What are Arthur Miller's ideas about dramatic form and how are they visible in Death of a Salesman?

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Chase Burns | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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The article that is frequently referenced when discussing Arthur Miller and his idea of dramatic form is Miller's 1949 essay for the New York Times, Tragedy and the Common Man. In this essay, Miller famously pens his thoughts on why the middle class working man (or woman, although Miller mainly talks about men) is America's tragic hero. (Arguably, this is no longer applicable, as the idea of the 'working man' has changed throughout America's history.) Of all of his plays, Death of a Salesman most accurately takes the ideas from this essay and puts them on stage.

Some of the most pertinent ideas from this essay are:

  • The tragic hero works against systemic forces. Miller writes about how the tragic hero tries his hardest, despite system-level forces working against him. In the Greek time, this was often created through the use of the state or gods working against the hero. However, in Miller's plays, it is often modernity and industrialization that works against the hero. Willy Loman works to support his family, but he is ultimately upset.
  • The fear of being displaced drives tragedy. Miller argues that the everyday man understands fear in American culture like the Greek heroes understood fear. Willy Loman is haunted by a fear that he often feels he cannot express publicly.
  •  Tragedy arises out of imbalance. The American Dream rests on a pursuit of happiness, but Miller's characters in Death of a Salesman find it extremely difficult to balance their lives. Miller foresees the shrinking of the middle class in his plays.

 

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