Death of a Salesman
Play written by Arthur Miller
If there is one piece of work at the center of American theater, then it must be Death of a Salesman. Widely hailed as the play that brought democracy to grand tragedy, I think it serves best as a marker on the path to modernism.
The traditional assessment goes like this: theatrical tragedies traditionally covered the death and destruction of royalty. True tragedy could only be measured by the distance fallen. The Aristotlean purpose of tragedy is to evoke fellow feeling leading to a purging of sadness through empathy. Basically, you go, you cry, you feel better about your own life. (The most effective modern corollary is probably the dying-of-an-illness movie. I’m not sure how much of the improved state of mind is actually empathy and not there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.)
Death of a Salesman succeeds at making us invested in the tragedy of a common man, a low man- Willy Loman, to be exact. Instead of looking at the downfall of the elite in our homeland, we are looking at the downfall of someone much like ourselves. In fact, if you are neither an adulterer nor an uninvolved father, then you might look down on the central character of the story. Really, that is the point of view which makes the play interesting, because most all of us have some reason to think that Willy is beneath us.
Of course, he is not.
We don’t spend much time worrying about the Willy Loman’s of this world, but we all feel ignored and deserted by the world sometimes. In the end, Miller’s magic is in creating a character that touches our heart while pushing us away. His sons prove to be our proxies more than Willy.
So, is it really that first play to present the tragedy of a common man? Elmer Rice, Henrik Ibsen, and many, many others explored these themes. Horatio Alger had done it in pop literature and the American realists had been doing it all along. On the other hand, Henry James, for example, did seem to focus on those who had money to burn.
The evolution of American theater from Eugene O’Neill through Thornton Wilder and Rice to Miller is an unending exploration of what it means to live in this country. Before television, the stage hosted our conversations with ourselves about what it meant to be an American. From this vantage point, Strindberg and Ibsen seemed to worry more about the price paid for success while our playwrights focused on the price paid for striving. You might think the theater reflected national views of the self.
Look to our national art form now: television. We see fear of the other and the unknown. There are struggles with self-identity. None of this is truly forward-looking, any more than those plays in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists may create from a liberal point of view. Yet, marketing demands are innately conservative. Death of a Salesman was an immensely powerful document of a time.
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