Why did Arthur Miller write Death Of A Salesman – and what does it mean for us today?
By Assistant Director Fay Lomas
A young playwright, with one major success behind him, Arthur Miller retreated to the countryside, built himself a wood cabin and sat in it to write a play about an ageing salesman. Six weeks later, he had completed Death Of A Salesman, a piece that was utterly revolutionary in its style and deeply political in its implications. In Willy Loman, Miller created one of the twentieth century’s most complex characters: a man full of contradictions, who is by turns infuriating, comical and utterly heart-breaking. What was it that prompted Miller, only 33 at the time, to tackle the story – at once so intimate and so epic in scope – of a salesman at the end of his life?
By the late 1940s, when Miller was writing, the salesman was already a common figure of popular culture. The number of salesmen had grown enormously over the start of the twentieth century. Self-help books on how to sell were hugely popular. In many ways, the salesman was emblematic of the American dream: fluid class boundaries meant that almost anyone could take up selling, and that those who were successful could make it right to the top – many CEOs had started off as salesmen. Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt, published in 1922, satirises the figure of the salesman through its eponymous hero, who sees selling almost like a religion, who is deeply concerned with material possessions, and who, like Willy Loman, often speaks through the lingo of selling.
The Great Depression, however, made life much harder for salesmen, and by the time of the next major literary representation, the salesman had become a tragic figure. Thorton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination (1935) shows the travelling salesman as a man full of unrealised dreams, dashing from one quixotic scheme to the next, constantly doomed to failure. Eudora Welty’s short story, ‘Death Of A Travelling Salesman’ (1941), tells the tale of an elderly salesman who has a car crash far from home and seeks refuge with a couple who live on a farm. Finding it hard to sleep, he repeats former phrases of selling to himself. Finally deciding to leave the house in the middle of the night, he dies on the way back to his car. The similarities with Arthur Miller’s play – a salesman in his later years, the significance of the car, and above all, the title – are very clear.
Perhaps the most important inspiration for Willy lay not in literature, but within Miller’s own life. Miller’s uncle, Manny Newman, was a brash, blustering salesman, constantly comparing the success and athleticism of his own sons Buddy and Abby, to that of Arthur Miller and his brother. He was also a man who suffered from depression, and whose complex personality had always been a mystery to Miller. Miller recalls in his autobiography, Timebends, how he met Manny by chance at a performance of Miller’s All My Sons on Broadway; Manny had clearly been caught off guard by bumping into Miller there, and when Miller greeted him, only responded with ‘Buddy is doing very well’. Miller reflects: ‘I thought I knew what he was thinking: that he had lost the contest in his mind between his sons and me. An enormous welling sorrow formed in my belly as I watched him merge into the crowd outside’. A year later, after Manny had died, Miller went to see his cousin, Abby, on a quest to understand his late uncle. He asked Abby what Manny had wanted above all else, and was told, ‘a business for the boys’. This comment provided the key for understanding his uncle, and also, perhaps, a key for Willy: the line ‘a business for the boys’ even makes it into the play. Miller’s reflection on Manny offers further insight into his inspiration for Willy: ‘that homely, ridiculous little man had after all never ceased to struggle for a certain victory, the only kind open to him in this society—selling to achieve his lost self as a man with his name and his sons’ names on a business of his own’.
Death Of A Salesman was thus, from its very beginning, both personal and political. And this is what is ‘remarkable’ – to use one of Willy’s favourite words – about the play today; it not only taps into something universal about individual hopes and family relationships, but it also retains a deep, political relevance. This is a play that questions the brutality of a system that is supposedly meritocratic, if you’re not one of the ones who reaches the top of the pile. Miller writes in Timebends that he hoped the play was ‘a timebomb […] under the bullshit of capitalism, this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last’. Today, where the American dream is still very much alive and kicking – indeed, where Trump, in his first speech to congress, told America, ‘We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts […] and the confidence to turn […] those dreams into action’ – Miller’s interrogation of the vast divide between dream and reality is as bitingly pertinent as ever.
In many other ways, too, this is a world that feels very familiar. I always find myself wanting to chuckle wryly when Willy exclaims, ‘once in my life I would like to own something before it’s broken’. Portraying a world where people are constantly in debt, where so much is bought on credit, and where very little lasts, Death Of A Salesman feels like it could have been written in 2017. Similarly, when Linda describes her son, Biff, as ‘lost’ and trying to ‘find himself’, we hear a phrase so common to our parlance today; like Biff and Happy, many of society’s younger generation are struggling to find their place. If Death Of A Salesman is still topical in its representation of the young, so is it in its portrayal of the old. ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit’, Willy says. Yet the question of the nature of society’s duty to those later in life is still as hotly debated as ever; it was, indeed, at the heart of the election debate and may very well have contributed to the hung parliament result. And the discussions Happy and Biff have about how they share the load of their father’s decline are conversations that are happening between siblings all across the country, on a daily basis.
Almost twenty years later, in The Price, Miller would return to many of the themes of Death Of A Salesman: two brothers torn apart over the question of care for their father, the impact of a failed career on the life of a man, and the complex relationship between truth and lies. In a way, the play feels like a parallel reality to Death Of A Salesman: where characters like Biff and Happy might be, over twenty years down the line, had Death Of A Salesman ended differently.
The issues Death Of A Salesman explores go on well beyond the end of the play – both for Miller, who kept returning to them over the course of his career, and for us, approaching the play almost seventy years down the line, and seeing our era’s own dreams and fears expressed within it. The play that Miller wrote in an ardent, isolated burst of creative energy endures for generations.