Death of a Salesman Intro

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Death of a Salesman
A play written by: Arthur Miller
In two acts and a requiem
(1915 - 2005)

About the Author

Arthur Miller, considered one of the most distinguished contemporary American playwrights, explores themes of individual and social commitment, familial relationships, and moral obligation. His ten major works have sparked controversy and enjoyed acclaim. They continue to have a stirring effect on audiences as well as readers.

Death of a Salesman in 1949 brought Miller the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It also had the distinction of being the only play ever selected for circulation by the Book-of-the-Month Club. It took Miller only six weeks to write the play that had probably been germinating in his mind since his job with his father’s manufacturing company (he worked there in high school briefly, but abhorred the job because of the way the clothing buyers treated his father and the company’s salesmen with arrogant contempt). Considered a masterpiece by theater critics and historians, the play condemns a society that compels individuals to forsake their natural talents and their dignity in favor of achieving material success. The opening night audience in Philadelphia was overwhelmed; long after the standing ovations and final curtain calls, theatergoers, identifying with Willy and his sons, refused to go home.

In 1952 Miller’s most controversial play, The Crucible, was produced. Although it won him a Tony award, the merits of the play were obscured by the political attitudes toward it. There was an obvious parallel between the mass hysteria of the 1692 witch trials and the mass hysteria of the McCarthyism in the 1950’s.

Historical Background

The United States emerged from World War II with unrivaled economic power. All other industrial countries had suffered devastation, but the factories, farms, and research laboratories of the United States had grown and flourished. After the war United States agriculture became the granary for a Europe on the brink of starvation, and American banks became the financiers for a Europe on the verge of bankruptcy.

Two challenges confronted the US in 1945: to dismantle the wartime system of rationing, allocations, and price controls without setting off inflation; and to return millions of demobilized soldiers and huge war industries to civilian production without plunging the country back into the Depression.

The removal of wartime controls did prompt a sharp rise in consumer prices in 1946, but the wartime improvements in technology had increased productivity so greatly that production of consumer goods and foodstuffs soared, and the price levels were soon fully stabilized. Likewise, after a brief recession, the economy experienced a prolonged boom.

The postwar period was frenzied. Demobilization was rapid; in 1946, there were 35,000 discharges a day. People had accumulated savings during wartime austerity, and now they were ready to spend. A peacetime value system of the pursuit of personal happiness replaced the wartime one of sacrifice. A mania developed for such consumer items as beef, ice cream, alcohol, cars, and toys; tickets for sporting events, theater, and travel were in short supply; housing was at a premium.

With the war’s end, President Truman turned to the completion of the New Deal’s social and economic programs. Although his requests for health insurance, increases in Social Security benefits, and regional development projects were ignored, he did get Congress to pass an Employment Act in 1946, committing the government to fostering full employment. The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, also known as the “GI Bill of Rights” provided billions of dollars in educational, housing, unemployment, and medical benefits to the returning servicemen. The single-minded pursuit of delayed careers and the devotion to deferred families that the GI Bill allowed...
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