“Death of a Salesman” and Its 70 Years of Life

A wholly-relatable cautionary tale about striving to “amount to something.”

Posted Feb 09, 2019

“When hit in the face, you do not bother to count the knuckles which strike you.  All that matters, all you remember, is the staggering impact of the blow.  Mr. Miller’s is a terrific wallop, as furious in its onslaught on the heart as on the head.”

Theatre critic John Mason Brown in The Saturday Review of Literature issue of February 26, 1949, praising playwright Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman."

The critic prefaced his acclaim by declaring, “How good the writing of this or that of Mr. Miller’s individual scenes may be, I do not know.  No do I really care.” 

The delivered “wallop”—“the furious onslaught on the heart and the head”—hits us through Willy Loman’s confusions, disappointments, and despair.  His dream of success and his dreams about how and by whom success could be achieved have made him vulnerable to emotional and psychological jabs and pummeling.

Was Willy Loman’s dream of success a good dream? A naïve dream? Or the only dream a traveling salesman could have?  John Mason Brown didn’t presume to answer and judge the dream.  He did, however, render this verdict: “One thing is certain.  No one could have raised the questions more movingly or compassionately than Arthur Miller.”

The play about the lack of success was, and has long been, an overwhelming success

Following the opening in New York on February 10, 1949, the first-nighters had this to say about the play in their respective February 11, 1949 editions:

In the New York Herald-Tribune, "Death of a Salesman" was heralded for its “majesty, sweep, and shattering dramatic impact…. There is always pertinence to this tale of a defeated old drummer coming to the dead end of his career…. There is lucidity, eloquence, and deep feeling…. The title is superbly explicit…. Death of a Salesman is a play to make history.” 

The New York Journal-American reported, “Yesterday at the Morosco, the first-night congregation made no effort to leave the theatre at the final curtain-fall of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

“This report is meant to make known to you the prevailing emotional impact of the new play by the author of All My Sons…. For a period somewhat shorter than it seemed, an expectant silence hung over the crowded auditorium.  Then, believe me, tumultuous appreciation shattered the hushed expectancy.

Death of a Salesman was, and will remain, one of the lasting rewards of this professional theatre-goer.”

The New York World-Telegram held that the play was “written along the lines of the finest classical tragedy.  It is the revelation of a man’s downfall, and destruction, whose roots are entirely in his own soul…. The play is a fervent query into the great American competitive dream of success.”

In its Sunday, February 20, 1949 arts & entertainment section, the New York Herald-Tribune exclaimed further, “If a finer play than Death of a Salesman is presented this season, it will be in the nature of a minor miracle.”

The review went on to bolster the claim: “Arthur Miller has written a drama of perception, power, and eloquence about the present day…. All the various crafts of the theater [acting, sets, staging, music] have been brilliantly fused in this terrible and touching tragedy of an old man done in by his own small deceits in the larger pattern of what has sometimes been called the American dream.”

The review championed the play for “making no concessions to propaganda or sentimentality,” while explicating the salesman’s trajectory as “cruel and inexorable.”  The review stated that the play “requires considerable after-pondering,” and explained, “There is so much substance in the production that it is difficult to digest in a single performance.”

Notable performances

For a photo spread of the play as first performed on Broadway, the February 21, 1949 issue of Life magazine can be consulted.

Scenes from Stanley Kramer’s 1951 movie version, starring Fredric March, Mildred Dunnock, Kevin McCarthy, and Cameron Mitchell can be picked up from the Internet. 

Available via YouTube, there’s a 1966 made-for-television (somewhat abbreviated) adaptation, starring Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, who reprised their roles from the original 1949 stage production.  Also in this production, which was adapted by Miller himself, were George Segal, Gene Wilder, and James Farentino.  The production was celebrated with Primetime Emmy Awards, a Directors Guild of America Award, and a Peabody Award.

Subsequent Broadway incarnations of Willy Loman were delivered by George C. Scott (in the 1975 production), Brian Dennehy (in the 1999 production), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in the 2012 production). 

Paul Muni starred in the 1949 London production.

The 1966 BBC production starred Rod Steiger and featured Betsy Blair and Tony Bill.

My favorite rendition—the enactment that stays with me, the performances that are present in my mind’s eye and ear—was and is the 1984 production starring Dustin Hoffman, which, in 1985, was aired on television, and is available on DVD.  The production featured Kate Reid, John Malkovich, and Charles Durning.  Emmy and Golden Globe accolades galore.

In each of those productions (as I recall them), the scenery was fittingly described as “skeletal.”  It allowed audiences to see how reviled apartment buildings had closed in and loomed over the Lomans’ modest two-floor house.  And, without moving scenery or changing sets, audiences got to witness Willy’s mental wanderings (hallucinations?) recalling meetings and encounters from the past, along with the setbacks and embarrassments of Willy’s fateful final 48 hours.

And, each of those incarnations of Willy Loman provided a study of how self-assurance was asserted; how delusion manifested itself; how self-deception, doubt, and despair were handled by family members.

The Psychology of the Loman men“indulgent adoration,” “mutual idolatry,” and delusions of grandeur

The New York World-Telegram went on to provide analysis of the salesman’s dreams and self-deceptions:

“At the age of eighteen, Willy Loman is introduced to the attention he might receive and the financial vistas he might travel by selling on the road.  This original deception dooms him to a life of touring and a habit of prideful rationalization, until at sixty he is so far along his tangent that his efforts not to admit his resultant mediocrity are fatal.

“Through most of this career runs the insistent legacy of ‘amounting to something,’ on his adopted terms, which he forces on his favorite son.  With indulgent adoration, he unbalances the boy, demanding mutual idolatry which he himself inevitably fails.  If Biff Loman steals, it is courage.  If he captains a football team, the world is watching.

“In the end, after repeated failures, Biff sees the truth, though too late to really penetrate his father’s mind.  The boy’s tortured efforts to explain his own little true destiny can only crack open the years-long rift….”

The rift: the forlorn salesman unraveled and undone by his son’s surprise visit to a Boston hotel room

“She’s nothing to me, Biff.  I was lonely.  I was terribly lonely.”      

Willy Loman had been experiencing a series of frustrations and disappointments.  Perhaps that was why he indulged himself in an extramarital dalliance in a Boston hotel room.

His older son makes a surprise visit to that hotel in the hope that his pop—his promoter and morale booster—would intercede with high-school officials. The second-semester high-school senior needs a salesman’s persuasive intervention: The he-can-do-no-wrong son is desperate for his father to gain a reprieve for him from the well-deserved failing grade in math.  This penalty comes just months before the boy is to don college shoulder pads and helmet, on a football scholarship. 

The young man’s hotel-room discovery, at his especially needy time—when he needed his champion – will forever mar the father-son relationship.  

An understandable weakness of character or a betrayal?

From Willy Loman’s boasts, we are to imagine that, in years past—many years, perhaps—Boston, Providence, Hartford are where Willy Loman was purportedly received most favorably every time and everywhere he unpacked his sample cases. 

But for some time, life on the road has been punishing for Willy.  Miles and miles and no sales.  His financial and psychological circumstances have become dire—and are becoming more so.  He has been reduced to commission-only income (no income) after thirty-some years with his employer. 

His ever-supportive wife has had to remind him, several times, about the past-due life insurance premium, and what’s owed that month on the refrigerator, the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, for the carburetor, for the roof, and the mortgage. 

As a financial provider, Willy Loman’s dignity is gone.  His only remaining credential, it would seem, is that his sons love and respect him.  But loneliness and weakness, along with his delusions about his cachet with buyers throughout New England, have him…. Well, you know.

The story of “an average man” can be acclaimed as a tragedy, in human and theatrical terms

In the March 13, 1949 edition of the Boston Sunday Herald, the play was described as “infinitely touching.”  The review explained, “the play is not only going to move and stir its audiences very deeply, it is also going to make them somewhat uncomfortable through its probings into the dreams and aspirations that are so much a part of our American life – or life anywhere….”

The Herald went on to observe, “Generations of writers and commentators have assumed that tragedy is something to be associated only with the great and mighty, that when we speak of the lost homes and frustrated lives of ordinary people we should speak of pathos and futility and such lesser sounding words.  Death of a Salesman proves otherwise….

“So whether the individual wears a crown or carries a sample case, the blacking out of his star means death, physical or spiritual; death of hope and aspiration; death of the only meaning that his life contains.  And that death can come to a small frame house as surely as it can to a battlefield or a throne-room.  The scale is different but the essentials are the same.”  

“Make-believe”?

In its February 15, 1949 edition, the Boston Evening Traveler was effusive and prescient in awarding accolades, for Death of a Salesman was acclaimed with the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, which opened on Broadway February 10, 1949:

“Broadway’s newest drama hit Death of a Salesman—a stark, unrelieved tragedy of frustration, failure, insanity and suicide—is the most perfect piece of theater make-believe since Our Town.”

Via “Our Town,” we experience nostalgia for Long Ago, and never more. The instruction: We rarely appreciate and embrace the lives we are fortunate enough to live.

Was Death of a Salesman wholly make-believe in the way it depicted the consequences of false hopes and self-delusion?  Perhaps all-too-believable, as noted in an astute review which shared tribute and tribulation:

In its February 13, 1949 edition, the Boston Globe described the play as “deep and organic,” though there was a warning: “If you go to the theatre as a medium of escape; if you go to be diverted, not churned almost beyond bearing, then Salesman is not the play for you.”

To its readers, and those who might consider a trip to Broadway’s Morosco Theatre, the Globe provided insight and incentive: “Here in this new piece [two years following Miller’s All My Sons], lies the tragedy of human deterioration; frustration arising out of congenital weakness.  Here is the insight of a prober into the souls of those doomed to defeat.”

“Make-believe?" Hardly.

The review cautioned that the play offered “no illumination of hope,” but went on to observe that the tragedy would be relatable: “The tale deals with the simple, sordid life of so many hundreds of thousands of Americans living on small salaries, buying [supposedly] improved household necessities on installment, with the mother, as usual, doing most of the worrying about payment.” 

The review concluded with mournful praise: “We left the Morosco with the mingled emotions of one exalted by the great writing yet in gloom over what was written.”

Even in this age of electronic connectivity (via networks of social media that, more and more, veer to the anti-social) there is surely gloom amid exaltation as thousands are hard-pressed to sell themselves.  Even in this era of algorithms and SEO, there is surely gloom amid exaltation as thousands hawk and hype (via computer screens and phone-headsets) whatever wares or services might be pitched to strike consumer fancy, for the time being.

A pro’s perspective

Shortly after the play opened on Broadway, A. Howard Fuller, who was then the president of the Fuller Brush Company, stated that he was “particularly moved” by the assessment of the salesman’s lot, which is delivered in the play’s Requiem.  

In his May 1949 essay for Fortune, Fuller wrote, “If the salesman can properly be called the hero of American society, it would be difficult to discover a more fitting hero for a modern tragedy.  For in a very real sense, Willy, with his slogans and enthusiasms, is symbolic of the true spirit of a large, an important, and, one might say, a decisive segment of American life.”                                   

In that Fortune essay, Fuller confirmed the uncertainty, even precariousness, of the salesman’s fortunes: “If the salesman is the hero of modern industry, it is inevitable that he should sometimes fail.”  Also, inevitably, “physical and psychological distress” come with the territory.

While enthusiasm is essential, Fuller found Willy’s to be “ungoverned by intelligence.”  Willy’s slogans are recited again and again, regardless of circumstances and realities.

“To be liked, to be well liked”

A hypothesis as to the play’s relatability:  There are surely moments when loneliness can get the best of us as we unpack, display, and then have to put away our occupational wares, CVs, and personal offerings, along with our hopes and aspirations.  The disappointments can linger on.  If there is a “sweet smell of success,” there can also be an “odor” of failure that hangs on and becomes an aura, of a sort.

At the very end of Act Two, just prior to the play’s Requiem, Willy—astonished and elevated—concludes that his favored but disappointing son likes him.  A few lines later Willy concludes, wonderingly, that the boy loves him.

We wonder if Willy is finding comfort in still more self-deception.  Arguably, that is part of “the gloom” conveyed by Death of a Salesman, now into its 71st year. 

In that unsettling cautionary tale, which has been performed around the world, there’s nothing make-believe about our desire to be liked, well liked…. loved.  

Willy Loman, the increasingly-addled road-weary “drummer,” who has lugged a stuffed over-size sample case in each arm, has been weighed down by the way he inflated himself and his favored son—and by the rebuffs that resulted.  A lot of baggage.

At the end of the play, in the Requiem, his neighbor, who seems to be his only friend, tells us that “for a salesman, there is no rock-bottom to the life.  He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine.  He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine.  And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake.  And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished…. A salesman has got to dream.  It comes with the territory.”   

The “great god, popularity”

To be liked—to be very well liked—was the key to success, in Willy’s mantra.  The president of the Fuller Brush Company (and many others after him) rightly noted Willy’s journey into self-deception.

Fuller may have received further insights, or confirmations, in a private conversation with Arthur Miller.  There is even speculation that Fuller invited Miller to give “a talk” to members of the company’s Hartford-based sales department.

Whether from a private conversation or departmental talk, Fuller reported that the playwright intended audiences to register how Willy’s self-salesmanship got the best of him: He sold himself a mindset (and the accompanying mantra) that had him veer off the reality roadway.

The title of Fuller’s essay was “A Salesman Is Everybody.” 

A further hypothesis as to the play’s relatability

In a sense, yes, even in the era of algorithms and SEO, each of us develops a self-marketing strategy—and we devise tactics and outreach campaigns to sell our “products” and our “services”, and thus further our self-promotions.

In some ways, yes, each of us is a “salesman” as we pursue achievement, accomplishment, advancement—“scores” in all manner of endeavor. 

The corollary: From time to time, most of us experience roadblocks, detours, re-routings; all of which are part of that over-used term, “journey.”

The distinctiveness of Willy Loman’s “journey”—what makes it tragic—is that his swerves are not everyday navigations; not everyman’s consequence.  But, for some, could be? 

Willy’s “journey” is not everyman’s roadmap, but cautionary nevertheless

Death of a Salesman can be received as a cautionary tale—moving, poignant, memorable.  From both an occupational and personal perspective, the play is instructive. 

For seventy years, the play has offered warning signs, of a sort—even stop signs.   

Willy’s devoted wife scolds her sons about their inattentions and lack of respect for their father.  She insists that they reverse, and “park” for good, their attitudes about Willy’s faults and failings.  To his sufferings, she demands, “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

If only for this Valentine’s time of year, we, too, might pay attention to Willy Loman, and to his sons, and to his wife—for the sake of our own “journeys” and the loved ones who are along for our ride.

Much appreciation to the newspaper research and archives staff of the Boston Public Library.

References

“Death of a Salesman – Text and Criticism” edited by Gerald Weales, The Viking Critical Library copyright 1967 Viking Penguin Inc.