“You stuff somebody into the American dream, and it becomes a prison.” – Craig Lyle Thomas
Death of a salesman is a 1949 play by American playwright Arthur Miller, where the American dream becomes the American tragedy for the protagonist Willy Loman by whom it is never quite realized. It can be best described as a modern American tragedy and is divided into two acts and a requiem. It is set in New York and present-day Boston. The two acts take place across the span of two consecutive days with the requiem set a few days after the conclusion but we keep on getting flashbacks from Willy’s past life in the form of his hallucinations. Miller makes impressive use of background score and stage direction to bring fluidity to this transition.
As the title suggests the protagonist of this play is a 63-years old travelling salesman who is physically exhausted by his taxing work and mentally unstable. 34 years of struggle to ace the American dream has cost him his sanity and his morality and he is not inhibited in going to any extent to become successful. He is often found hallucinating about his dead brother Ben who became a diamond tycoon after a trip to Africa, his past life and also his former boss Frank Wagner. He also has suicidal tendencies and his mood shifts from utmost hopefulness to extreme despair. His wife Linda is the ideal docile woman who is seduced by her husband’s facade and idolizes him while all he does is push her to the margins. His sons Biff and Happy turn out to be as unsuccessful and delusional as their father under his influence. The three Loman men are the people who want to weasel their way to the top with their charm and not hard work due to which their dreams remain just that, dreams. Juxtaposed to the Loman men are hardworking and sincere father-son Charlie and Bernard who not only realise the American dream but also remain grounded in reality. Miller personifies the crudeness of American capitalism in Howard Wagner, Willy’s current boss, who is as cold-blooded and shrewd as businessmen can get.
Thematically the play oscillates between illusion and reality with the American dream and its realization as the chief motif, other minor themes are family relations, suicide, abandonment and betrayal. Miller’s excellent craftsmanship can be seen in his use of symbols to provide dorsum to the plot.
While the play does address the rat-like lives of the American middle class it fails to register the voice of its women in any sincerity. Not only does it reduce women to the stereotypical wives, secretaries and magazine girls, but also portrays them as materialistic, subservient, one-dimensional and usable. Women are not the causes of the plot but just its consequences. Apart from this, it gives a very white-American reality without any participation of the immigrants and African Americans who were as much a part of the country, for whom the experience may have been completely different. Another problematic aspect is the superficiality of the relationship between the Loman brothers. Throughout the play, we see that Biff is the favoured son and it creates the anxiousness in Happy to get validated by his family but the siblings remain close like a pack. The jealousy which should have been at the crux of his angst to prove himself to his parents is amiss in the play which puts a question mark on the credibility of Miller’s portrayal of the brothers.
The play can be read in two sittings and engages the reader in its intricacies. It gives substance to contemplate the degradation of humans in a capitalist superpower by strongly critiquing the idealisation of a man who may have-all and be-all. In the end, it hammers down on the glossy preconceptions of success and shows the stark condition of human life which can be reckoned when Willy very strongly says, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit.”
The play leaves you with the question, “Is it the American dream or the American nightmare?”