Following in the tradition of the classic Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller is concerned above all with the relationship between the individual and society. His investigations range from his portrait of the industrialist Joe Keller in All My Sons (1947), who sacrifices the safety of World War II fighter pilots and ruins his business partner to satisfy his desire for financial success, to examining the connection between the dysfunctional marriage of Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg and the rise of Nazism in Broken Glass (1994). In Death of a Salesman, Miller focuses on the relationship between society and the individual’s concept of self. As a consequence of living in a capitalistic society that emphasizes materialistic values, Willy Loman has a defective sense of self. He is obsessed not only with financial success but also, more specifically, with appearances and impressions and with being considered important and “well-liked” by others. Willy passes these superficial values on to his two sons, Biff and Happy. In the course of the play, Biff becomes more aware of his real needs and feelings and frees himself from this destructive concept of self. Only then is Biff able to care more deeply for his father, and he breaks down and cries in his arms. Willy is moved by his son’s love, but his understanding is incomplete, as becomes clear when he commits suicide under the impression that this is the only way to give Biff financial prosperity. At the play’s end it is clear that Biff will heal himself and go back out West to find work that suits his genuine concept of self, while Happy will probably repeat the misdirected life of his father.
Miller’s plays often mix his characteristically realistic style with expressionistic techniques. In Death of a Salesman, he enhances the theme of self-awareness by using techniques to distort time and space and to represent the working of Willy’s mind. While playing cards with his neighbor Charlie, for example, Willy imagines that he sees his brother Ben, who appears on the stage as if he were a real person. By allowing the past and the present to intermingle freely, Miller represents the confusion and distress in Willy’s mind. In fact, Miller’s working title for the play was “The Inside of His Head” and his original concept for the stage set was a model of an enormous face, inside of which the action was to take place. In having the action follow and portray Willy’s meandering mind, Miller creates a psychological quality that reflects Willy’s confusion about identity. As Willy’s mind wanders in his past, talking to his brother Ben or remembering building projects around the house, Willy’s true self is revealed. He is a man who loves to work outdoors with his hands, the kind of man that Biff finally comes to accept as his true self. As Biff says over Willy’s grave, “there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.”
Death of a Salesman is of crucial importance to literature because it once again raises the question whether tragedy is possible with a common hero. The Aristotelian concept of tragedy, which dominated dramatic literature until the nineteenth century, insists that only characters of noble birth or soul can be tragic heroes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, an increasing number of plays with tragic endings were written about common people. In 1949, concurrent with his play’s appearance on Broadway, Miller published a defense of the play as a genuine tragedy in the essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” in which he argued that all that is required for tragic stature is a hero willing to “lay down his life” to secure “his ’rightful’ position in his society.”
Miller won a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1949 for Death of a Salesman, and for many years thereafter he was considered, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights. Of his many subsequent plays, perhaps only The Crucible (1953) and After the Fall (1964) had comparable popular and critical impacts. Undoubtedly his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman remains Miller’s most enduring work.