Miller, Arthur 1915–
Miller is one of the most celebrated American dramatists of our time, whose fame derives primarily from the four plays of 1947–55: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge. In their examination of identity crisis and portrayal of the moral and physical degeneration of very ordinary people, these plays constitute "some of the most devastating comment ever made on the American way of life." Miller has won many important awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1949 for Death of a Salesman. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 10, 15, 26, 179.
Miller, sad emperor with new clothes, is more to be pitied than condemned, once it is understood that he is his own victim as well as that of the cult of success which flourishes so ferally in the jungles of the popular theatre. He is a master faute de mieux, a playwright whose dramatic imagination has always operated within the most stringent limitations, a narrow realist with a hopeless aspiration to poetry, and a moralist with greatly inadequate equipment for the projection of moral complexity. Only once, in Death of a Salesman, did his powers prove commensurate with his theme, so that he was able to compose a flawed but representative image of an aspect of our experience. One other time, in The Crucible, his deficient language achieved a transcendence through its borrowing from history. And that is all, literally everything.
After the Fall is Miller's attempt to come to terms with the fact of his silence, the eight years since his dismal A View from the Bridge announced the terrible possibility that even within his constricted area he might no longer have anything to say. It is his "8 1/2," his document at the crossroads; in it he wishes to fashion a new basis for the continued impulse toward art and, by extension, life, to make a fecundation of what has become sterile. But unlike Fellini, whose film broke through his personal dilemma by the highest acts of the imagination, by making its theme into its form and its terrors into its acceptances, Miller has simply laid out the raw material and done nothing to transform or transfigure it. And what is worse, he has engaged in a process of self-justification which at any time is repellent but which becomes truly monstrous in the absence of any intelligence, craft or art, since it is precisely in those things that self-justification for a creator lies.
The play is so entirely autobiographical that one wonders why Miller did not take a deep breath and go the whole way, why he did not retain himself as a playwright instead of making himself a lawyer and keep Marilyn Monroe as an actress instead of turning her into a singer. Had he been that straightforward the work might at least have gained in the gossip-column interest, which is the only sort it possesses. As it is, his life is spread before us in the manner of a confession whose thin factual disguises only irritate us because of their pretense at striking out for universal meaning. In his self-exposure,… Miller has succeeded in conveying no meaning whatsoever, but only an endless sophomoric revery about meaning, an internal bull-session with not even the minor drama of contradiction or opposition.
For there is almost no drama at all, no true confrontation and no movement from confrontation to understanding; there are only wind, shadows and purple smoke. The very form of the play, which Miller has described, to our unbearable embarrassment for him, as revolutionary, is exactly suited to its incorporeality and adamant refusal of dramatic life. On the edge of the bare apron stage …, a figure called Quentin speaks to a "Listener" theoretically seated just beyond the footlights, while the events of the play, which are described in a program note as occurring within the "mind, thought and memory" of Quentin, unfold from time to time in the areas behind him and in the interstices of his monologue.
They are not actually events but mostly unassimilated fragments of the past, and they are supposed to derive their significance and palpability from Quentin-Miller's observations about them. And this is what is so stupefying, that these observations are so unutterably pompous and flaccid, that they compose a rhetoric of such hopeless banality and adolescent mutterings, that whatever might have been palpable and actual is converted into gas. (pp. 152-54)
Richard Gilman, "Still Falling" (1964), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 152-55.
[After the Fall] would seem to be a mea culpa and, at the same time, an exercise in self-justification, an attempt to come to terms with the past both in its moral aspect and as the field of a protracted vocational sterility, an investigation into the nature of personal responsibility and a counter-inquiry into the inadmissible claims of others. Technically, it is an endeavor to shape a form loose enough and open enough to contain so ambitious a range of material—by locating the action in the "mind, thought and memory of Quentin," the play's protagonist. (pp. 156-57)
Miller is absurdly beside the point when he argues that autobiographical material does not invalidate a work of art. Of course it doesn't, but what does is the failure to transform such material, to deliver it from the chaos and impenetrability of event and actuality, to give it shape and definition and a coherence of its own. And these are the things which After the Fall so radically fails to accomplish, deficient as it is in structure, though, language and movement, and depending so heavily on earnestness, "honesty" and the sort of judgment-freezing self-exposure, which is designed to disarm us and compel our sympathy.
Well, one does sympathize with Miller, if not with his play. He is, it should always have been clear, a master faute de mieux, an egregious product of our commercial theatre's hunger for gods. On the strength of one play, whose chief recommendations were not its imaginative findings or verbal éclat but its formal weight and steady contemplation of one limited sector of our national myth, we raised him to a stature he has never been able to consolidate. And what After the Fall so painfully reveals is Miller's desperate attempt to live up to his artificial position as a playwright of passion and ideas, with the result that his intellectual shortcomings and verbal inadequacy have never been more flagrantly exhibited. (pp. 157-58)
[Whenever] he is being most ambitious, most poetic, he is invariably at the edge of absurdity and frequently over it. When he keeps to a certain modest level of common speech, the kind of thing he manages best, the play is at least endurable. But the itch is too great, so that he is constantly reaching out for splendor. (p. 158)
Richard Gilman, "Getting It Off His Chest, But Is It Art?" (1964), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 156-59.
Although the structure of All My Sons is tight, it remains open to a number of serious criticisms…. Miller would have it that every step in All My Sons was carefully calculated. We need not necessarily accept this view…. Granting, for the sake of argument, that every move in the play was carefully plotted, one might question whether contrast, which is indeed a powerful dramatic device, could not have been established in a more economical manner, whether a relatively static and lengthy introduction threatening "boredom" was absolutely essential. [Murray comments earlier that "about the first half of the opening act is merely introductory in nature"]. A more cautious approach might suggest that Miller, in his second full-length play, had not as yet thoroughly mastered certain difficult problems of craft—chiefly, as Miller himself acknowledges, "the biggest single dramatic problem, namely, how to dramatize what has gone before"…. (pp. 5-6)
[The structure] of Death of a Salesman … is highly integrated. Exposition is continual and always relevant to action and theme; the time-sequences reveal the amazing number of preparations for coming events. The final scene of Act One is a masterpiece of constructive art. There is no inconsequential byplay in Salesman; no loss of focus on the protagonist; no hidden … tricks; and no "jumps." Action rises smoothly, steadily, and convincingly. If space permitted, a good deal might be added … about the uses of irony in the play—a sure sign of Miller's increasing sophistication and restraint. (pp. 34-5)
Is the "system" to blame for Willy's fate, ask some critics, or is the fault within Willy's character? Is there a "split" here between "personal" (or "Freudian") and "social" (or "Marxian") motivation? Moreover, Miller's "positive" values, some critics urge, reveal a "romantic" and "sentimental" view of man—that is, Biff's emphasis on "freedom and the body," "self-realization," and "the simple life" are "romantic" and "sentimental"—while the references to Willy's working with his hands is an inadequate solution to the problems posed by the play. Few Americans, it has also been alleged, believe with Willy Loman that success depends on being "well liked."
Criticism of thematic unity in Salesman, it is obvious, betrays a curious "either-or" kind of thinking. Usually Miller is pummelled for too overtly trying to "prove the theme," but with Salesman the strategy has been to attack him for being too "realistic." Actually Miller should be praised for having succeeded in the difficult task of integrating the "personal" and the "social" in his play…. To ask a modern dramatist to write a play that emphasizes either social necessity or individual responsibility would seem to involve an oversimplified approach to experience. The abstract discussion of freedom versus determinism, usually conducted in a philosophical vacuum, seems ultimately a deadend; in actuality, we recognize the rival claims of both factors, and we manage to live with both. (pp. 42-3)
The critical question is whether Miller has rendered a complex vision of experience, not whether the critic necessarily agrees with the alleged interpretation of the vision. The play implies that Willy might have been happier in a pre-"capitalistic" (or perhaps pre-industrial) society; it more plainly suggests that Willy would have been happier working with his "hands"; and it makes manifest that Biff feels that—for him—the West is the answer. Psychologically, it is a truism to say that a man will be happy doing what he can do best. What appears to disturb some critics is that this "answer" is not "profound" enough. Would Oedipus have brought on his fate if he had not been rash? Would Lear have ended badly had he not been short-tempered? How "profound" are the specific "counterweights" here? Moreover, is Miller offering a "universal" solution to a modern problem? Obviously not…. In terms of the play,… there is no "proof" that Miller is "saying" that pre-"capitalistic" society was "better"—for the contrast between "past" and "present" is limited by point of view, and the "past" is wholly Willy's projection. As for the positive values that seem to emerge from the play—"romantic" and "sentimental" values—one might fairly ask whether they are quite so shoddy as some critics would have us believe. These same critics would have to hold (and perhaps some do) that the democratic experiment is shoddy, that it is "romantic" and "sentimental," since these same values are part of the democratic rhetoric. Not all of us, however, have lost faith in that rhetoric. Salesman also poses questions which, it is hoped, are answerable, but which as yet have not been answered—such as, how are we to reconcile human values with an expanding economy of abundance which puts a premium on mechanization and impersonality? Critics who assault Salesman rarely reveal where they stand; they seem to suggest that the answer has been found—perhaps they themselves have the answer—but that Miller, through sheer stupidity or perversity, has not provided the answer. Some critics miss the theological and metaphysical dimension in Salesman; but in a pluralistic society such as ours it is surely arrogant to demand a single standard.
Death of a Salesman possesses both "particular" and "universal" features. How many Americans believe in being "well liked"? (It should be pointed out here that Willy Loman works hard, too—ten to twelve hours a day, in fact.)… [Our] society places an increasing importance on "personality."… This problem of universality raises a question about Miller's play that has usurped all other problems in the minds of some critics.
I refer, of course, to the question about whether or not Death of a Salesman is a "true" tragedy. Is Willy Loman a "true" tragic hero? Does Willy have stature? Does he achieve "insight"? How representative is he? These, for some minds, have been the burning critical questions. (pp. 46-9)
After reading through all that has been written on this subject, however, one is tempted to dismiss the tedious discussion by roundly declaring that Death of a Salesman is a moving and powerful play, and thus it is irrelevant whether or not Miller has written a "true" tragedy. If the "traditionalist" standard is the only acceptable one for tragedy, then it is plain that Salesman is no tragedy. For no one would claim for Willy a profound intelligence, and if stature is dependent on intelligence, Willy falls short of tragic grandeur….
Willy is not given "intellectual fluency" but perhaps Miller has achieved something better, or at least something just as good—namely, he has shown how "insight" is warded off, how it is suppressed or repressed, but how it will not disappear, how it continues to torment the conscious mind and will, marking its victim as a neurotic and possibly even a psychotic. (p. 50)
It is, I think, sheer obscurantism to dismiss Salesman, as some critics from the upper stratosphere have done, because it deals with a "superficial" American environment. Miller treats one phase of our modern world, and he treats it in a powerful and memorable manner…. True, Salesman may be "low" tragedy but it may also be more moving as a play than most "high" tragedies. The appreciation of Salesman, then, would not seem to depend on whether or not it is a "true" tragedy…. Actually, the quarrel over genre may not be an aesthetic one at all; perhaps it really reflects a deep reluctance on the part of "traditional" critics to come to grips with the dark and difficult nature of contemporary experience. (p. 51)
[Its] schematic neatness suggests that Crucible is not to be evaluated by a narrow adherence to a realistic or naturalistic norm…. Yet it would be a serious error to leap to the other extreme and dismiss Miller's play as a mere oversimplified morality play. (p. 67)
Miller might have written an enjoyable and complex play had he given more attention to religious and philosophical factors that were important to Salem in 1692. In fact, however, Miller wrote this play—The Crucible—and regardless of his "intentions," his historical "errors," or his faulty contemporary parallel, the task for the critic is whether the play that is, is sufficiently complex and "aesthetic" on its own terms. One might read the play, as many critics have done, as an attack on enforced conformity; in my opinion, however, such a reading is narrow and superficial, and misses the deeper thrust of the play….
[The] thematic question projected by the action of the play would seem to be: How should a man act in the face of evil? It has … been suggested that the individual "replies" to the question are represented by the various significant actors in the drama. (p. 68)
Intrinsically, The Crucible is complex, coherent, and convincing; that is, it succeeds as a play on its own premises and merits. Although one might hesitate to agree that The Crucible is superior to Death of a Salesman—it seems to lack the sensuousness, the imaginative and technical brilliance, even the warm humanity, of the earlier play—still it remains one of Miller's best plays and one of the most impressive achievements of the American theater. (pp. 74-5)
For all its non-representational machinery, After the Fall remains very much an old-fashioned thesis play. It is almost too heavily didactic. The attempt to encompass such a vast range of data almost automatically precludes working in depth in any one segment. Economic influences are introduced in the 1929 crash which rends Quentin's family, in Maggie's inability to buy self-respect, and in Quentin's failure to be happy as a "successful" lawyer. Political motivation appears in the sequence involving Lou and Mickey. Most of the economic and political significance of the play, however, disappears after Act One. The latter half of the play concentrates on what Miller would probably call "the nature of the human being himself" but which really comes down to psychological, or character, study. As a result, the economic and political dimensions of Fall seem rather thin and not really worked into the texture or substance of the play. Quentin and Maggie are solidly drawn characters, but the other figures are, on the whole, little more than puppets. With its diversity of characters and experiences, Fall ought to possess some of the analogical richness of Elizabethan tragedy (I am using "analogy" here in the sense as developed chiefly by the Scholastic and Neo-Scholastic philosophers and as applied to the drama by Francis Fergusson in The Idea of a Theater); due to its over-conceptualized approach, however, what is actually projected is a kind of thematic "monism"—a flat, impoverished, only partly convincing picture of life which leaves one with the feeling that significant differences in characters and experiences have not been acknowledged. Needless to say, it is precisely the "differences" that convey the sense of life to us in the drama. After the Fall is simply too much of the same.
The extension of guilt from the personal to the social, the latter in this case symbolized by the Nazi concentration camp, may be a perfectly valid generalization. In dramatic terms, though, that generalization is not made convincing. There is too much of an air of contrivance. By employing a loose and open form, Miller, in his haste to articulate an intellectual formulation that will tidily sum up our present plight, is tempted to circumvent, or to leapfrog over, that need for close inspection of matter, that necessity to definitely particularize time and place and gradually accumulate significant details, which results in a tight mesh of probability. To put it another way, unity in Fall is chiefly mechanical, merely verbal. (pp. 153-54)
Incident at Vichy, like The Crucible [and plays of Sartre and Shaw, Murray adds], is a philosophical melodrama…. But critics have not always applauded Shaw, Sartre, and Miller in their efforts here; the usual charge is that the plays deal with symbols instead of "people" and that there is too much "talk" and too little "action."… [In] Incident at Vichy there is both talk and action (the duplication, or redundancy, of After the Fall is of course not intended here), and … at times the talk is the action…. Von Berg and Leduc are more than mere symbols [and] question marks surround their behavior, particularly that of Leduc. True, the other characters, representing for the most part but a single idea, are relatively flat. From that standpoint, the play seems simple. But Incident, like Crucible, is only apparently a realistic play. Compare these two works, for example, with a genuine realistic piece, All My Sons. In the early play, an attempt was made to make each of the characters complex combinations of good and bad, whereas in the philosophical melodramas the tendency is to account for moral complexity by the range of characters represented—that is, all the characters together comprise the necessary thematic complexity. Looked at from one angle, then, Incident indeed appears simple; looked at from another perspective, however, the play seems complex. (pp. 175-76)
The dramatic image of the play makes the Nazi evil enormously vivid. What Miller has done is to extend the limits of guilt beyond the narrowly juridical until complicity shades over into active moral permissiveness and passive acceptance of evil. Miller has written a play, not a legal brief. In After the Fall, complicity seemed strained and remote; in Incident at Vichy it is rendered concrete and immediate. Admittedly, there are times when the dialogue becomes too abstract; but on the whole the language tends to spring naturally from character and incident. It is also true that Incident, like Crucible, lacks that sensuous quality found in Salesman and A View; this is an inherent limitation perhaps of philosophical melodrama, and for that reason might not be for all tastes. For that matter, melodrama has never been for all tastes. And it is not difficult to find the melodrama in Vichy. The repeated appearances of the police guard who silently regards the prisoners, early in the play, is an obvious instance. (Within the context of the play, however, this device is less crude than analysis might suggest.) Most of the characters, it might also be objected, are—and this is usually the case in melodrama—finished when they make their first appearance; they do not, save for Leduc and Von Berg, take shape before us. Even the ending, limited as it is to a gesture, has, some might argue, melodramatic overtones. Brevity sets certain limits on depth, and the structure, almost flawless by conventional standards, is perhaps too neat for some readers. There is some truth in these observations, and no balanced critique of Incident at Vichy should ignore them. In my opinion, however, the credits outweigh the debits in a final accounting of the play and Miller's use of the detention room in Vichy as a symbol of man's indifference to his fellows in any human situation is a valid and compelling one. (pp. 177-78)
[Nobody] in the play, except Leduc—who does not have an "option on the Truth"—says that we are all responsible; the reader infers as much from the action, and either accepts or rejects the idea according to his lights. Which is another reason why Incident At Vichy is not to be confused with a thesis play. As I have stressed, the play represents a complex range of possible alternatives to evil. (p. 178)
There is … no smooth line of development in Miller's work; no elegant pattern of growth from crude experimental efforts to finished master works. True, All My Sons is defective; but A Memory of Two Mondays follows The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, playing on the same bill with A Memory, precedes After the Fall. Even Miller's best plays are, if not vastly, at least manifestly unequal in merit…. Structurally, Miller's best plays—Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge—are complex and coherent. If The Crucible and Incident at Vichy are in danger of being too "neat," they are saved from being "empty" by their density of theme. All My Sons fails, however, because it is both neat and empty. There is nothing neat, though, about A Memory of Two Mondays and After the Fall, for these plays are awkward and episodic. Miller, it would seem, is no Chekhov—he needs a plot.
The stock criticism of Miller's characters is that they are too often schematized, too nearly black and white puppets. This charge … needs to be drastically qualified. Willy Loman, Biff Loman, Eddie Carbone, Rodolpho, even Leduc are all complex creations. Even in A Memory of Two Mondays, Miller manages to partially redeem that play through his robust portrayals of Gus and Kenneth. Every playwright produces flat and static characters, and Miller has produced his share of them …; but no sane critic evaluates a play solely on character, much less on the evidence of merely one or two unsatisfying characters in an otherwise excellent work….
Thematically, and this is one measure of his achievement, Miller has created a related body of work. Certain themes, such as "integrity" or "compromise," may be—and too often are—isolated for discussion; but this abstraction, perfectly valid on one level, tends to ignore other themes in Miller's work, themes which I have analyzed in my studies of individual plays. And these themes are not easily given one-word tags. To say, for instance, that Willy Loman, John Proctor, and Eddie Carbone are all concerned with their "integrity" is true—but that observation scarcely does justice to the thematic complexity of their respective plays. It may seem that I am undercutting my previous assertion that Miller's plays are related. What I am trying to say, however, is that there is both unity and diversity in Miller's work, and that we oversimplify and distort his achievement by focusing too narrowly and too insistently on one or two obvious and fashionable aspects of his work. One must beware, for example, of branding Miller merely a "social" dramatist, for as analysis of the plays makes clear he is equally a "psychological" playwright. At his best, Miller has avoided the extremes of clinical psychiatric case studies on the one hand and mere sociological reports on the other…. Nor is it correct to say that the main burden of guilt in his plays is borne by society. Miller's characters—Willy Loman, John Proctor, Eddie Carbone, Quentin, and Von Berg—"take their life in their arms" (as Holga puts it in After the Fall), with the result that the accusing finger of guilt is leveled at both the individual and society. If one rejects Miller because he is too "narrow," because he lacks a metaphysic or a theology of crisis, then one should be prepared, I think, to reject some of the most vital playwrights of the modern theater. (pp. 179-81)
Even Miller's most ardent supporters have recognized his tendency toward the didactic, a tendency that is the root cause of the previously noted criticisms of his "neat structures" and "schematized characterizations," but it cannot be too strongly emphasized that in his best work—Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, and Incident at Vichy—he has transcended, at times in spite of his "intentions," the defects that distinguish All My Sons and After the Fall. (pp. 181-82)
Edward Murray, in his Arthur Miller, Dramatist (copyright © 1967 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1967.
If Arthur Miller seems old-fashioned today to many seriously interested in the theatre, it is not because he has failed to keep abreast of the latest techniques in playwriting—nobody expects him to compete with La Mama—it is rather because his concerns are so curiously insulated from the world in which we now live. The nation's cities are in total disarray, drowning in swill, torn by riots, seething with violence;… the [government] has systematically destroyed our confidence in its credibility and good intentions, perhaps in the democratic process itself; our young are either apathetic and withdrawn or inflamed with fury and frustration; our sense of reality is disintegrating, our illusion of freedom faltering, our expectation of disaster increasing—yet, Arthur Miller, the most public-spirited of dramatists, continues to write social-psychological melodramas about Family Responsibility. I don't mean to imply it is just his subject matter that makes all this seem so crashingly irrelevant…. But how can a new play fail to be affected, if only indirectly, by the events of its time? Even the atmosphere of a middle-class living room is charged with special tensions these days. Even conflicts within the family are inevitably informed by the frustrations that are driving the country mad.
As a citizen, Miller is deeply involved with these events; as a playwright, he is now choosing to ignore the life around us, and this explains his peculiar insularity of method…. The Price is designed to be a domestic drama in an Ibsenite vein—that is to say, it attempts, through a process of exhumation, to reveal the past and the present simultaneously. But while the play moves backward easily enough to a Depression period thirty years previous, it moves forward only a quarter of an inch…. Ibsen was interested in the effect of the past on the present, as a clue to how mankind got on the wrong track; Miller, on the other hand, is more concerned with the way the present reveals the past. As a result, he writes comfortably only about the thirties and forties, and describes the Depression more vividly, through conversation, than he represents, through action, the living events of his play…. As a playwright, he seems in the grip of a repetition compulsion which makes The Price a composite of Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and After the Fall, involving the same family, the same polarities between love and money, the same oblique references to the "system," the same clumsy effort to turn prosaic speech into heightened rhetoric. Even the dialogue seems lifted from earlier Miller plays….
The play, in short, is not serious. It is solemn, it is determined, but it is not serious. A serious play, in interpreting the lives of its characters, interprets the lives of the auditors, providing images that intensify awareness. But The Price is virtually divorced from concerns that any modern audience can recognize as its own…. [The] play as a whole gives us merely the appearance of significance, behind which nothing meaningful is happening—a propped-up façade which hides rather than reveals the known landscape—and the name of that game, gentlemen, is escapism. (pp. 103-06)
Robert Brustein, "The Unseriousness of Arthur Miller" (1968), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 103-06.
Arthur Miller, perhaps the most "constructive" of recent American playwrights, has struggled manfully to create a theatre of positive values and personal responsibility. He has done this with a criticism of false values, such as the materialistic success-worship that appears in Death of a Salesman; and with heroic example in the case of his Salem witchcraft drama, The Crucible. He has tried to uphold rigid standards of conduct in these plays, as well as in A View from the Bridge, the tragedy of a longshoreman who betrayed his kinsmen out of desperate lust for his young sister-in-law. Miller has endeavored to write tragedies about common people that will give them uncommon moral stature. There has been no love of decadence in Miller's work; if anything, he has been rather overstrenuous and obvious in his moralizations. Miller is to be credited with excellent intentions and honest endeavors. Yet the very fact that he has been so self-conscious in his positiveness, which he has also defined at considerable length in his Prefaces, is symptomatic of the disorientation of our theatre and society. He has not dropped anchor naturally and inconspicuously in a norm of values and then gone ahead with his business as an artist. He has felt impelled to proclaim his values as if Judaeo-Christianity and even Hellenism had not made them known long ago, and he has placed them at the top of his dramatic register. (p. 704)
John Gassner, in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled from 30 Years of Dramatic Criticism, introduction and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney © 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968.
Arthur Miller's affinities with the social worker are amply demonstrated not only by his language, but by his concept of the tragic situation as something to be illustrated primarily in order to be corrected: "Tragic right," he affirms, is a "condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself," and "tragic wrong" a condition which "suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct." Considering the impulse toward reform which lies behind these statements, it is no surprise that he finally rejects the pessimistic basis of tragedy, asserting that in tragedies alone "lies the belief—optimistic, if you will, in the perfectability of man."
Mr. Miller sometimes writes effective modern plays (not tragedies). And, although it is a little horrifying to contemplate an ideal society that sounds so much like a progressive school (where "personalities" are also supposed to "flower and realize" their "love and creative instincts"), there is no reason why social or political reform should not be one of the implicit or explicit functions of his drama. But to think this a function of tragedy is to contribute to that fund of confusion which presently prevents Americans not only from producing tragic works but from responding to them. This confusion is similar to that perpetuated by the newspapers, where the word "tragedy" generally refers to pathetic accidents which should have been avoided…. [Through] the emotional effect of Death of a Salesman on its audiences, attention may be paid to people like Willy Loman, as his wife at one point demands. On the other hand, we would hardly conclude, after watching the action of Oedipus, that he needs attention. Since his fate has been preordained, attention would be useless; and since he is a hero of great stature, something of an impertinence. In short, the tragic for us is an accident we seek to avoid because it makes our lives poorer; for the Greeks it is an inevitability they do not hesitate to confront because it ultimately gives dignity to life and enlarges the possibilities of man. (pp. 243-44)
Robert Brustein, in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969.
The structural principle of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) is the antithesis between dream and reality, and the play concerns competing dreams and the identity crisis. One dream schema is the urban dream of business success. The other is the rural-agrarian dream of open space, a right relation to nature worked out in terms of the garden concept. In the play, dream is also self-delusion, or the serious entertainment of aspirations impossible of fulfillment because they are based on false conceptions of one's talents and capacities. In such a case, reality shatters dream. And out of such misapprehensions of one's potential for achievement, of possibilities and opportunities, arises the identity crisis. Reality falls short of the dream in part because man chooses the wrong dream. And man chooses the wrong dream because he does not know himself. Willy Loman is lost because he does not know who he is. His son Biff is lost through most of the play, but he finds himself; he achieves a sense of personal dignity and comes to understand his rightful place in society. (p. 165)
The play … romanticizes the rural-agrarian dream but does not make it genuinely available to Willy. Miller seems to use this dream merely to give himself an opportunity for sentimentality. The play is ambiguous in its attitude toward the business-success dream, but does not certainly condemn it. It is legitimate to ask where Miller is going. And the answer is that he has written a confused play because he has been unwilling or unable to commit himself to a firm position with respect to American culture. Miller prepares us for a stock response—relief in escape to the West and the farm; firm satisfaction in the condemnation of the tawdry business ethic—and then denies us the fulfillment of our expectations. The play makes, finally, no judgment on America, although Miller seems always on the verge of one, of telling us that America is a nightmare, a cause of and a home for tragedy. But Willy is not a tragic hero; he is a foolish and ineffectual man for whom we feel pity. We cannot equate his failure with America's. (p. 174)
Chester E. Eisinger, "Focus on Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman': The Wrong Dreams," in American Dreams, American Nightmares, edited by David Madden (copyright © 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of the author), Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 165-74.
If I were trapped into defining the salient differences between Arthur Miller's approach to the drama and Beckett's or Pinter's, I might point to Miller's solidly carpentered structures, the clear outlines he draws around characters and incidents and his repudiation of the ambiguity in which they thrive; but probably the most fundamental differences of all are his social commitment and his concern to analyse in terms of process, to ask how something came to be the way it is. In All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and The Price the characters have committed themselves to courses of action which have their roots in the past: the plays cannot move forwards without moving backwards to dig them up. Once excavated, the moments from the past are made to exist as if they have been preserved in amber….
Miller's drama now looks old-fashioned both in its assumption that the past does not undergo any chemical change in the memory and in the related assumption that it is possible to make meaningful statements about casual connections between one event and another. Avant-garde art, like quantum mechanics, has questioned the possibility of isolating anything as the cause of anything else. (p. 73)
A good case could be made for calling Miller the most Sartrean of living dramatists, and while it would be oversimplifying things to argue that his social commitment has forced him into an old-fashioned method of story-telling, it is clear that it is almost impossible for a playwright to make statements about society except in terms of cause and effect, and that Adamov and Arrabal, for instance, have been pulled damagingly in different directions by social commitment on the one hand and formal experiment on the other.
Essentially a social playwright, Miller has always used his characters to make statements about society, though he has done this in different ways. (pp. 73-4)
As a thinker Miller is a long way behind Sartre, and Miller's own plays are not even on the same intellectual level as what he has written about them. Lionel Trilling has explained the lack of emotional power in contemporary American prose literature by pointing to the intellectual weakness of the writers. Plays and novels do not need to have what he calls "intellectual capital of their own" but (as he says) the work of O'Neill and Thomas Wolfe is only of limited interest because they "don't owe a sufficient debt of ideas to anyone."… [Certainly] Miller's mind is better than O'Neill's, but his plays do not always do justice to it.
At his best, as in Death of a Salesman, he is more subtle than he is capable of being when writing or talking discursively, but it is curious that this is his only play (apart from the very inferior After the Fall) in which a complete departure from chronological sequence protects him from any suggestion of one-to-one correlations between cause and effect….
His avoidance of intellectual heroes has made it even more difficult for him to articulate his own ideas…. In The Price Miller tries to get the best of both worlds by taking as his hero a policeman who had once had potential as an intellectual but had opted against developing it. But because his decision to join the police was taken 28 years before the action of the play, it is hard to bring it into focus. (p. 76)
In some ways The Price is a continuation of the line Miller sketched in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Victor is the same sort of humane idealist as Chris and the conflict between the two brothers in The Price, like the conflict between father and son in All My Sons, is basically a conflict between two social attitudes. (p. 77)
The real villain of the piece is not Walter but the old father who died 16 years previously. Victor's whole life would have been different if only the old man had either offered to pay for his education out of the 4,000 dollars he still had hoarded away, or at least passed on the telephone message that Walter was willing to pay for it. Though the climax afforded by this revelation is skilfully prepared and effectively phased, it inevitably flaws the play that the prime mover behind the action is a man we never meet. And two of the points which Miller is at pains to establish are prevented from emerging forcefully enough to make the necessary mark on the audience. One of them is hidden among the foliage of Victor's first long conversation with Solomon: he explains that the reason his father could not recover from the crash of 1929 was that he believed in the system and accepted responsibility for it. "He thought it was his fault, I guess." This is a Sartrean point, made so casually as almost to be thrown away.
The other key point comes in a more prominent position, at the climax of the final quarrel between Victor and Walter, but it, too, is largely wasted by being made too conversationally without being substantiated dramatically. Victor admits that it is not altogether a surprise to him that the old man still had money. The real reason he stuck by his father was that he couldn't help it. (pp. 77-8)
As in Death of a Salesman, the family [in The Price] is being used as a microcosm of a success-oriented and materialistic society. (p. 78)
Another factor which seems to be preventing Miller from looking critically enough at his own work is that the unconscious subject of the play is not quite in line with the ostensible subject. His obsession with the theme of love between father and son was working advantageously in Death of a Salesman because the form, with its complex intercalation of past and present, could absorb all the neurotic energy produced by this dynamo and convert it into dramatic tension. In The Crucible the father figure is split. The evil judge mass-producing death sentences under cover of religious piety is like a bloodthirsty patriarch sacrificing a whole tribe of Isaacs, while the love that Proctor feels and refuses to admit towards Abigail has an unmistakably paternal and incestuous flavour. (pp. 78-9)
Before he wrote After the Fall the reason he gave for not returning to a method which blended past and present was that it would be "false to a more integrated—or less disintegrating—personality" than Willie Loman's "to write as if past and present are so openly and so vocally intertwined in the mind." This is a highly questionable assumption. The intertwining is always there in the mind and it is arguably one of the main functions of the kind of play Miller has been writing to render it as open and vocal as possible. We can only hope that the failure of After the Fall does not discourage him from returning to this method. (p. 79)
Ronald Hayman, "Arthur Miller: Between Sartre & Society," in Encounter (© 1971 by Encounter Ltd.), November, 1971, pp. 73-9.
Miller has always been very much concerned with the structure of his plays. He told [Hollis] Alpert that in writing The Misfits he tried to strike a "balance between the progression of the story and the nature of the life there, which was plotless…."… The Misfits is not so very different in its basic dramatic structure from the Ibsenian plays Miller writes for the theater; that is, a close reading of the screenplay, or cinema-novel, would reveal the equivalent of a play's point of attack, turning point and resolution. (p. 79)
Although there are some good things in The Misfits, it cannot be said that it succeeds either as a movie or as a cinema-novel. Sentimentality tends to mar both versions. More pertinent to present concerns, however, is the fact that as a reading experience The Misfits seems too bare to compete on equal terms with a major novel—even a short novel like The Great Gatsby where the imagery is dense and the patterning is intricate…. It is not difficult to detect in Miller's various pronouncements on [the film version of] The Misfits the basic cause of failure: the author has too much respect for the word and too little regard for the "merely" visual. (pp. 80-1)
Not only is there too much dialogue in The Misfits, there is also too little compensation for the reader or viewer in the form of thrilling speech. Although Miller places an enormous importance on words, and although he is ordinarily capable of writing realistic and functional dialogue (the language in The Misfits is definitely below par), he has none of Williams's poetic ability. Miller's strong point as a dramatist (aside from his moral sense) has always been a gift for forging a complex structure of meaning and for projecting characters locked in a struggle of conflicting wills. The filmic techniques apparent in Death of a Salesman would seem to suggest that Miller might make an accomplished scenarist. Paradoxically, though, the evidence of The Misfits prompts one to conclude that Miller's cinematic imagination can be seen at its best in some of his plays. (p. 81)
Cinematic technique wedded to a basic Ibsenian structure resulted in economy of means and a powerful theme in Death of a Salesman; After the Fall is a bloated, redundant thesis play without achieved form or persuasive substance. The dramatist's montage method of construction is one reason for the failure of After The Fall…. The montage form generously allows for rapid focusing on moments scattered in time and place; it does not accommodate, it is not hospitable to, that sense of relatedness that it is the burden of Quentin to propound for three hours in the theater. (pp. 82-3)
Nevertheless, there are some noteworthy moments in After the Fall. At the play's climax, for instance, Quentin seizes his movie actress wife, Maggie … by the throat and begins to choke her. Suddenly, in order to link the present moment to psychological motivation originating in the past, Quentin's mother "appears." Miller's protagonist "stands transfixed as Mother backs into his hand, and he begins to squeeze her throat…." When it occurs to Quentin that he is in the act of committing a murder, he releases his mother, who then "stumbles into darkness"—and he becomes conscious of Maggie again, "who is now getting to her hands and knees, gasping"…. Clearly, Miller has tried to capture here—and, in spite of my reservations about After the Fall in general, I think brilliantly—a stage equivalent for a motion picture dissolve. (p. 83)
Edward Murray, "Arthur Miller—'Death of a Salesman, The Misfits,' and 'After the Fall'," in his The Cinematic Imagination: Writers and the Motion Pictures (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972, pp. 69-85.
"I Don't Need You Any More" occupies a central thematic position in Arthur Miller's imaginative treatment of the family. Most importantly, the story illustrates the major variations in Miller's sense of "home." (p. 12)
Children are rarely present in Miller's plays or fiction, and thus the story has special value as his most extensive presentation of the experience of childhood and the child's perception of the family. Also, here one finds family relationships within the context of a Jewish community, a milieu whose values are [more] patriarchal than those of American society as a whole. In most of Miller's work, the failures of fathers are of a personal or an economic nature, with those kinds of consequences; here the father's failure has a social and religious import. Furthermore, the story presents in detail important family motifs found elsewhere in Miller's work—conflicts between education and family loyalty, and recurrent figures, such as the mother who was forced into a marriage that aborted her possibilities for personal development, the ill-educated father who has become exhausted into inadequacy, the "good" brother whose own sense of virtue binds him to the family in contrast to a less virtuous brother whose actions and discoveries force him away from the family. In quality, "I Don't Need You Any More" stands to the rest of Miller's fiction much as Death of a Salesman stands to the rest of his plays. (pp. 12-13)
Some of Martin's experiences are actual, some are wholly imaginary, some are memories—either in dim or sharp perspective—and many intermingle various levels of reality and fantasy. Yet his life is permeated by the sense of a lost order that was abruptly shattered. Much of what he says, does, and dreams can be interpreted as attempts to either reattain that order or to come to terms with its loss….
As much as Erikson or Neumann [theoretical psychologists], both of whom emphasize the [young child's] sense of unity and security, and use the term "paradise," Miller describes this state as idyllic, its loss as irrevocable. The "once-extant state of bliss," the "state of equilibrium," the "enfolding family," the "identity" or "being, somewhere in the past which in the present has lost its completeness, its definiteness"—these are the terms with which he describes the meaning of that "home" to which we cannot return. (p. 13)
The importance of the son's recognition that his parents are separate beings with often disparate impulses, as a family motif in Miller's work, is underscored not only in "I Don't Need You Any More" but elsewhere as well. In Death of a Salesman, Biff's sudden discovery that his father has a sexual life entirely separate from his mother has drastic consequences not only upon his view of his father but also upon his sense of self…. Biff Loman, Quentin [in After the Fall], and Walter Franz [in The Price], like Martin, are forced by different means, and at different stages of life, to confront a similar kind of reality about their respective families. All of them must undergo, in consequence, a great deal of emotional turmoil in order to come to terms with the vast discrepancies between their parents as separate human beings. (pp. 14-15)
Irving Jacobson, "The Child as Guilty Witness," in Literature and Psychology (© Morton Kaplan 1974), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, 1974, pp. 12-23.
For many, [Death of a Salesman] is simply not a tragedy [in the classic sense] at all, because its hero, Willy Loman,… is too commonplace and limited, its atmosphere is too dependent upon the delusions and weaknesses of an American materialistic society, and its problem is too ignoble…. Since it does not pit the hero against irresistible universal forces, it is but a fine, if pretentious, play of social protest, according to Joseph Wood Krutch. A distinguished array of critics joins Krutch on this side of the argument—Richard Foster, Eleanor Clark, George Jean Nathan, William McCollom, Elder Olson, Herbert Muller. (p. 91)
On the other side John Gassner, Eric Bentley, and Willy's creator, Arthur Miller, man the critical ramparts. In their animadversions on the remonstrances of the anti-Salesman critics, they were not reluctant to insist that total catharsis can arise from the tragedy of a Willy Loman, or to speak of him in the same breath with untouchable heroes of yester-year, or even to compare him with the archetype himself, Oedipus. "The common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were," declared Miller [in "Tragedy and the Common Man"], and placed him alongside the Greek heroes and Job…. Eric Bentley [wrote, in "Better than Europe?"]: "We all find that we are Willy, and Willy is us; we live and die together; but when Willy falls never to rise again, we go home feeling purged of (or by) pity and terror."
Underlying the controversy, then, is a familiar challenge for democratic tragedy that for the Greeks was a foregone habit: magnitude of plot and character. Though Miller pooh-poohs the traditions of tragedy ("I had not understood that these matters are measured by Greco-Elizabe-than paragraphs"), his dramaturgical instinct forced him to agree with them on this point of magnitude. However, "if society alone is responsible for the cramping of our lives," wrote Miller, "then the protagonist must needs be so pure and faultless as to force us to deny his validity as a character. From neither of these views can tragedy derive, simply because neither represents a balanced concept of life." Society must be seen as having more magnitude than that: "'Society' is a power and a mystery of custom and inside the man and surrounding him." In the confrontation of the individual and society, one can discern the ancient agon of the external power's tendency toward determinism and the hero's response to the imposition. One begins to see, then, why so many critics, and Miller himself in his introduction to his Collected Plays, perceive a relationship between the Greek tyrannos, Oedipus, and the American Everyman, Willy Loman.
The social frame of limitation of Willy's world does not restrict the drama to a commonplace or materialistic plot, because in his bumbling, inarticulate way, Willy Loman personifies his creator's concept that even the commonplace hero has "the human passion to surpass his given bounds, the fanatic insistence upon [his] self-conceived goal." Though Oedipus' search for the truth is a conscious exercise of a powerful regal mind dealing with a problem of broad dimension and import, and Willy's quest for the truth is restrained by commonness of mind and a restricted sphere of life, yet [as Gassner noted in "Tragic Perspectives"] "Willy pursues the 'truth' and struggles against it within his personal and social limits no less arduously and catastrophically than Oedipus." In the generations between these two heroes, the family bloodline may have thinned a bit, but the lineaments of the tyrannos [a term originally denoting an absolute ruler without pejorative connotation; often a hero in Greek tragedy, notably Oedipus] have not been elided.
It is not what society demands that makes the action, it is what Willy thinks it demands, and that is the unpreventable element that is the all-powerful motivation of his tragedy, as it was for Oedipus in his situation. It would seem, then, that Miller's vision of tragedy is as broad as his predecessors'. It is not society that is the primary flaw, but man's innate, eternal, inevitable tendency to self-delusion, ironically induced by uncontrollable external powers.
This commonalty of virtuous, ironic grotesquerie relates the king of Thebes to the Brooklyn salesman, the great intellect to the plodding huckster, the toy of the gods to the discarded drummer. (pp. 91-4)
"Requiem," the last scene of Death of a Salesman, parallels the choric themes at the end of Oedipus at Colonus. Willy's influence, so tragic in life, is effectuated properly only in death….
The audience, too, has learned the meaning of the tragedy of this salesman, the man who selected the wrong alternative, who misinterpreted his life as a tyrannos and thereby became a tragic figure. Arthur Miller overcame the limitations of his setting, the role of society, the commonness of his hero, to awaken catharsis in us. At the end we remember Willy Loman as what Bernard Knox said [in "Sophocles' Oedipus"] of the departed Oedipus, "a spirit which lives on in power in the affairs of men after the death of the body. His tomb is to be a holy place [and] in his grave … he will be powerful." (p. 102)
Dan Vogel, "The Mask of Oedipus Tyrannos," in his The Three Masks of American Tragedy (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 13-102.
Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" is a more curious piece of work than it looks at first glance. The play is so formidably compelling onstage—from the first moment, it seizes us by the throat and will not let us go—that we scarcely pause to examine its intentions, or to weigh the means by which those intentions are achieved. For me, the play has always been much easier to admire than to like. The skill with which the author manipulates our emotions is an enviable one, but this is far from saying that I find his manipulations appealing; on the contrary, I tend, in a quite unexpected fashion, to sense that my good will has been cunningly taken advantage of. The fact is that the emotions the play arouses are not of the loftiest; they are exacted from us by a situation so pitiable that to fail to respond to it would be to bear witness to our inhumanity. Of course we feel a tearful sympathy for Willy Loman, the distracted, suicidal hero of "Death of a Salesman," and for his dull-witted, about-to-be-bereaved family; of course we perceive that they are in desperate trouble and that, given their natures, there is no way out of that trouble. As fellow-creatures, we dare not turn our backs on them or even follow our instincts and look away, as we would from some dreadful accident in the street. At the same time, what we feel for them is the all too easy compassion that is a function of a sentimental view of life. And no wonder, for, closely observed, "Death of a Salesman" turns out to have as little to do with the harsh, mutilating, and yet sometimes noble realities of existence as a musical comedy. In a shocking way, it is a sort of "Smilin' Through" turned inside out, at once touching and untrue, and that is why I reproach myself for consenting so readily to its sad blandishments.
I have said that we weep, and it is the case that whole audiences at the current revival of "Death of a Salesman"… sit sobbing in unison, with every sign of thoroughly enjoying their miserable state. The same phenomenon was evident twenty-six years ago, when I first saw the play. Weeping, and dismayed at myself for weeping, I recollected in the course of the second act that Thomas Mann was seated directly behind me. If that ice-cold man of genius was also weeping, then the play was indisputably a nonpareil. I stole a glance at Mann; sure enough, tears were streaming down his cheeks. Now, what is there in Willy to produce this uncanny effect upon all of us? I think it is the fact that it is his fate never to know who he is, or who the members of his family are, or who his employers are—to be, in short, the one consummately obtuse man, who will end by taking his own life through a misapprehension. Such a man is pathetic in the extreme, and to pathos we pay the lowly tribute of tears; Mann would not have wept at "Hamlet."
Brendan Gill, "A Painful Case," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 7, 1975, p. 63.
America has to take her theatrical masterworks where she finds them. Arthur Miller's ["Death of a Salesman"] has always made the highbrow critics uncomfortable. It's not a real tragedy, some say. It's diluted Marxism, say others. It's an abstraction with cardboard figures, still others gripe. Such criticisms of this hugely popular play have a good deal of justice, but they miss the point. "Salesman" is a flawed play, but from O'Neill down all American playwrights are deeply flawed. In American theater imperfection goes with the territory.
"Death of a Salesman" is a great public ritualizing of some of our deepest and deadliest contradictions. It is a play about the misplaced energy of the basic human material in American society. The current revival … makes powerfully clear that this play, this public ritual, has not dated. The power of Miller's inspiration sears the audience into a shocked and chastened honesty. Tragedy, Marxism, abstraction—forget it. The audience recognizes this play. It knows Willy Loman, the poor slob who bought the phony dream of success and who is now spending his last day on earth refusing to awaken from it….
Miller has been criticized for not revealing what Willy sells, but he has rightly replied that Willy sells himself….
[Perhaps] the play's most original intellectual contribution [is] the identification of the spiritual bum as an important American figure—not only the bum as obvious failure but the bum as deceptive success.
Jack Kroll, "Triumph," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), July 7, 1975, p. 61.
[Death of a Salesman] has always struck me as an over-rated play…. My objections have never been political, nor was I much concerned with the once hotly debated issue of whether a little guy, Willy Loman (low man), was a suitable tragic hero. If Woyzeck could be both utterly low and transcendently tragic, why couldn't Willy? Only because Arthur Miller is no Georg Büchner. There is no poet in Miller (as there is, for instance, in Tennessee Williams)—not even a very clear thinker. But there is a dramatist of skill, who saw both the absurdity and the pathos of Willy's Brooklyn-Jewish milieu, and reproduced the accents of its anguish with a fidelity learned from Ibsen.
The villain in Death of a Salesman is, of course, the American cult of success, dramatically exacerbated when the protagonist is a salesman—one who sells selling even more than material goods. The poignancy is enhanced by his being a Jew (which Miller never spells out, but abundantly suggests) who has to overcome additional rootlessness and insecurity. Willy pursues the two-headed chimera of financial and social success—being rich and well liked (a near-contradiction in itself)—and how this delusory and ever more elusive aim lures him and his family to physical or moral disaster I consider a perfectly fit subject for tragedy. But, unfortunately, Miller himself is to a considerable extent the victim of the obsessions he sets out to expose, and cannot acquiesce in the notion that a desperate situation does not afford—somewhere, somehow—a solution.
Although trying to write the national tragedy of America, he must imply that it once could be deflected by the individualism of Willy's father or the buccaneering of his brother, Ben, and that even today it can be controverted by the enlightened nonchalance of a Charley, the love of work of a Bernard, or the facing up to truth and acceptance of failure of a Biff. But if there is to be tragedy, there must also be a greater sense of the inevitable, of why Willy could not have saved himself. Here there are too many open doors to make a stone wall loom as a tragic necessity. Worse yet is the grubby melodrama of making the catastrophe hinge not on life or society as it does, but on Biff's chancing on his father's extramarital dalliance with a female buyer to whom—to make matters even more unsubtle—he gives boxes of sheer hose while his poor wife is revealed piteously darning old stockings as frayed as Miller's symbolism. A darn shame!
If there is to be drama rather than tragedy, however, the minor characters have to come more cogently alive. Points then have to be made through texture, atmosphere, a sense of a multifaceted society jointly suffering and going under; in that case, the vignettes about the secondary characters are too sketchy here, too obvious or caricatured … to make the play's thesis come across as more than a thesis. Again, such feeble objective correlatives as Biff's kleptomania are not parlayed, either by poetry or by depth psychology, into the symbols they are meant to become. And the language is full of such blatancies as Willy's rebuking Biff for using the infantile word gee, only to exclaim promptly himself: "Gee, look at the moon…." As for the attempt at heightened language in the closing "Requiem" section, it is for me one of the nadirs of modern drama—the salesman described, for example, as "a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine," and Linda sobbing out her repeated "We are free," fraught with elephantine irony. As Mary McCarthy wrote, "Still, Death of a Salesman is the only play of the new American School that can be said to touch home"—but don't miss the impact of that still.
John Simon, "The Salesman Dies Again," in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), July 7, 1975, p. 76.
[Death of a Salesman], it has been said, cannot be a tragedy because its central personage, Willy Loman, is more or less a fool, almost literally a "little" man whose aspirations are mediocre or trivial. The question whether the play is a tragedy or not has never occupied me in the least. For purposes of appreciation it may just as well be dubbed a comedy: aesthetic nomenclature doesn't help understanding.
The play is neither an attack on the "system" nor a cautionary tract. Its comedy and pathos arise from the depiction of people detached from reality. Willy Loman, in particular, is nowhere; he flies through an ether of illusion because he and the world in which he dwells lack truly human values. Yet he believes in that world and dies without ever becoming aware of its emptiness. For want of recognizing the unsubstantiality of his condition he, with all the good will possible, destroys not only himself but his almost equally benighted family….
[What] should be evident through the play is that in our civilization we are all somehow placed in Willy's position: we all become "salesmen"!
Willy does not possess his soul. Or if he conceives of one, his notion of it is based only on concern for his family's well being—that is, its prospering, its gaining position and power in a society which is itself very nearly a spiritual vacuum.
Willy is better than most because he is a dreamer. His dream is a false one because it corresponds only to what is immediately given as the object of dreams—swell jobs, fat incomes, splendid accouterments, splash and display. Yet all the while we perceive in Willy's funny and dismal twists and turns, his perpetual mouthing of vapid slogans culled from commercial publicity and received doctrine, a reaching toward something that might nourish the hunger of his inmost being…. His unconscious integrity as a true person has been dissolved in his fantasies. Because of them he cannot discover his deepest needs, his native aptitudes or the full treasure of his love.
Willy Loman is no special case, nor is his plight merely a sad story: his number is legion; I almost said, universal. Hence the power, the stature of the play. Not to recognize this is to put oneself in the category of the man in the audience who on seeing the original production summed it all up by muttering, "That New England territory always was a bitch." Miller's details are commonplace, chosen as they are from the routine of a petty existence, but they add up to something far greater than the particles. In more ways than one, he was right: attention must be paid! (p. 59)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 19, 1975.
Nothing about Death of a Salesman, once I step away from it, strikes me as quite believable, quite intelligent, quite intelligible, quite interesting. Characters, plot, even the language that so often falls into the poetry of romantic cliché, will not quite bear scrutiny…. But Salesman is much more than the sum of its parts. Once the curtains part, a flute begins to play and I am caught up in the poverty and dream and bitter bliss of the Lomans. (p. 190)
The play does not mirror, or reflect, or state; it embodies, and often puts us at a loss to enunciate the ideas and feelings it calls forth. That's the thing about Salesman: it reverberates, echoes, resonates. Its rhythms roll deep down toward and into American desires and delusions. Fear, pity, a sense of loss for what might have been, a qualified joy for Willy's happiness as he commits suicide—these are the inescapable and elusive feelings experienced during the play. There are a hundred ways to see the play, as Miller himself knew, bogus ways and true ways…. But something about the play strikes deep now, and did in 1949, and will. This something is the poetry of the play, not something that can be isolated in particulars, but the way the whole play ranges out from its center which is Willy, the way it echoes far past its own American images, the way it demands a hearing for its own sentimentality and exaggeration. The great issues the play embodies are human issues brought to a focal point on the American continent. We've had enough formal criticism of Salesman, and I have little or nothing to add of that. But I want to tell how the play feels and smells and looks to me. To do this I've got to range all over and throw out nets and come up with whatever butterflies or fish I can. To do this, I have to take the sorts of risks that Miller took in writing such a simple and absurd and beautiful and true play.
It seems to me that one of Arthur Miller's dominant strategies has been to place his characters, most of whom have lost the old faiths, on a search for what will suffice. Little of consequence is decided for them ahead of time…. It is a terrestrial morality they are looking for and trying to justify. (pp. 190-91)
Again and again, when replying to reviewers and critics upset by Death of a Salesman's darkness, Miller has insisted that the play is not unrelievedly black. He's right, certainly, but we are in no sense conditioned to hear of any kind of suicide as an act of affirmation. But for Willy it is. This is Willy's terrible beauty. Willy chooses meaning over meaninglessness, bless him…. He chose, in effect, to insist that he had lived, to defend his life as it was, to act so that his vision could become a reality…. Willy is a dramatic experience that we cannot conceptualize, like a flight of birds in a poem by Richard Wilbur: words are no net to hold them, and the speaker of the poem learns "By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt" ("An Event"). (p. 193)
Death of a Salesman is a play of great yearning. What Willy says, in effect, is "I've got to have something. I'm a failure, my sons are failures. I've lost the great elms that grew out front, and a man can't grow even a carrot around here. I've got to have something." So Willy justifies all those days spent shining the Chevy with Biff and Happy by committing suicide. It is the only way he can keep his dream intact. To save his life, he has to kill himself. Should he deny himself, it would be as though he did not live. Willy intimated the way better even than he knew. Miller has given us a man. We've not been brought up to attend his funeral; but, as Linda says, attention must be paid. (p. 194)
There is a sense in which Quentin [in After the Fall] is a Willy Loman come back from the dead. Willy and Quentin, the one loving and loving and dying with a dream of Eden on his lips; the other knowing the death of love and the desire to kill but holding to the will to forgive forever. These are two characters who will be asking us for a long time how we must live in the world. Their presence, their humanity as they strain to realize themselves, is staggering. (p. 195)
It is to some depth of mythic reverberation that the salesman takes us. Miller forces me to complete Willy's few words and meager strivings with everything American I have lived and read. I think that we all have a stake in him as he drives off to joyous death "riding on a smile and a shoeshine," as Charley said. Willy is both what we have to be thankful for and what we must regret…. Willy chooses life instead of a living death. At the same time, Salesman is a very dark play. It tells us, as starkly and directly as Theodore Dreiser told us in Sister Carrie (1900), that happiness comes not in the fulfilling of dream but in ever believing in it and reaching for it…. It is only Miller's job to write a play and to give his characters as much depth and reality as he can. Any man with an absolutely firm position on the American business-success dream is no friend of mind. "By what cross-purposes our lives are dreamt," says Richard Wilbur. But the play's confusions and ambiguities and flutterings have, in the end, a distinct shade: we are hurt for Willy. We are hurt, at least all of us who don't care to spend our time wondering whether or not Willy Loman is a tragic character or whether Death of a Salesman is a tragedy, are hurt. We are elated that Willy died happily deluded, but we are hurt and assess our own contribution to the death of a man all of us know. Salesman is not a bible, a constitution, a bill of rights. It is a drama with the sounds and rhythms and cycles of dream…. Salesman makes Willy neither saint nor villain. But I think the play clarifies our world for us as a place of infinite gradations of the moral values of our actions. We sympathize with Willy, and in so doing play out the endless play of our lives on this planet by giving and forsaking ourselves to the same perhaps fated and unavoidable dream of knowledge and power and purity. (pp. 199-201)
The play tears me back and forth and around, and a play ought to. But it has a center. I am hurt for Willy. Whether or not my sympathy condemns me to his sort of hell, I am hurt for the American dream salesman who buys his own dreams, and this is the play's complex position. (p. 201)
William Heyen, "Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' and the American Dream," in Amerikanisches Drama Und Theater im 20. Jahrhundert: American Drama and Theater in the 20th Century, edited by Alfred Weber and Siegfried Neuweiler, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975, pp. 190-201.
Did this raise a question for you?