Art Imitates Life
House Un-American Activities Committee in session, 1947
Miller’s most famous plays are based on events from his life or on current events of the time:
- A family’s economic struggles, the life of Miller’s salesman uncle, and the Brooklyn house where Miller grew up inspired the story and setting of Death of a Salesman.
- All My Sons is based on the true story of a businessman who sold faulty machine parts to the U.S. military during World War II.
- The Crucible, set during the Salem witch trials in the 1600s, is really about Joseph McCarthy’s congressional hearings, which were designed to find communist sympathizers in the United States.
- Miller’s troubled marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe is portrayed in After the Fall.
- A View From the Bridge is based on a story that Miller heard from a Brooklyn longshoreman.
Changing the World
Arthur Miller said that other than a doctor saving someone’s life, “writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do.” Why? Because he believed that plays could ask difficult questions about morality and responsibility and then challenge people to change their lives and the world. “The mission of the theater,” he said, “is… to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities." And that’s exactly how Miller changed American theater in the twentieth century.
Arthur Miller was born in New York City in 1915. By the time he was a teenager, his family—like many others—was struggling through the Great Depression. His father lost his clothing business during the Wall Street Crash and the family had to move to a smaller house in Brooklyn. After working his way through high school and college, a young Miller learned first-hand how hard it could be to make a living in tough times.
It’s clear that the Depression and the after-effects of World War II influenced Miller to write plays about vulnerable, everyday people—working and struggling to get ahead. Miller revealed, "I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity."
Miller wrote his most successful plays early in his career. Between 1947 and 1964, Broadway played host to All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge, and After the Fall. While their stories may be different, there are common threads among them, including morality, responsibility, compassion, and the fragility of human relationships—especially between fathers and sons. And there is one more thread—all are based on real-life events that were either personal or political or both.
You see, by the mid-1950s, Miller was famous not only for his plays, but also for when he was called to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Just as other Americans had been subpoenaed, Miller, too, was asked to identify writers who he believed were communists. Miller stood his ground, held to his principles, and pretty much risked his career by refusing to name names. The result? He was convicted of contempt of Congress. (The conviction was overturned in 1958.) A theater critic at the time said that Miller’s refusal to cooperate showed “the measure of the man who has written these high-minded plays.”
Miller continued to write plays, articles, film scripts, books, and speeches throughout his life, exploring the great political, social, and moral questions of our time. Arthur Miller died in 2005 at age 89. He remains one of the most frequently produced playwrights—and a giant of American theater.
Questioning “The American Dream”
What exactly is “The American Dream”?
It’s the promise that life can be better for every person if he or she has the opportunity and willingness to work hard— regardless of their background or social class.
During his life, Miller saw that some people would never be able to realize that dream, no matter how hard they worked. He knew that not everyone had equal opportunities to succeed.
What does it mean to live in a society that promises a lot but guarantees nothing? Miller wrote Death of a Salesman with that question in mind. It’s a play about the struggle for success and disappointment of the American Dream.
Willy’s Broken Dreams
Arthur Miller once said that Death of a Salesman was a “tragedy of the common man.” Think about it: The main character, Willy Loman, is a regular, everyday guy—an aging, travelling salesman weighed down by his sample case. With each trip, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to cover his territory in search of the next big order. His mind is starting to slip away but he still believes that his charm and optimism will make him rich. But the realities of life haunt him. He’s ashamed that he can’t pay the bills. He’s been unfaithful to his wife. And as Willy turns to his memories and delusions to combat any feelings of failure, he begins to lose touch with reality. Willy is flawed and is brought to ruin by his own weaknesses. In Willy Loman, Miller created a tragic hero—twentieth-century style.
Why the Play Endures: Story
When you see or read the play, you might think that it’s the story of one man and his family. And that’s partially true. But Death of a Salesman also tells a larger story about American society. Willy Loman is a metaphor (or symbol) for something else. The play isn’t as much about the death of a salesman as it is about the death of something bigger. It’s about the death of the promise of the American Dream. Here’s another sign that Willy is a metaphor: We never learn exactly what kind of product Willy is selling. That’s because the only thing he really seems to be selling is himself. Miller said that “we are all salesman,” meaning that we are all trying to impress others so that we can be popular (or “well-liked,” as Willy says).
Without giving too much away, here’s what happens:
Willy Loman lives in Brooklyn with his wife Linda and two grown sons, Biff and Happy. He’s a salesman who’s spent his whole life following the rules. He’s raised his sons to believe that if they also follow the rules, they can make something of themselves. But Willy has come to realize that his life might have been a failure. His dreams for himself and sons are crumbling. Biff can’t keep a job. Happy isn’t exactly, well, happy. Willy and Linda struggle to make payments on their old house that’s surrounded by newer apartment buildings.
In order to deal with the failures of his life, Willy escapes by remembering the past and fantasizing about how things could have been. In doing so, he loses touch with reality and makes plans to commit suicide. His family tries to prevent it by enabling Willy’s fantasies and lying to him.
One day—and after working his whole life for the same company—Willy loses his job and gets desperate. He’s been arguing with Biff and can’t accept that Biff doesn’t want to be a businessman. Even worse, Willy can’t face the fact that his own life has been a disappointment. As the play reaches its conclusion, the audience is left to consider an important question: What does a man do when he considers his life to be a failure?
Why the Play Endures: Production
Death of a Salesman is considered to be Miller’s masterpiece not only for its compelling story and characters but also because of its inventive, theatrical elements including:
- The play’s form and structure. The play tells Willy’s entire life story over the course of 24 hours. Miller structured the play so that it follows Willy’s thoughts, dreams, and memories, which are shown in flashbacks and fantasy scenes.
- Set design. Miller’s description of the set is precise. The walls of the Lomans’ house are transparent; the house almost looks like the skeleton of a house. Characters either walk around or through the walls, depending on whether the scene they’re in happens in the present or the past. And the space around the Lomans’ house gets smaller as the play progresses. By the end of the play, the apartment buildings that surround the house are lit so that—as Miller specifies—they “rise into sharp focus.”
- Lighting. Miller’s lighting descriptions are also exact. Scenes happening in the past are lit as if leaves (not apartment buildings) surround the Loman house. The lighting for scenes in the past is softer and warmer than scenes set in the present. By paying attention to the lighting effects, audiences know when time passes from present to past and back again.
- Music. Willy hears the sounds of the flutes that his father (also a salesman) made and sold. The flute is a sound of the past—and represents the betrayal of that past as the reality of Willy’s failures closes in on him.
Even though Death of a Salesman was written in 1949, it still speaks powerfully to audiences today. So there’s a lot of information out there about the play. Here are some places to learn more about the play, about Miller, and about some historical events that inspired his work.
- Read about Death of a Salesman’s 2011 revival on Broadway. You can also read about how graphic designers interpreted the play to create posters for different productions; how modern audiences respond to the play; and why director Mike Nichols decided to use the play’s original set design for the revival.
- Watch an excerpt from the 1985 film with Dustin Hoffman as Willy and John Malkovich as Biff.
- In 1992, Miller did an interview with Charlie Rose about art, life, and playwriting. Do you agree that the greatest playwrights all have “a fierce moral sensibility?”
- Watch a brief film clip about the House Un-American Activities Committee.
- In 1984, Miller received a Kennedy Center Honor. Learn about the Honors and honorees of the past 35 years.