a much wider canvas on which to paint a tragic view of modern life. His subjects can be ordinary people in a whole host of situations, from the spectacular media issues such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, famines, disasters at sea or in the air, to domestic conflict, mugging, rape, homelessness, cot death, redundancy, AIDS, and countless other situations that impact on individuals, families, or communities.
For the audience, there is instant recognition that gives the play more impact as they cannot help but feel that there but for the grace of God go I. If the writer has created believable characters in recognisable human situations, his audience will find it easy to identify with the drama as it unfolds and, inevitably, find parallels with the real world. Such a close examination of contemporary issues and situations may be uncomfortable for some theatregoers, mirroring too nearly perhaps their own lives, but they will be more likely to...