date: 13 March 2018
The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Summary and Keywords
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.
Keywords: Jewish writers, film, television and media, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, guilt, responsibility, gender
Arthur Asher Miller was born on October, 17, 1915 in Harlem, New York, to a Jewish couple, Gittel “Augusta” and Isidore Miller. Isidore had come to America from Poland as a child to work in the family’s clothing business, while Augusta was a first-generation immigrant whose family was also in the clothing industry. She had thought about becoming a teacher but was instead persuaded by her family to marry in 1911. Arthur was the second of their three children, with an older brother, Kermit, and a younger sister, Joan, who would become the actress Joan Copeland.
Miller’s parents were not very observant Jews, but Miller did attend the occasional service with his grandfather, as well as Hebrew school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. Growing up, Miller always admired his older brother but also felt that their natures were profoundly different. Kermit seemed the perfect, dutiful son, while Miller saw himself as darker and more ambitious. This dynamic is related through many of the competing brothers we meet in his plays. A younger sister, however, is never in the mix, even in his semi-autobiographical pieces. Miller’s mother characters, however, tend to be very present and rooted in reality, often dominating the moral core of his dramas.
Branching out from the family business shortly after the close of World War I, Isidore built up a successful women’s clothing company employing 800 people at its peak, and housed the family in an expensive Harlem apartment overlooking Central Park. However, when Miller was a teenager, with the onset of the Great Depression the business began to falter, and the family had to relocate to Brooklyn. The firm would eventually go bankrupt, even after Kermit dropped out of New York University to assist his father. In Brooklyn, where Miller had to share a bedroom with his maternal grandfather, the Millers lived close to their extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom would feature as characters in Miller’s future work, most notably his uncle Manny Newman and family, the models for the Lomans in Death of a Salesman. While little of Miller’s work is strictly autobiographical, his ability to create characters based upon real people makes them all the more authentic.
The experience of the Great Depression would haunt Miller as a key event in American history that altered forever the way people viewed everything around them, and it can be seen as influencing the background of several of his plays. The depression had exposed many social hypocrisies and changed the way success and failure could be considered. The Baum family at the center of The American Clock (1980) offers a version of Miller’s personal experiences during those years, although the Baums have only a single son, Lee. Miller admired and hated his father; he was annoyed at Isidore’s incapacity to fully recuperate, economically and emotionally, from the depression, yet he was able to recognize his father’s basic decency. In hindsight, Miller saw that it was the system that failed rather than his father, but at the time it was difficult to lay the blame elsewhere as he watched his father become increasingly useless as a provider. This is reflected in Miller’s depiction of Moe Baum, the father in The American Clock, whereas Rose, the mother of the family, is portrayed as having far greater strength of spirit and creativity, and with her “headful of life”1 provides the resistant core of the play against the destruction of the depression. She is just one in a series of strong, but critically overlooked, female characters in Miller’s work.
Uncommitted to academics but a strong athlete, Miller graduated from Abraham Lincoln High in 1932 with a knee injury that would keep him out of the army during World War II, and a lackluster transcript that initially kept him out of college. Rejected by the University of Michigan, to which he had applied to get away from family and join what was then seen as a forward-thinking community, Miller wrote again to the dean to plead for a chance to prove himself. He was offered a probationary placement if he could show he had sufficient funds to enroll. Finding work as a clerk at an auto parts warehouse, an experience he would later recall in the play A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), it took him over a year to save the money, but he was finally able to enroll at Michigan to study journalism in the fall of 1934.
College and the Developmental Years
Miller worked as a reporter and editor for the Michigan Daily, where his copy showed strong socialist sympathies as he covered campus speakers and nearby strikes. In his sophomore year he met his future wife, Mary Slattery, his first non-Jewish girlfriend; both politically committed, they would join the peace movement and sign the Oxford Pledge, which declared its signatories would not take part in any future war. Needing additional funds to remain enrolled, Miller submitted work for one of the University’s Hopwood Awards—competitive writing awards administered each year by the university—and wrote his first play, No Villain. Though having little experience of theater, he chose drama because he felt drawn to a form of writing that could so directly connect to its audience. The play was a semi-autobiographical piece about a father whose business is facing strike action and bankruptcy, and how his two sons respond. It won a joint first prize. This play lay in archives for many years but was resurrected in 2015 for a London production during Miller’s centennial year. It offers interesting insights into Miller’s growing beliefs.
Miller switched his major to English and studied the plays of Henrik Ibsen under Professor Kenneth Rowe, who would teach him more about the dynamics of playwriting. With his New York connections, Rowe also encouraged his pupil to submit work to the Theater Guild’s Bureau of New Plays, from which Miller won a substantial scholarship with a rewrite of No Villain, now titled They Too Arise. A later revision of this, renamed The Grass Still Grows, was turned down by New York producers as being “too Jewish,” something that may have influenced Miller to alter the tone of some of his later characters. His first two Broadway plays would also be set in the Midwest, as if to avoid any suggestion they could be about Jews. However, while Miller would, once famous, face charges of trying to hide his Jewishness, nothing could be further from the truth, given the number of overtly Jewish plays and Jewish characters that he created over his entire career.
Miller won the Hopwood Award outright the following year with Honors at Dawn—another play about strikers, corruption, and two brothers at odds—and placed second in his final year with The Great Disobedience, a prison drama in which he attempted a more original plot about a jailed abortionist and a sadistic warden. After graduation, despite an offer to write for the movies, Miller decided to return to New York to work on his plays, first for the Federal Theatre Project until it closed down in 1939, and then for various radio stations. He wrote mostly patriotic pieces for NBC and CBS, although Columbia Workshop did air a more unusual political satire: The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man (1940), about a talking cat who gets to be mayor. Working for radio gave Miller practice in more tightly constructing his dialogue to fit the time slot, but also a greater sense of freedom as to what could be included when not restricted to a physical space.
In 1940 Miller married Mary Slattery, who had followed him back to New York, and with whom he would have two children, Jane and Robert. Unable to enlist, Miller took on a night shift at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as his contribution to the war effort. After having his screenplay for The Story of G.I. Joe rejected as being too downbeat, he used the research he had done for his first published book, Situation Normal … (1944). It related his experiences touring U.S. army camps to interview new recruits and veterans. He dedicated the book to his brother Kermit, who was at that time heroically serving abroad. That year, Miller also had his first full-length play produced on Broadway: The Man Who Had All The Luck, which closed after six performances. Critics were not sure what to make of this fable-like play, whose protagonist becomes reckless waiting for misfortune to hit. Though often overlooked and not successfully produced until 1990 (at the Bristol Old Vic), this seminal play illustrates a key concern that runs throughout Miller’s work regarding humankind’s capacity for eschewing responsibility and attempting to blame the other, rather than becoming agents of their own lives. It is a theme that would unnervingly echo throughout many of his plays.
After his critical dismissal as a dramatist, Miller nearly gave up plays and turned to fiction, producing a novel about American anti-Semitism, Focus (1945); he was one of the earliest American writers to tackle the topic. However, despite the moderate success of this book, he was determined to conquer Broadway, carefully crafting his next play, All My Sons—based on a story told to him by his mother-in-law—along more traditional Ibsenian lines, and persuading Elia Kazan to take on its direction to ensure a solid production. Miller had been a big admirer of the work of the Group Theater, with which Kazan had come to fame, and he and Kazan swiftly became close friends. About a man who tries to cover up selling faulty aircraft parts to the Air Force but is finally forced to face the moral consequences, All My Sons won major awards and gave Miller the theatrical success he desired, as well as the leeway to experiment more freely with his next play: Death of a Salesman (1949). It also introduced two strong female characters to the stage in Kate Keller and Ann Deever, both of whom determine the action of the play and dominate the men who love them.
Rise to Fame
In recounting the final twenty-four hours of Willy Loman’s frustrated life in Death of a Salesman, Miller strove to create a new form of theater that would convey the simultaneity in the way the memories of past events collide in one’s mind with current occurrences. Seeing tension as the very stuff of drama, Miller wanted to re-create in a play what he saw as the contradictory forces that operate on people—past against present, society against individual, greed against ethics. His first title had been Inside of His Head, but that was quickly replaced, along with Miller’s original concept of having the scenes play out inside a stage representation of a giant head. Again directing, Kazan brought along the stage and lighting designer Jo Mielziner—with whom he had successfully worked on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—to help visualize what would become one of the American stage’s most iconic set designs.
As Brenda Murphy explains, Mielziner’s designs “combined translucent scenery, expert lighting effect, and sets that went, as the eye travelled upward, from drab realistic interiors to light, delicate frameworks that were mere suggestions of buildings,” which she terms “subjective realism.”2 Miller wanted a set that would convey aspects of both the claustrophobic present and the idealized past within the same space, and Mielziner obliged with an inventive use of scrims and lighting in a design that allowed all the scenes to be played out with minimal stage management. The forestage was essential to allow for breakout space to play the scenes beyond the Lomans’ house. Through this format, Miller, Kazan, and Mielziner suggested a whole new way of presenting a play on stage, and it would become increasingly influential.
The play’s tremendous impact was also due to the authenticity of its depictions. This is perhaps the reason why Miller—despite the expressionistic elements of the play—was wrongly dubbed a realist for many years. Miller had grown up around salesman and knew the pressures they faced, especially in a changing society that no longer did business in the ways it once had. By the 1940s, planned obsolescence was affecting people as much as innovative appliances, and Miller’s rendition of an everyday family trying to find its way to success in a society unsupportive and unsympathetic toward failure hit a distinctive cultural nerve in an America increasingly materialistic and intolerant of “failure.” The problems faced by the Loman family have since proven timeless and transcultural, representative of all people struggling to navigate their lives in societies inherently hostile to their dreams. As the playwright Marsha Norman suggests, “In writing about Willy Loman, Arthur Miller wrote about all of us, about our indestructible will to achieve our humanity, about our fear of being torn away from what and who we are in this world, about our fear of being displaced and forgotten.”3
Miller recognized the social and historical forces operating against the Loman family. From the wagon-laden peddlers who often made their own wares, such as Willy’s father, through the early drummers like David Singleman, traveling by rail, down to the car-driving Willy, whose traveling days are clearly coming to a close when business is no longer done with a smile and a handshake, the play neatly depicts a history of American business practices. Willy is being replaced by a new kind of corporate salesman. This is modeled by Happy, who toils as assistant to an assistant buyer, stuck in a store. Willy’s boss, Howard, seduced by technology and time-management studies, is fast moving toward a pared-down workforce and automation, illustrating the dehumanization of the worker with scientific and engineering advances. At times comic, yet also poetic and tragic, with a realistic veneer that made it easy to involve any audience, Salesman was a new type of serious drama that merged the forms of realism and expressionism to suggest new directions and possibilities for all of American drama, as well as offering a challenge to previous definitions of tragedy.
Against much opposition, Miller argued for Willy Loman’s status as a modern tragic hero. Not a highborn or even intelligent figure, Willy’s nobility lay in his willingness to lay down his life rather than accept the erasure of his dignity. Miller pled his case in two controversial articles in the New York Times, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” and “On Tragedy,” which redefined the way American dramatists, in particular, would view the genre. For Miller, “In the tragic view the need of man to wholly realize himself is the only fixed star.”4 Thus, tragedy could be drawn from the travails of anyone who refuses to give up what he deems his “rightful position” in society. Miller’s tragedies ask audiences to examine and perhaps even fix the social flaws that create such circumstances. Miller produced many essays over his career in which he expounded his opinions on theater, politics, history and social theory, thus indicating a desire to be not just a playwright, but someone who might shape the direction of American drama, if not America itself.
In its effectiveness as a human story, a cultural commentary, an engaging theatrical experience, and a tremendously successful stage experiment, Death of a Salesman is perhaps Miller’s most important play; however, the play that followed, The Crucible—a reaction to Miller’s concern regarding what he saw as the bullying behavior of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the morality of informing on others—has become his most produced one. Like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, although written to address a specific historical climate—1950s McCarthyism through the lens of the 1692 Salem witch hunts—has remained powerfully relevant, in part because The Crucible is a study of the nature of society itself. It effectively conveys striking lessons on the responsible role of authority and the rights and needs of the individual which speak to people who have never heard of Salem or Senator McCarthy. As Matthew Roudané suggests, “The Crucible remains a powerful theatrical experience precisely because it continues to define key political and religious issues of a nation as such issues are reflected within the private anxieties of the individual.”5
Another modern tragic hero, the play’s central protagonist John Proctor, must confront his own culpability through his past affair with Abigail, the girl whose accusations have initiated the witch trials. Mapping the typical progression of so many of Miller’s characters, from betrayal and/or guilt through to the embrace of active responsibility, Proctor comes to an existential self-awareness that gives his self-sacrifice—to preserve his own name and the names of others—a timeless relevance. A person’s name, for Miller, is the trope by which his characters convey a sense of their own moral and personal essence, and the loss of a name can only be devastating.
Miller spent much of 1952 researching witch trials at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. Thus he ensured that the play would have an accurate historical basis that could guard him against accusations of creating a flimsy social satire. He also avoided trying to create a one-to-one analogy, which he felt would be reductive. Although The Crucible is more historically accurate than many of Shakespeare’s plays, it was accused by some of being untruthful, and by others of making an unfair analogy. In hindsight, these seem like strategies to discredit its authority, but at the time it made it a highly controversial play to applaud for fear of being viewed as a “red” sympathizer.
Combining what Brecht called “historification”—by which the playwright would comment on current events through historical analogy—with a more complex linguistic style of the agitprop plays of the 1930s that he admired, in The Crucible Miller produced a drama that addresses key social, moral, and political issues, yet also remains great theater that tugs at its audience’s emotions. The Crucible has something for everyone: sympathies can be drawn to the disenfranchised black slave, the suppressed group of young women, the tortured souls of the unhappy and unlucky Proctors, or the self-important Reverend Hale who gets his certitude stripped away; audience distaste is fired up against the self-righteously pompous, the jealous and cold-heartedly venal, or the blind, rigid enforcement of painfully ridiculous reasoning and rules. Thus the play’s impact and longevity are understandable.
Miller himself was called to appear before HUAC after his marriage to Marilyn Monroe brought him into the spotlight. He refused to name names, telling the committee, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.”6 With this clear echo of the words he had put in the mouth of John Proctor three years earlier, Miller was cited for contempt and given a $500 fine and a thirty-day suspended jail sentence. Two years later, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that the questions he had been asked to answer served no legislative purpose. Elia Kazan, however, driven by his disgust at what communism had become under Stalin, and his need to work in Hollywood and abroad, had named names in 1952, and Miller swiftly terminated his close friendship with Kazan as a result.
How close Miller had been to the Communist Party during the 1930s and 1940s remains a matter of critical contention, and HUAC produced little firm evidence during his hearing. Miller’s resistance was more moral than political, as he felt the HUAC hearings to be socially and psychologically harmful. It is certain that Miller, like Kazan and many others during that period, had seen hope for America in the socialist aspects of communism, but it is also clear that he held Stalin in contempt. In a recent study, Alan Wald explores Miller’s initial alignment and later disillusionment with Soviet socialism, and posits that Miller may have written for New Masses in the 1940s under the pseudonym Matt Wayne.7
The Critical Slide
While Miller wrote other successful modern tragedies, such as A View from the Bridge, Incident at Vichy, and Broken Glass, he was not content to stick with this single format and continued to experiment with both form and subject for the next fifty years of his career. Many of these experiments would be met with disdain by a cadre of critics determined to view him as a simplistic realist, but his work flourished in Europe while neglected at home; by the 1990s, critics began to offer a more measured reassessment of many of these overlooked later pieces. As his most insightful biographer, Christopher Bigsby, suggests, “[Miller] wrote metaphors rather than plays, and that is why they continue to live on the pulse, constantly reinvented, earthed in new realities.”8
Miller has been both hailed and scorned as “America’s conscience,” for the exploration of moral choices that underlies much of his work. Philip Gelb once claimed Miller as a prophet, describing him as a man who “warns us of the possible bitter harvest that may be reaped from our present limited way; he calls attention to the moral and ethical decisions that must be made; and he dramatizes the problem and the need for individuality and will. These may well prove to be the ultimate meanings of hope.”9 Miller’s works are certainly rooted in a profoundly humanistic philosophy that is fiercely patriotic, but just as determined to bring attention to America’s flaws. His driving concern was always to make a difference, and he was convinced that theater was a public art which could do that. For example, his translation in 1950 of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (done for Fredric March), was a means of allowing both playwright and actor to highlight what they saw as the growing mob hysteria against the left during the Cold War. Not for the first time, Miller would be accused of creating anti-American propaganda, even though his intent had been to strengthen a nation in which he fiercely believed; similar charges had been made against All My Sons for its indictment of war profiteering that many refused to accept existed.
While in Hollywood with Kazan in 1951, unsuccessfully trying to find a producer for his screenplay The Hook, about a young dockworker who challenges corrupt union bosses, Miller was introduced by Kazan to Marilyn Monroe. The two bonded, but Miller decided to try to keep his admittedly rocky marriage going, and swiftly returned to New York. However, the two continued to correspond. After her failed marriage to Joe DiMaggio, Monroe came to New York to enroll in the Actors Studio, and rekindled her relationship with Miller.
In 1956, Miller divorced his wife and married Monroe, accompanying the actress to London where she was filming, which also gave him the opportunity to expand his one-act version of A View From the Bridge into two acts for its British premiere, and to write an “Introduction” to his forthcoming Collected Plays, which has been called “one of the most important texts in the modern theater.”10 It remains one of the longest modern American essays on the state of the theater in general and offers insights into the writing process of many of Miller’s best-known plays. The marriage lasted over four years but placed great strain on them both. It was already falling apart by the time Miller wrote the screenplay for The Misfits (1961), based on an earlier published short story of the same title, about a group of cowboys catching wild mustangs for slaughter. He expanded the role of one cowboy’s girlfriend into a central character at his wife’s request to create a serious acting role for her. What he in fact wrote was an elegy on their disintegrating relationship.
After his marriage to Monroe collapsed, Miller wed the Austrian photographer Ingeborg Morath, whom he had met on the set of The Misfits, where she was taking photographs for Magnum Photos. With Morath he would have two more children, Rebecca and Daniel, and live happily for the next forty years, both of them with important careers that they occasionally merged to produce several books of photographs and reportage, including In Russia (1969), In the Country (1977), Chinese Encounters (1979), and Salesman in Beijing (1984). On the birth of his new daughter Rebecca Miller also published a children’s picture book called Jane’s Blanket (1963), with illustrations by Al Parker, in evident acknowledgment of his older daughter.
Morath often traveled as part of her work, and Miller—who before marrying her had rarely left America—now began to travel abroad frequently. Though not Jewish, Morath took Miller to visit several of the Nazi concentration camps. In 1967, the couple’s second child, Daniel, was born severely affected by Down syndrome. Like many other such parents in the 1960s, they enrolled him at Southbury Training School, a facility close enough to visit. Miller always kept this very private, and it was not until later in life that he was able to come to terms with his son’s disability.
Meantime, Miller and Kazan had reunited, albeit on a less friendly basis, with a request for Miller to write a new play to inaugurate the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, which Kazan was leading with producer Robert Whitehead. A 1962 visit with Morath to the Mauthausen concentration camp had provided further ideas for the drama, which Miller would title After the Fall (1964). Advancing the subjective realism of Death of a Salesman to borderline expressionism, After the Fall takes place within “the mind, thought, and memory” of its central protagonist, Quentin, against a split-level set that conveys a “lava-like, supple geography in which, like pits and hollows found in lava, the scenes take place” against the backdrop of a “blasted stone tower of a German concentration camp.”11
Despite his denials, the loose plot of Miller’s play, about a man trying to commit to a third wife after two failed marriages, seemed openly autobiographical, especially the similarity between the singer Maggie and Marilyn Monroe. Despite Miller’s request that the play be judged on its artistic merits, he found himself excoriated by critics for what was felt to be a vindictive portrayal of the now-dead actress. Monroe’s suicide made her a tragic figure, and portraying her as a promiscuous, temperamental, self-deceiving individual, even in a sympathetic light, was considered scandalous. Regardless of its autobiographical roots, the play was also inspired by Albert Camus’s novel The Fall (1956), about a man haunted by his failure to save another’s life. After the Fall is Miller’s most earnest exploration of humankind’s heart of darkness, as he carefully dissects Quentin and forces him to finally face his dissembling and avoidance of reality.
Though humanistically optimistic that people could change and become better, Miller strongly believed that the initial human impulse was always toward betrayal. Once those betrayals are acknowledged by the less villainous, guilt takes over, but passive guilt or a refusal to do anything to fix the problem are equally worthless. The true Miller hero—either male or female—strives beyond acceptance of guilt to take on a responsibility for change, for themselves or for an entire social system. Later the same year that After the Fall opened, Incident at Vichy also played at Lincoln Rep, though to less fanfare. It is a more tautly realistic piece about the round-up of Jews in Vichy France during World War II. Through the sacrificial character of Von Berg, who tries to save a Jewish psychiatrist from internment, this play clearly depicts these central beliefs. And while the play illustrates Miller’s allegiance to Jewish concerns in its exposure of Nazi anti-Semitism, it is also intended to convey humankind’s seemingly intrinsic desire to scapegoat, as one character explains: “Each man has his Jew; it is the other.”12
Irving Wardle marks After the Fall as the turning point in the American public’s attitude toward Miller: “Almost overnight, the image of a heroic public spokesman was replaced by that of a confused private man: and thereafter Miller was punished in the only way America knows how to punish a fallen idol. Death of a Salesman and The Crucible remained great national classics, but in the work he has written since the sixties he was treated as a bankrupt trying to pick up the pieces.”13 Robert Corrigan, a strong supporter of Miller’s earlier works, dismissed the playwright, calling his post-1960s plays “abortive failures” that are unable “to give expression to the conflicts of contemporary experience.”14 Robert Brustein declared Miller’s sensibility to be so outdated that it should be relegated to “the eighteenth century, which is the age of Newton, rather than to the twentieth, the age of Einstein.”15
Production reviews of Miller’s later dramas revealed a prevalent perception of Miller as a playwright in decline, producing unsatisfactory plays that lack credibility and are riddled with problems. However, as the playwright David Rabe points out, “People act like his early plays are the only ones he wrote … the critics have praised him for a certain kind of play and dramaturgy of moral ideas and then they have maligned him for not growing when in fact what has happened is that they have refused to admit he has grown.” Rabe concludes: “What is really insane is not to recognise the value of the later plays, the development of the writer, the evolving struggle of his relationship to the idea of a moral position.”16
Politics and the Experiments of the 1970s and 1980s
When The Price opened in 1968, it seemed a return to more familiar Miller territory: the division and connection between family members as two brothers argue over their legacy. A more realistic piece, it was well received though viewed as a lesser play by Miller. A humiliating exchange that year in the New York Times debated his merits as a playwright, and rather oddly, given his history of experimentation, dismissed him as an old-fashioned realist.
Miller had rarely utilized strict realism, but The Price would be the last play that came close to realistic drama that he would write for a long time. During the 1970s and 1980s, he experimented with several different forms. While addressing real issues using real people in real situations, he strove to incorporate new techniques into his overall design to keep his plays fresh, exciting to produce and watch. Sadly, while directors and actors were keen to work with these plays, most of the U.S. productions were ignored or dismissed by critics, partly because they did not resemble “Miller plays.”
Miller began to spend more time tending to his Connecticut property, as well as becoming engaged in local and national politics, including attending two Democratic national conventions in 1968 and 1972 as an elected delegate. From 1965 to 1969, he served as the President of pen, an international organization of playwrights, poets, essayists, and novelists formed after World War II to combat censorship and repression of writers. During the 1970s, he helped free the Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal from prison, appeared on a panel before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to support the freedom of writers throughout the world, and petitioned Czechoslovakia to halt arrests of dissident writers.
During the 1970s, Miller wrote a broad comedy about Adam and Eve (The Creation of the World and Other Business, 1972), a full-blown musical based on The Creation of the World (Up From Paradise, 1974), and a political drama ostensibly set in eastern Europe and inspired by his knowledge of Vaclav Havel’s treatment by the Czechoslavakian government (The Archbishop’s Ceiling, 1977). These were all very different from his usual fare, and none was well received in America, although The Archbishop’s Ceiling was successful in subsequent productions abroad.
During the 1980s, Miller penned two full-length works followed by a series of more experimental shorter pieces. The American Clock (1980) was first performed at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, then transferred to New York. It closed after a mere twelve performances, even with Miller’s sister Joan Copeland playing the role of Rose, based on their mother. With music and a cast of more than fifty, Miller envisioned it as a shifting collage of American life in the 1930s, and an encomium to the concept of American democracy. It would not be until Peter Wood’s 1986 National Theatre production in England that it really came together and caught the audience’s imagination and approval. The other full-length piece was the televised Holocaust drama Playing For Time (1980), loosely based on the memoirs of Fania Fénelon, a French pianist and singer imprisoned at Auschwitz. The controversial choice of Vanessa Redgrave—an outspoken supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization—to play the Jewish Fénelon caused a greater stir than the film itself, but Miller defended her right to appear. He would later adapt his screenplay for a theatrical production that was performed briefly in 1985 to little notice or praise.
His intriguing and inventive shorter plays produced during the 1980s were also virtually ignored in America, but well received in Britain. In 1982, Elegy for a Lady and Some Kind of Love Story were also directed by Miller and performed under the collective title of 2 by A. M., changed to Two-Way Mirror for the London premiere in 1989. In Elegy for a Lady, a man appears to get advice and enlightenment from the proprietress of a boutique. In Some Kind of Love Story, a private detective interviews a possible witness in a criminal case who may also be schizophrenic. The latter story would evolve into the screenplay Everybody Wins at the end of the decade. In 1987, a production was staged of Danger: Memory!, made up of the one-acts Clara and I Can’t Remember Anything. Clara shows a man’s reactions to the vicious murder of his daughter; I Can’t Remember Anything depicts the squabbling relationship of two elderly friends. All four short plays used minimalistic or highly representational sets, with great use of lighting, sound, and image, to get their points across, showing firm evidence of Miller’s constant exploration of theatrical limits.
Trying to explain why he felt Miller was better received on British shores, the critic Michael Billington suggested it was because Miller displayed a European dramatist’s tendency “to ask daunting questions rather than provide [the] comforting answers” American audiences and critics seemed to prefer.17 During this period, Miller became more vocal than ever against the dominance of Broadway and the difficulties of producing serious drama in America. Others, though, have suggested that it was his marriage to Marilyn Monroe and subsequent divorce that most poisoned the well of approval. Monroe haunted Miller and her ghost hovers behind many of his characters, from Abigail in The Crucible to his final play, Finishing the Picture, which returns to their time together while filming The Misfits (it was not written until after his third wife had died). Even though it is clear that he loved Monroe, and her marriage to him was the longest and best of her three, many felt that Miller was unfairly profiting from her fame and tragedy. It must be noted, however, that several of the plays from this period contain central female characters beyond the shadows of Monroe, contradicting the common misunderstanding that Miller wrote important roles only for men.
Return to National Attention
As a sign of his stature abroad, Miller was invited by Cao Yu and Ying Ruocheng in 1983 to direct Death of a Salesman at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, and thus became the first foreign director to mount a play in the People’s Republic of China with Chinese actors. The Chinese were excited by the innovation of the play’s form and how that might affect a Chinese theater that had so far only experimented with realism, and not yet witnessed the more complex subjective realism of Death of a Salesman. Cultural differences, especially in Chinese acting styles, presented Miller with many obstacles, but he and the cast created a successful production by focusing on the inner tensions and various motivations of characters. On his return to the United States, Miller published a day-to-day journal he had written during rehearsals, titled Salesman in Beijing. Around the same period, Dustin Hoffman’s 1984 stage production of Death of a Salesman, with which Miller had been involved, grossed over 3 million dollars in ticket receipts within three days of opening, and the subsequent televised version aired on CBS in 1985 to an audience of 25 million. These events brought Miller back into the American public eye, although his reinstitution as America’s leading playwright would take time.
In the 1990s, still struggling to find an American audience for his new work, Miller refused to slacken. His next full-length play, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, premiered in London in 1991. Miller chose London partly because of his growing despair over getting fair press in America, but also because he was particularly keen to have the British director Michael Blakemore tackle the play’s complex entwining of reality and imagination. The play, about one man’s ego and the troubles he causes in his desire for complete autonomy, was later revised and presented to full houses at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Massachusetts, in 1996. Its planned transfer to New York did not take place until 1998 at the Public Theatre, and it was not performed on Broadway until 2000. Still, its jokey, ribald tale of an unrepentant bigamist did not sit well with the American public.
Another play written in 1991, which Miller first produced in a short one-act version in the United States, was The Last Yankee. It is a much quieter and subtler dramatic exercise than The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, and the extended version that he introduced in 1993 was lengthy enough to stand alone. Set in a mental hospital, it depicts the pressures facing married couples in a postmodern age of chaos and insecurity. In this understated but masterly piece, the four-person cast interact as though performing a musical quartet; but again, the play was better received in Britain than in America. However, Miller’s academic reputation was slowly being rekindled on his home shores.
In 1992, the first International Arthur Miller Conference was held at Millersville University in Pennsylvania; at the second International Arthur Miller Conference in 1995, the Arthur Miller Society was founded. In 2006 the biannual society newsletter became the Arthur Miller Journal. The society has done much to reassert and reassess critical attention on Miller’s life and work.
Miller’s 1994 play Broken Glass had moderately successful runs on both Broadway and London stages, and it was filmed for television in England to reach an even bigger audience. It returns to Miller’s interest in both the Holocaust and the 1930s; and many saw this realistically rendered tale of a woman’s paralysis and her husband’s inability to face his complicity in it as a return to an earlier style. Miller emerged once more as a mainstream dramatist. In 1995 several major tributes were held in both Britain and America to celebrate Miller’s eightieth birthday. In 1997 a film version of The Crucible opened, for which Miller would receive an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and he won a series of lifetime achievement awards, including the William Inge Festival Award and the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award; he was also named a Distinguished Inaugural Senior Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.
The ethereal Mr. Peter’s Connections, a play that was firmly experimental, with multiple timelines and blurred reality, was produced in 1998. It is somewhat reminiscent of After the Fall, as a man’s past life is examined and found wanting. This was part of a whole season of Miller’s work presented by New York’s Signature Theatre. A series of successful high-profile revivals over the next four years included A View from the Bridge with Anthony LaPaglia, the fiftieth anniversary production of Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz, The Price with Harris Yulin and Bob Dishy, The Crucible with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan with Patrick Stewart, and The Man Who Had All the Luck with Chris O’Donnell. In 1999, an opera was staged based on A View from the Bridge and composed by William Bolcom, for which Miller wrote the aria “An Immigrant’s Land.”
Moving into the 21st century, Miller’s work remained strikingly original, and with a growing bias toward the comic, despite clear critical discomfort with Miller as a comedian. For many, the apparent broadness of Miller’s comedy seemed at odds with his moral stature, which may have been its point: Miller was ever skeptical of such nomenclature. Miller’s final works were the acerbically satirical Resurrection Blues (2002) and Finishing the Picture (2004). The first depicts a fictitious Latin American country in which the local dictator is planning to televise a crucifixion, and the second is a comedy largely based on Miller’s experiences filming The Misfits, in which he satirizes the various characters involved, including himself, the director, the acting coach, and the star. When Miller died at eighty-nine of heart failure at his home in Roxbury on 10 February 2005, he left behind a body of work that continues to be rediscovered in new compelling productions around the world.
Miller’s work remains important and is often produced because of its strong, transcultural human resonance and breadth of subject. As Ben Brantley points out, Miller “makes us look and listen, and feel the problems and pain of others as if they were our own.”18 Miller wrote about things that mattered—on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level. He wrote about families and the societies of which they are a part. While his individual characters resonate in the audience’s memory, he never presents them as disconnected from the ongoing society to which they are inextricably bound, and so his plays become larger than mere snapshots in time.
As the actor Sir Anthony Sher explains: “Miller writes about the experience of being human in a very raw but very compassionate way. We recognise ourselves in his characters, and that’s a timeless thing … In this respect, Miller is like Shakespeare. You don’t need an excuse to do Hamlet or Lear; contemporary circumstances don’t need to be right to make those plays relevant. I feel the same about Miller’s work.”19 It is not just audiences who enjoy Miller’s drama, but also those who create the performances. Directors, actors, and designers all jump at the challenge of a Miller play, often returning to try further scripts. Several Shakespeare companies have even included Miller plays in their repertories. As Bigsby observes, after the 2015 centennial celebrations of Miller’s life pass out of memory—and there were many around the world—“his plays will not, being reimagined, reinvented, and embraced by every generation, in every country, not as so many relics from a bygone age but as urgent messages about who we are and the world in which we live.”20
Although they are mostly set in America and heavily influenced by American politics and events, his plays’ power stretches beyond American shores; productions around the globe are sufficiently rooted in key human concerns to make them international in scope. Death of a Salesman, in particular, has been translated into numerous languages, including Yiddish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Tagalog. While somewhat hampered by the availability of texts, there also has been a surge of scholarly interest in Miller in countries such as India and China, as well as Spain, Germany, and France, all of which have held conferences and published volumes on Miller in both English and their own languages.
Miller’s Influences and Techniques
Over the years, critics have considered a great variety of possible influences on Miller’s work, from Shakespeare or Chekhov to Sinclair Lewis, but the clearest influences are those whom Miller himself acknowledged: classical Greek playwrights, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, and Clifford Odets.
Since studying at the University of Michigan, Miller had been attracted to the sense of form and symmetry of events in classical Greek drama, and he followed their lead in believing that the best drama is social drama. By that he did not mean socialist drama, but rather plays concerned with more than the life of the individual—plays that consider the whole society and the bonds between individuals and society. Miller noted a disturbing tendency in American drama to separate the individual and society and to write about the separation rather than the connection, which he saw as ultimately dehumanizing. A fierce desire to help others evolve into better people and the belief that such evolution is possible made the Greeks humanists. Miller, too, is a humanist—concerned with examining human nature, with an aim to improving it.
Even before attending Michigan, Miller had been interested in the great Russian novelists, reading them on his way to and from work while saving the money for university. While Miller might not have had the same religious convictions as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, he was as deeply concerned as they with the issue of morality and the consequences of its lack. Miller’s morality, however, seems more deeply rooted in his Judaic roots, springing from the Old Testament (or Torah) rather than the New Testament of Christianity. At Michigan Miller studied the plays of Ibsen; one of the first Broadway plays that deeply affected him had been a 1937 revival of A Doll’s House (adapted by Thornton Wilder). Ibsen taught him the importance of creating believable, psychologically complex characters, as well as the ways in which the past might affect the present and the difficulties of finding happiness in a hostile environment.
While influenced by theatrical trends from the Greeks through to Ibsen, Miller is also closely connected to seminal American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, and he can be viewed as a major pioneer in the development of a distinctly American theater. He took the serious social intent of O’Neill’s earlier plays and added something of the poetic lyricism of Williams and the inventive stage design of Thornton Wilder. While O’Neill played with genre, Miller tried to invent a new one. He took the earthy common people he had met in the early work of Clifford Odets and mingled their colorful colloquial speech with the more refined Southern poetics of Williams to create a poetic dialogue of his own. Indeed, frequently he began by writing his plays in verse form, only later converting this to prose. His language may not have Williams’s flowery, imagistic heft, but it contains hundreds of evocative, resonant, and memorable lines carefully crafted for maximum effect: “Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons”21; “Attention, attention must be finally paid,” and “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory”22; “I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another”23; “The majority is never right until it does right”24; “A whole life. Gave it away like a couple of pennies—I took better care of my shoes”25; “God is precisely what is not there when you need him.”26 And many more.
For Miller, art has only ever been of use when it tries to change society for the better, and all his plays have this aim at their heart. This directive leads to a deeper bond between play and audience as his dramas challenge us to be better. As the quiet voice of Bessie at the heart of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan reminds us, “There are other people.”27 It is hard to leave a performance of a Miller play without being changed, and that is what makes for effective drama.
All My Sons teaches us about our responsibility to others, just as Death of a Salesman teaches us about our responsibility to ourselves. A View from the Bridge, through the stage directions alone, creates a graphic depiction of obsession, and After the Fall truly takes us inside a person’s head to understand the complexities of human guilt and desire—something to which Miller returns, only from an older man’s perspective, in Mr. Peter’s Connections.
Nothing is ever simple in a Miller play. The Price and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan determinedly balance conflicting ideologies to the point where one cannot comfortably take sides. In one, he presents us with two brothers with opposite drives and beliefs; the other portrays a man who has two wives competing over him; in neither case are we allowed to be sure whose side to take. Broken Glass sets a failed marriage against the American response to news of the Holocaust, and offers a chilling tale of sympathy and the dangers in its lack. Plays like Incident at Vichy, The Archbishop’s Ceiling, or Resurrection Blues, while taking place on foreign shores, nevertheless still speak to universal concerns regarding racism, government surveillance, and the overblown power of the media. Miller left us with a wonderful legacy from which to explore the intricacies of what it means to be human and humane.
There have been many plays that echo or build on Miller’s work, but his presence in American theater is most firmly evident in the rekindling of a serious attitude toward drama that developed in his wake. Dan Sullivan, a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, once described Miller as a “father figure” for American theater artists, most notable for his “integrity” and pursuit of truth.28 Chris Bigsby’s collection of commentaries, Arthur Miller and Company, is a telling summary of what contemporary writers feel about Miller: what they owe him, why they admire him, and what they have learned from him. Throughout the book, writers, along with directors and actors who have been involved with his work, offer opinions and assessments of Miller. Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, and William Styron speak of Miller’s importance and contribution to American art; playwrights David Rabe and Edward Albee praise his writing and social commitment. Kurt Vonnegut sums up their admiration when he describes how Miller’s plays “speak movingly about America to almost all Americans, while telling the truth about America. Most of the rest of us who write here can't find any way to do that while being truthful.”29
On a general level, by constantly provoking the social conscience of his audiences, Miller’s drama attempts to create a better society in which everyone can live. He explores the demands of morality and uncovers important individual and social needs, recognizing the necessity of a balance between the two. One way in which he conveys his lessons is through asserting the importance of the past. In Miller’s view, the past informs the present, and to ignore it is to restrict the present. An acknowledgment and acceptance of the past allows people to recognize and place themselves in the present, and many of Miller’s characters are challenged by such choices. For example, Quentin in After the Fall tries to escape his past rather than embrace it, which creates a lack of direction in his life. By the close of the play, when he accepts responsibility for all he has done and all that has happened to him in the past, he and his new companion, Holga, can begin to live more fully in their present.
When properly viewed, the past can provide a comforting sense of continuity and connection, and in plays such as The American Clock or The Last Yankee Miller explores the power of personal ritual and social tradition to heal the wounds that can separate individuals and communities. In The American Clock, to avoid committing suicide like Joe, Lee Baum needs to actively reaffirm the social beliefs that pulled America out of the Great Depression. In The Last Yankee, Patricia Hamilton and Karen Frick undergo the severest test of a person’s ability to maintain a human connection while patients in a mental hospital. Patricia passes by allowing her everyday ritual of self-help to give her life meaning and she leaves on the arm of her husband, having accepted both him and herself for who they are. Karen fails as she is unable to come to terms with her past existence or fully connect with others, and so she remains institutionalized.
Miller’s work constantly acknowledges the ways in which history affects and informs the present, from the Salem witch trials in The Crucible during the height of the Red Scare, to the Holocaust references in Broken Glass, written in the shadow of genocidal atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia. The 1692 witch trials reflected the unfairness of the HUAC hearings, just as anti-Semitism at home and abroad in 1938 highlights ethnic problems that continue to plague society. Miller insists that the past should not be ignored; major events like the depression or the Holocaust reverberate through the lives of everyone. To ignore or deny this will reduce those lives. Miller strongly believed that the job of the artist “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget because it’s too hard to remember.”30 His characters are encouraged to remember everything they have been in the past to help define who they are in the present: those who achieve the connection are rewarded, and those who do not suffer the consequences.
Through many of his plays, Miller demonstrates the connections he sees between individuals and society, points out people’s responsibilities, and depicts the disastrous results when these go unrecognized. Fascinated with the idea of guilt and blame and how to continue living with these, Miller sees the first step as accepting responsibility—for what one intended to do or even did by accident—because someone has to be responsible. Thus Victor and Walter Franz in The Price must learn to stop blaming the other and accept personal responsibility for the choices they have made in the past: Victor sacrificed his career in order to care for his father, whereas Walter sacrificed his family for his career. They come to realize that the “price” each has paid may be heavy, but both their choices were to some degree justifiable.
The question of how to recognize “right” behavior follows many of his characters as they seek to make sense of their choices. By promoting a tension between moral and legal law by which a character may be found guilty under the former but not the latter, Miller conveys his distrust of manmade law. Several critics have noted the prodigious number of Miller’s characters who are actual lawyers, including George in All My Sons, Bernard in Death of a Salesman, Alfieri in A View from the Bridge, Quentin in After the Fall, and Tom in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. Most of these characters are ineffectual in helping or judging those who have committed crimes (moral or legal), which clearly indicates Miller’s view of the distinction between legal and moral law. In A View from the Bridge, for example, Eddie Carbone brings on disaster by upholding a legal statute (against illegal immigration); but it is the moral law he finds he cannot distort, as Marco demands a higher justice.
As Leonard Moss insists, many of Miller’s plays incorporate the “accusation-defense rhythm of a trial”31 in their structure, despite the variety of their narrative schemes. Hidden guilt is hinted at and gradually brought to light as such plays progress toward judgment, with a mix of atonement and punishment. A play like All My Sons, despite its backyard location, is essentially a courtroom drama, filled with trial metaphors. Although George is the only lawyer in the piece, all the characters act as witnesses or offer personal opinions regarding Joe Keller’s level of guilt. The audience could be viewed as the jury, while Joe’s son, Chris, behaves as prosecutor and judge. In The Crucible, the main impetus is quite literally a trial, but Miller pointedly places his scenes outside the courtroom to better show the social effects of a biased legal system.
Review of the Literature
Miller came to fame during the mid-20th century, a period when women were still largely viewed as restricted to the roles of daughters, wives, and mothers, and his depiction of women seems extremely limited. Initially those viewing his work through the lens of gender studies saw the plays’ frequent emphasis on fathers and sons as marginalizing the feminine, but as Theresa Rebeck has suggested, “Arthur Miller knew more about the strength and courage of women than he often gets credit for.”32 Scholars now find greater complexity and depth in his depictions of masculinity and femininity.
June Schleuter’s 1989 collection Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama includes four essays that provoked further lines of inquiry into Miller’s women in a variety of his plays.33 Several other scholars have entered this debate, reevaluating the roles and presentations of women throughout Miller’s work, from Kate Keller in All My Sons to Sylvia Gellburg in Broken Glass. Some, such as Silima Nanda, see a chronological development through the plays from simple to complex as female characters move from self-immersion to emancipation.34 Some focus on specific representations in a historical light, and others offer alternate readings of how one might read Miller’s female characters in a far stronger light.35
There has also been interest in reevaluating how Miller’s plays present masculinity from a variety of viewpoints. While David Savran contends that the playwright’s works reflect “oppressive, masculinist sexual politics,”36 others view men in the plays with more sympathy, such as in Eugene R. August’s assessment of Death of a Salesman as “a profoundly male tragedy” that depicts a man “destroyed by a debilitating concept of masculinity.”37 There have also been explorations of homosexuality in A View from the Bridge.38
Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller
American playwright, essayist, novelist, screenwriter, short story writer, nonfiction writer, travel writer, children's writer, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism on Miller's play Death of a Salesman (1949) through 2002. For further information on his life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 6, 10, and 26.
With its first production in 1949, Death of a Salesman firmly established Miller's reputation as one of the premiere American playwrights. Structured as a modern tragedy, the play depicts the last twenty-four hours in the life of Willy Loman, a sixty-three-year-old traveling salesman, who for thirty-six years has sold his wares all over New England. Miller utilizes Loman's disillusionment with his life and career as a means to measure the enormous gap between the American Dream's promise of eventual success and the devastating reality of one's concrete failure. Both a critical and popular success, Death of a Salesman has received a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize as well as being adapted for film and television on several occasions. Death of a Salesman is widely recognized as Miller's masterpiece and is frequently listed along side Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night as one of the canonical works of American drama.
Plot and Major Characters
Death of a Salesman opens with Willy Loman returning to his wife, Linda, at their home in Brooklyn, New York, after an unsuccessful sales trip. The play's structure subverts the traditional linear narrative by intermingling Willy's internal monologues and past recollections with the present action of the plot. After he arrives in Brooklyn, Willy is soon visited by his two grown sons, Biff and Happy (Hap). The eldest son, Biff, a former high school football star, has travelled the country holding a series of aimless jobs. Hap works in a dead-end job at a New York department store and spends most of his time chasing women and drinking. Willy is extremely critical of his sons' lack of direction and, in turn, Biff and Hap regard him as ineffectual and worry that he is becoming senile in his old age. After talking to Linda about Biff's failure to find a career, Willy recalls his son's success as a football star and is soon reminded of his own marital infidelities with a woman he met on the road. Willy eventually shifts focus to criticizing Hap's spending habits and becomes upset. His neighbor Charlie calms him down and the two men play a game of cards. After Charlie leaves, Willy reminisces about his brother Ben, who left for Africa to mine diamonds and became a great financial success. When Linda finds Willy ranting alone about the past, he leaves the house to take a walk. Concerned about his father's erratic behavior, Biff confronts his mother who accuses him of neglecting his father. When Hap joins the conversation, Linda accuses them both of being ungrateful and of turning their backs on their father. She then reveals that Willy has tried to kill himself on several occasions. When Willy returns, Hap tells him that Biff is going to approach his old boss, Bill Oliver, for a loan to open a sporting-goods store. Although Biff is against the idea, he goes along with the deception to make his father happy.
The next day, Willy finds that he has been fired from his sales job after thirty-six years of service. Upset and on his way to Charlie's office to ask for a job, Willy runs into Charlie's son, Ben, who was a classmate of Biff's. Ben reveals that Biff was irrevocably changed by a surprise visit to Willy during his senior year in high school. Ben comments that, after his abrupt return, Biff became uninterested in college and lost his motivation to better himself. Meanwhile, Biff meets Hap at a restaurant to inform him that he was unable to get the loan from Bill Oliver. However, Biff does admit that he has come to the realization that he has to change his life. When Willy arrives at the restaurant, Biff attempts to tell him the truth about their deception and his failed meeting. Willy leaves his sons and has a flashback to the fateful sales trip when Biff's surprise visit revealed Willy's adulterous affair. Later, back at the family home, Biff confronts Willy about his suicide attempts and informs his father that he will leave in the morning, planning never to return. At that moment, Willy decides to commit suicide, convinced that the settlement on his life insurance policy will provide Biff with the wealth he needs to start a new life. The play concludes with Willy's funeral as the assembled characters reflect on Willy's life and legacy.
Critics have maintained that much of the enduring universal appeal of Death of a Salesman lies in its central theme of the failure of the American Dream. Willy's commitment to false social values—consumerism, ambition, social stature—keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love. When Willy realizes that his true value lies in being a good father, he chooses to sacrifice himself in order to give his sons the material wealth he has always desired. In a broader sense, some commentators perceive the play as an indictment of American capitalism and a rejection of materialist values. Competition and responsibility are also prominent themes in Death of a Salesman. For example, Willy's tendency to evade responsibility for his behavior and his penchant for blaming others has been passed onto his sons and, as a result, all three men exhibit a poor work ethic and lack of integrity. Willy's inability to discern between reality and fantasy is another recurring motif, particularly as seen through the subjective reality of the play's structure. Miller creates an environment in Death of a Salesman where the real time of the play and the internal workings of Willy's mind are brought together. This refusal to separate subjective and objective truths is further reflected in Willy's inability to see his sons for who they really are, which becomes major source of conflict in the play.
Although Death of a Salesman is widely regarded as one of the greatest American plays of the twentieth century, there has been some critical debate over Miller's assertion that the play is, in fact, a modern tragedy. Some reviewers have argued that the work cannot be considered a tragedy in the traditional sense because Willy does not fit the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero. Others have countered, asserting that Willy attains tragic dimensions by virtue of his intense passion to surpass his earthly limitations. In support of this claim, Robert A. Martin has commented that, “Is there more to the idea of tragedy than transcends the struggle between father and son for forgiveness and dignity?” In addition to these questions of classification, Death of a Salesman has also attracted critical notice for its sophisticated critique of the role of capitalism in American society. Commentators have noted that Willy's failure to understand and achieve the American Dream strongly resonates with modern audiences, contributing significantly to its enduring popularity. Death of a Salesman has remained critically and commercially popular since its first performance—a fiftieth-anniversary production in 1999 won a Tony Award for Best Play Revival.