In reflecting on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, my personal reaction is conflicted. On one level, I appreciate that the play is direct and created in a classic structure; as Willy, Linda, and their sons go through their lives and interactions, the story develops in a straightforward way as the characters are more fully defined. Then, and importantly, I am aware of the play’s impact in terms of its era. In the late 1940s, when it premiered, America was in the first flush of a post-war boom, so Miller’s criticism of the social and cultural drive to make money, and how this may destroy lives, was highly relevant and different.
On another level, however, and evaluating the play strictly as theater, I find issues with it. Characters are, by and large, too broadly presented and Miller virtually makes them symbols of values and ideas. There is real human drama here, but it suffers under the weight of the author’s message, and a modern reader is likely uncomfortable with the overt agenda of Miller. While Death of a Salesman has certainly earned its place as an important play of its time, my own view is that it is not timeless, and because Miller is too intent on making a social statement no longer insightful to a modern audience or reader.
To begin with, and to give credit where it is due, Miller sets out a family drama with a number of layers to it, as well as a story moving in several directions. From the opening scene, it is clear that something is wrong, as Willy returns home from an aborted sales trip. Linda comforts him but it seems he is unraveling, and this condition may be said to be the play’s consistent element. He is as well aware of not being in control of himself, even as he has difficulty accepting this. Being taken with the highway landscape, for example, is strange and fascinating to him: “You can imagine, me looking at scenery, on the road every week of my life!” (Miller, 1980, p. 8). Some internal conflict of the character is then established, just as the interactions between Biff and Happy, as well as Willy’s fantasies of the past, emphasize his increasing loss of understanding and control. Miller also introduces dramatic elements driving the story, as in Biff’s discovery of his father’s infidelity. The author also has the courage to have Willy die, which is necessary to underscore the conflicts within his sons, question the validity of the “American dream,” and permit Linda to make a plea for the dignity of all men who try. Consequently, Miller presents a play that is extremely strong in terms of structure, flow, and message.
At the same time, the core themes of the play, as well as the style of the language, go to an important question: can a play be timeless when what it addresses is long known to the society, and when it relies on dialogue emphasizing the characters as symbolic? This is my primary issue with the play. Certainly, modern culture struggles with ideas of where commercialism ends and overt greed begins, just as ideas of what a man or woman should do in life remain current. Choices in life are inherently timeless themes, just as Biff is torn between following his father’s ambitions and pursuing his own idea of a fulfilling life. Nonetheless, even timeless elements require characters who go beyond stereotypical representations, and Miller provides this in only one character, Happy.
Ironically, in fact, Happy is more interesting because he is not “explained” by the playwright. Some critics argue that Happy is the least sympathetic character in the play. Willy and Biff are easier to understand because they struggle with issues of identity and commercialism, whereas Happy mainly exists to gratify himself. He also perceives women in the traditionally two-sided way of being either sexual conquests or maternal figures removed from sexuality (Sterling, 2008, p. 30). At the same time, however, this very lack of dimension makes him more interesting, and because the reader/audience perceives layers under his surface Miller only briefly addresses. Happy does question his own predatory nature. However, as Miller tends to present this as only a reality, Happy becomes his only truly interesting character.
This quality of Happy is then emphasized by the overt and consistent self-revelations of the others. No reader can believe, for example, that Willy’s claims in the flashbacks are based in reality: “Be liked and you will never want…I never have to wait in line to see a buyer” (Miller, p. 23). He is plainly so insistent on promoting himself to his sons, his desperate need to be validated is all too clear. Similarly, Biff’s issues are too symbolic to generate actual interest in the character. His craving for an independent life removed from commercialism, even in the 1940s, cannot have been daring or unusual:
“To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer, to devote your whole life to keeping stock…” (Miller, p. 14). In a play largely centered on American ideas of masculinity, then, Miller’s play is no more fascinating than the broad strokes of masculine characters he relies upon, just as Linda is a one-dimensional portrait of a long-suffering, if loving, wife.
While I admire Miller’s focus on classic structure, and even as I am aware that the play had meaning for the audiences of its day not in place today, examining the play as only theater then brings me to a lessened appreciation of it. In plain terms, the psychology is too blatant, and there is little of the subtlety that makes an audience or reader participate in the experience, as happens in Shakespeare. Only Happy provides interest and, ironically,because he is less explained by the author. Ultimately, Death of a Salesman earned its place as an important play of its time, but it is not timeless, and because Miller’s concern is making a social statement no longer insightful to a modern audience or reader.