29 Arthur Miller: The Death of a Salesman

Prof. Niladri Chatterjee

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Born on 17 October 1915, Arthur Miller was a playwright, essayist and activist of the American Theatre movement. Miller was a public figure and had composed plays like All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The  Crucible (1953)  and A  View  from  the Bridge (1955, revised 1956). He also wrote screenplays and was most noteworthy for his work, The Misfits (1961). His play, Death of a Salesman is often placed as a part of the the finest American plays in the 20th century alongside Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire. He was the winner of Pulitzer Prize for Literature; Miller was one of the most prominent and promising figures of American English Literature.



Arthur  Asher   Miller’s   birthplace   was   in Harlem,   in   the New   York   City borough   of Manhattan, and he was the second of the three children of Augusta and Isadora Miller. His father was an Austrian Jewish immigrant, and his mother was from New York, born to Austrian Jewish parents. His father owned a women’s clothing manufacturing business. He was a wealthy and respected man in the community. In the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the family lost almost everything and moved to Gravesend, Brooklyn. As a teenager, Miller worked as a bread delivery boy before school to contribute to his family’s economy. After graduating in 1932 from Abraham Lincoln High School, he worked regularly to pay his college fees. He then joined the University of Michigan, where he first majored in journalism and worked for the student paper, the Michigan Daily. During this time he wrote his first play, No Villain. Miller changed his major to English, and eventually won the Avery Hopwood Award for No Villain. The award brought him instant recognition and led him into considering that he could have a career option as a playwright. Miller enrolled in a playwriting course which was taught by Professor Kenneth Rowe, who instructed him in his early forays into playwriting; Rowe emphasized how a play is built in so as to achieve its intended effect, or what Miller called “the dynamics of play construction”. Miller retained strong ties to his alma mater throughout the rest of his life. He had established the university’s Arthur Miller Award in 1985 and Arthur Miller Award for Dramatic Writing in 1999, and lent his name to the Arthur Miller Theatre in  2000. In  1937,  Miller  wrote Honors  at  Dawn, which received the Avery Hopwood Award. After his graduation in 1938, he joined the Federal Theater Project, a New Deal agency established to provide jobs in the theatre. He chose the theatre project against the more lucrative offer to work as a scriptwriter for 20th Century Fox. However, Congress, was worried about possible Communist infiltration, and therefore closed the project in 1939. Miller began working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while continuing to write his radio plays.


He was married to Mary Grace Slattery in 1940.The couple had two children, Jane and Robert.  1940 was also the  year  his first play was produced; The Man Who Had All the   Luck won the Theatre Guild’s National Award. In 1947, Miller’s play All My Sons, was a success on Broadway, this earned him his first Tony Award, for Best Author, and his reputation as a playwright was established even further. Years later, in a 1994 interview   with Ron Rifkin, Miller confessed that most contemporary critics regarded All My Sons as “a very depressing play in a time of great optimism” and that positive reviews from Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times had saved it from doom.


In the year 1948, Miller built a small studio in Roxbury, Connecticut. There, he wrote Act I of Death of a Salesman within one single day. Within six weeks, he completed the rest of the play, which proceeded to become one of the classics of world theatre. Death of a Salesman had premiered on Broadway on February 10, 1949 at the Morocco Theatre,  directed by Elia Kazan. The play was both a commercially successful and a critically acclaimed play, winning a Tony Award for Best Author, the New York Drama Circle Critics’ Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was the first play to win all three of these major awards. The play was performed 742 times.

In 1949, Miller exchanged letters with Eugene O’Neill regarding Miller’s production of All My Sons. O’Neill had sent Miller a congratulatory telegram; in response, he wrote a letter that consisted of a few paragraphs detailing his gratitude for the telegram, apologizing for not responding earlier, and inviting Eugene to the opening of Death of a Salesman.


A one-act version of Miller’s verse drama, A View from the Bridge opened on Broadway in a joint bill with one of Miller’s lesser-known plays, A Memory of Two Mondays, in 1956. The very next year, Miller revised A View from the Bridge as a two-act prose drama, which Peter Brook directed in London. A French-Italian joint-production called Vu du pont, based on the play, was released in 1962.


In June 1956, marked another event in his personal life, Miller left his first wife Mary Slattery and was married to Marilyn Monroe. Miller and Monroe had met in April 23, 1951, when they had been in a relationship, and had remained in contact since then.


Miller began work on The Misfits, starring his wife, Monroe. Miller later said that the filming was one of the lowest points in his life; shortly before the film’s premiere in 1961, they divorced. One and a half year later, Monroe died of what seemed to be a possible drug overdose. Inge Morath who worked as a photographer documenting the film’s production was Miller’s future wife. The film proved to be the last appearances for Monroe. Miller married photographer Inge Morath on February 17, 1962 and the first of their two children, Rebecca, was born in September, 1962. Their son Daniel was born with Down syndrome in November 1966. The couple remained together until Inge died in 2002.


After the Fall which was produced in 1964 is said to be an account of the personal views of Miller’s experiences during his marriage to Monroe. The play reunited Miller with his former friend Kazan and they collaborated on both the script and the direction. After the Fall opened on January 23, 1964 at the ANTA Theatre in Washington Square Park. That same year, Miller produced another play Incident at Vichy. A year later, Miller organized the 1966 PEN congress in New York City. Miller also wrote the penetrating family drama, The Price, produced in 1968. It was Miller’s most successful play preceded only by his most successful creation, Death of a Salesman.


Throughout the 1970s, Miller spent much of his time trying different genres of theatre, producing one-act plays such as Fame and The Reason Why, and travelling with his wife, he created In The Country and Chinese Encounters while travelling with her. Both his 1972 comedy The Creation of the World and Other Business and its musical adaptation, Up from Paradise, were critical and unpopular failures.


Miller was an unusually articulate critique of his own work. In 1978 he published a collection of his essays on theatre called, Theater Essays, edited by Robert A. Martin and with a foreword  by  Miller.  Highlights  of   the   collection   included   Miller’s   introduction   to his Collected Plays, his reflections on the theory of tragedy, opinion on the McCarthy Era, and pieces arguing for a publicly supported theatre.


Miller travelled to China in 1983, to produce and direct Death of a Salesman at the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing. The play succeeded in China and in 1984, Salesman in Beijing, a book about Miller’s experiences in Beijing, had been published. Simultaneously, Death of a Salesman was adapted into the realm of telefilms. In late 1987, Miller published his autobiography, Time-bends. Before the publication of the same, it was well anticipated that Miller would not talk about Monroe in interviews; in Time-bends Miller discloses his experiences with Monroe in detail. During the first half of 1990s, Miller composed three new plays: The  Ride  Down   Mt.   Morgan (1991), The   Last   Yankee (1992),   and Broken  Glass (1994). In 1996, a film version of The Crucible was made. Miller himself was the writer  of  the  film’s  screenplay. Mr.  Peters’  Connections   was   staged Off-Broadway,  and Death of a Salesman was revived on Broadway in 1998 and 1999 respectively. The play, once again, was critically acclaimed, and won a Tony Award for best revived play.


He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in the year 1993; Miller was also honoured with the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award for being a Master American Dramatist in the year 1998. In 2001 Miller was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, which was the U.S. federal government’s highest honour for achievement in the humanities. Miller’s lecture was entitled “On Politics and the Art of Acting.” Miller’s lecture analysed the political events of the present times (including the U.S. presidential election of 2000) in terms of the “arts of performance”. In 1999, Miller was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the field of arts, given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” In 2001, he received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Miller was awarded Spain’s Principe de Asturias Prize for Literature as “the undisputed master of modern drama” in May 1, 2002.


In December 2004, the 89-year-old Miller made an announcement that he had been in love with the minimalist painter Agnes Barley since 2002, and that they intended to marry. Miller’s final play, Finishing the Picture, opened at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, in the autumn of 2004, with one character said to be based on Barley. It was reportedly based on his experience during the filming of The Misfits, even though Miller insisted that the play was a work of fiction with fictional characters that were no more than complex shadows of historical evidences.

After a battle against cancer, pneumonia and congestive heart disease, Miller died of heart failure at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He died on the evening of February 10, 2005 and on the same day, the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman celebrated its 56th anniversary.


Arthur Miller’s career as a playwright spanned over almost seven decades, and at the time of his death, Miller began to be considered as one of the greatest dramatists that the twentieth century has seen. After his death, many respected actors, directors, and producers paid tribute to Miller, some called him the last great practitioner of the American stage. Miller’s Alma Mater, the University of Michigan, opened the Arthur Miller Theatre in March 2007. As per his expressed wish, it is the only theatre in the world that bears Miller’s name.


Other notable places to find Miller’s legacy are that of his letters, notes, drafts and other papers that are housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center situated at The University of Texas at Austin. Arthur Miller is also a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1979. He received the Four Freedom Award for Freedom of Speech in the year 1993.


His Body of Works 


Stage plays

  • No Villain (1936)
  • They Too Arise (1937, based on No Villain)
  • Honors at Dawn (1938, based on They Too Arise)
  • The Grass Still Grows (1938, based on They Too Arise)
  • The Great Disobedience (1938)
  • Listen My Children (1939)
  • The Golden Years (1940)
  • he Man Who Had All the Luck (1940)
  • The Half-Bridge (1943)
  • All My Sons (1947)
  • Death of a Salesman (1949)
  • An Enemy of the People (1950, based on Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People)
  • The Crucible (1953)
  • A View from the Bridge (1955)
  • A Memory of Two Mondays (1955)
  • After the Fall (1964)
  • Incident at Vichy (1964)
  • The Price (1968)
  • The Reason Why (1970)
  • Fame (one-act, 1970; revised for television 1978)
  • The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)
  • The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977)
  • The American Clock (1980)
  • Playing for Time (television play, 1980)
  • Elegy for a Lady (short play, 1982, first part of Two Way Mirror)
  • Some Kind of Love Story (short play, 1982, second part of Two Way Mirror)
  • I Think About You a Great Deal (1986)
  • Playing for Time (stage version, 1985)
  • I Can’t Remember Anything (1987, collected in Danger: Memory!)
  • Clara (1987, collected in Danger: Memory!)
  • The Last Yankee (1991)
  • The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991)
  • Broken Glass (1994)
  • Mr Peter’s Connections (1998)
  • Resurrection Blues (2002)
  • Finishing the Picture (2004)

Radio plays

  • The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man (1941)
  • Joel Chandler Harris (1941)
  • The Battle of the Ovens (1942)
  • Thunder from the Mountains (1942)
  • I Was Married in Bataan (1942)
  • That They May Win (1943)
  • Listen for the Sound of Wings (1943)
  • Bernardine (1944)
  • I Love You (1944)
  • Grandpa and the Statue (1944)
  • The Philippines Never Surrendered (1944)
  • The Guardsman (1944, based on Ferenc Molnár’s play)
  • The Story of Gus (1947)


  • All My Sons (1948)
  • The Hook (1947)
  • Let’s Make Love (1960)
  • The Misfits (1961)
  • Everybody Wins (1984)
  • Death of a Salesman (1985)
  • The Crucible (1995)
  • Mr. Peters’ Connections (1998)

Assorted Fiction

  • Focus (novel, 1945)
  • “The Misfits” (novella, 1957)
  • I Don’t Need You Anymore (short stories, 1967)
  • “Homely Girl” (short story, 1992, published in UK as “Plain Girl: A Life” 1995)
  • “The Performance” (short story)
  • Presence: Stories (short stories, 2007)


  • Situation Normal (1944)
  • In Russia (1969)
  • In the Country (1977)
  • Chinese Encounters (1979)
  • Salesman in Beijing (1984)
  • Time-bends: A Life, Methuen London (1987)

Death of a Salesman 


Death of a Salesman was a play written by Arthur  Miller  in  the  year  1949.  It  received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. Death of a Salesman is often numbered on the short list of being among the finest American plays in the 20th century alongside Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire.


The Story Line of the Play


When Willy Loman returns home exhausted after an unsuccessful business trip, and worried over Willy’s state of mind and recent car accident, his wife Linda suggests that he urge his boss Howard Wagner to allow him to work in his home city so as to avoid travel. Willy complains to Linda that their son, Biff, is yet to make it in his life. Despite Biff’s promising show as an athlete in high school, he flunked senior-year math and never enrolled in college.


Biff and his brother Happy, who is temporarily staying with Willy and Linda after Biff’s unexpected return from the West, reminisce about their childhood together. They discuss their father’s mental degeneration, which they have both witnessed in the form of his constant indecisiveness and repetitive instances of talking to himself when he thinks he is alone. Willy walks in, angry that the two boys have never been successful in anything. In an effort to pacify their father, Biff and Happy tell their father that Biff plans to make a business proposition the very next day.


Thus, the next day, Willy goes to ask his boss, Howard, for a job in his home town while Biff goes to make a business proposition, but both fail. Willy gets angry and ends up getting fired when the boss tells him he needs rest and is no longer able to represent the company. Biff on the other hand waits hours on end to see a former employer who does not remember him and turns him down. Willy then goes to the office of his neighbour Charley, where he bumps into Charley’s son Bernard who was a successful lawyer; Bernard tells him that Biff originally wanted to do well in summer school, but something happened in Boston when Biff went to visit his father that percolated his mind and changed his ambitions.


Happy, Biff, and Willy meet for dinner at a restaurant, but Willy refuses to hear any further bad news from Biff. Happy tries to get Biff to lie to their father. Biff tries to tell him what happened as Willy gets angry and slips into a flashback of what happened in Boston the day Biff came to see him. Willy had been having an affair with a receptionist on one of his sales trips when Biff unexpectedly arrived at Willy’s hotel room. A shocked Biff had angrily confronted his father, calling him a liar and a fraud. From that moment on, Biff’s views about his father changed and set Biff adrift from Willy.


Biff leaves the restaurant in frustration, followed by Happy. They leave a confused and upset Willy behind in the restaurant. When they later return home, their mother angrily confronts them for leaving their father behind. Biff tries unsuccessfully to reconcile with Willy, but the discussion quickly slips into another argument. Biff conveys plainly to his father that he, just like Willy himself is not meant for anything great, insisting that both of them are simply ordinary men meant to lead ordinary lives. The confrontation reaches an apparent climax with Biff hugging his father and crying as he tries to get Willy to let go off the unrealistic expectations. Willy still clings to high expectations for him and cannot accept him for who he really is. He still cannot disclose to his son, his own moral lapses and indiscretions and weeps while he prepares to go to bed, tired of everything. Willy appears to believe that his son Biff has forgiven him and thinks he will now pursue a career as a businessman. Willy kills himself, apparently intentionally in a car crash, so that Biff can use the life insurance money to start off his business. At the funeral Biff retains his belief that he does not want to become a businessman like his father, while Happy, on the other hand, chooses to follow his father’s footsteps.


Characters in the Play


 William Loman: The salesman, he is referred as Willy in the play. He is aged 63 years old and is very unstable, tending to imagining events from the past that are not real. He occillates between different ideas about his life. Willy seems to be a childlike character and for him opinions of others for matter a lot. His first name, Willy resonates this childlike aspect as well as sounds like the question “Will he?” His last name, Lowman gives the feel of Willy’s being a “low man,” someone placed low on the social ladder and unlikely to succeed in any endeavour; however, this popular interpretation of his last name has been dismissed by Miller himself.


Linda Loman: Willy’s wife. Linda is a passively supportive character constructed by the playwright. She is docile when Willy talks unrealistically about his hopes for their future, although she seems to have a sound knowledge of what is really going on around them. She despises their sons, particularly Biff, for not being helpful towards Willy more, and supports her husband devotedly despite the fact that Willy sometimes maltreats her ignoring her opinions over those of others. She is the first to understand that Willy is prone to suicide at the beginning of the play, and thus urges Biff to make something of him, while expecting of Happy to help Biff to do so.


Biff Loman: Willy’s older son, Biff was a football player with brilliance and potential in high school, but failed in math in his senior year and dropped out of summer school when he witnessed Willy with another woman while visiting him in Boston. He is confused between going home to try to fulfil Willy’s dream of having him as a businessman or ignoring his father by going out to the West to be a farmhand, something that makes him happy. He likes being outdoors and working with his hands, yet wants to do something worthwhile so Willy will be proud. Biff however remains a realist and honestly confesses to Willy that he is just an ordinary guy and will not be a great man.


 Harold “Happy” Loman: He was Willy’s younger son. He’s lived under the supervision of his older brother Biff for most of his life and seemed to be almost ignored, but he still tries to support his family. He has a very restless lifestyle as a womanizer and dares to dream beyond his current job as an assistant to the assistant buyer at the local store, and is unfortunately willing to cheat a little in order to do so, by taking bribes. He is always expecting approval from his parents, but hardly gets any, and he even goes as far as to formulate things up just for attention. He tries often to keep his family’s perceptions of each other positive or “happy” by defending each of them during their daily arguments, but still has the most turbulent relationship with his mother, who looks down upon him for his flamboyant lifestyle and apparent cheapness of character.


Charley: Willy’s neighbour. He pities Willy and frequently lends him money and comes over to play cards with Willy, even though Willy often treats him poorly. Willy is jealous of him because of his son’s more successful career than Willy’s. Charley offers Willy a job many times during visits to his office, yet Willy declines every time, in spite of losing his job as a salesman.


Bernard: Charley’s son. In Willy’s flashbacks, he is a nerd, and Willy forces him to give Biff test answers. He worships Biff and can do anything for him. Later, he is a very successful lawyer, married, and expecting a second son ‒ the same successes that Willy had desired for his sons, in particular Biff. Bernard makes Willy feel that he must have gone wrong as a father.


Uncle Ben: Willy’s older brother who became a diamond merchant after a detour to Africa. He is dead, but Willy frequently speaks with him in his hallucination of the past. Ben frequently boasts, “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich.” He is Willy’s role model, although much older and has no actual relationship with Willy, preferring to assert his superiority over  his  younger  brother.  His  character   is  written  to  represent  Willy’s  idea  of    the American Dream success story.

  • Miss Francis: A woman with whom Willy had an affair and thus cheated on Linda.
  • Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss. He sees Willy as a liability for the company and fires him, ignoring all the years that Willy has given to the company. Howard is extremely proud of his wealth.
  • Jenny: Charley’s secretary.
  • Stanley: A waiter at a restaurant who is a friend of Happy.
  • Miss Forsythe: A girl whom Happy picks up at the restaurant. She is very pretty and claims to have been on several magazine covers. Happy lies to her, making himself and Biff look like they are important and successful.
  • Letta: Miss Forsythe’s friend.

Themes Prevalent in the Plot of the PlayThe concept of Reality and Make-Belief


Death of a Salesman uses flashbacks diligently to present Willy’s memory during the real times. The illusion not only is suggestive of the past, but also represents the loss of pastoral life. Willy has dreams of success his whole life and formulates lies about his and Biff’s success. The more he becomes indulgent of the illusion, the harder it is for him to face reality. Biff is the only one who realises that the whole family was living in shadows of the lies that they believe to be true and tries to face the truth.

The concept of the American Dream


The American Dream is the dominant theme of the play, and therefore everyone has their own way to describe their American Dreams. Willy dreams to become a successful salesman who has both materialistic success and freedom. His way to achieve success is to be well-accepted, which is also the way he teaches his sons. His dream cannot be achieved in that way, and such that society becomes the reason towards pushing him to death. Throughout Willy’s flashbacks, it is found that he is a believer in the fact that success is indicated through someone  who is rich, well liked, and demonstrates a good personality. Because of this, Willy thought that money would make him happy. Willy also believes that in order to obtain success in his life that he must have a good personality. We see that he believes that salesmanship is based on ‘sterling traits of character’ and ‘a pleasing personality’. But Willy does not have them either: requisite sterling traits of character; people simply do not like him as much as he formulates is necessary for success.


Uncle Ben represents the ideal of American Dream. He thinks American Dream is to catch an opportunity, to conquer nature and to establish a fortune. Just like what he says “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. (He laughs.) And by God I was rich” Ben symbolizes another kind of successful American Dream for Willy.


After seeing his father’s real identity, Biff does not follow his father’s “dream” because he knows that “Willy does see his future but in a blind way, meaning that    he can and cannot see at the same time, since his way of seeing the future is completely wrong or rather flawed. Biff has a dream to get outside, to farm and work hard, his father prevents him from pursuing his dream.


One thing that is apparent from the Death of a Salesman is the hard work and dedication of Charley and Bernard. Willy criticizes Charley and Bernard throughout the plot of the play, but it is not because Willy hates them. He finds himself to be jealous of their success in their lives, and lacking in tenacity as them. The models of business success provided in the play all argue against Willy’s theory of personality, Charley, Willy’s neighbour and apparently his only friend is a complete foil to Willy. Charley has no time for Willy’s theories of business, but he provides for his family and is in a position to offer Willy a do-nothing job to keep him bringing home a salary.

Thus, Death of a Salesman provides not only a dream but also a wakeup call. It percolates the insides of a theory of success and refurnishes it completely. In the character of Willy we see a latent frustration and an innate wish to be out of it. Miller no doubt composed the character as a masterpiece of confusion and confidence merged in a single body.

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