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Death of a Salesman, The


DEATH OF A SALESMAN, THE. Commentators on the American stage often single out Arthur Miller as the nation's premier playwright; Death of a Salesman, written in 1948 and first produced in 1949, is Miller's masterpiece. Willy Loman, the play's tragic protagonist, resembles the many real-life salesmen Miller knew while coming of age in depression-era Brooklyn, New York, men who, according to Miller, "forever imagin[ed] triumphs in a world that either ignores them or denies their presence altogether." Salesman's riveting New York production combined the talents of the director Elia Kazan, the set designer Jo Mielziner, and Lee J. Cobb as Loman. Running for 742 performances, it won the prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

The dramatic force of Miller's play derives in part from expressionistic techniques he used to portray Loman's psychological anguish and guilt-ridden fantasy life. Throughout the play, sudden changes in lighting, blocking, and sound interrupt the main action and announce the beginning of dreamlike memory sequences, in which past events and the contents of Loman's mind are gradually revealed on stage. In addition to Loman's inner life, Miller focuses on the troubled bond between father and son. Biff, Willy's older son, struggles to secure his father's love even as he resists Willy's flawed ideals and unrealistic expectations.

In the end, it is Biff who comes closest to understanding Willy's tragic flaw: "He had the wrong dreams," Biff says, after his father's suicide. If destructive and misguided, Willy Loman's dreams were nevertheless American dreams—the pursuit of freedom, commercial success, affection, respect. Salesman is therefore more than a moving portrait of one man's self-delusion and exhaustion. It is a complex presentation of American aspirations and universally felt dilemmas of existence. Salesman has been performed to audiences around the world. In 1983, Miller famously directed an all-Chinese cast in a Beijing production of the play.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." New York: Chelsea House, 1996.

Carson, Neil. Arthur Miller. New York: Grove, 1982.

Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Justin DavidSuran

See alsoTheater .

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