Death of the Salesman

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"Nobody dast blame this man," a friend says at the funeral of Willy Loman. As I watched this last scene of Death of a Salesman on the Late Show in Philadelphia just about 50 years ago, I wondered, "What's 'dast'?" That answer came easily enough: it's some colloquial form of "darest" — "dares" — as in "Nobody dares blame this man." The real question is: "Why 'dast'?" Why, at the moment the audience should be melting into tears over the death of this salesman, does the playwright introduce a word that sets viewers to thumbing their internal thesauri? But that was Arthur Miller for you. The propagandist in him wanted to sell big messages, while the artist tried to find poetry in the plainspoken American vernacular.

There was another struggle in Miller, who died today at 89: between the polemicist's need to blame society for its ills and the artist's gift for discovering shadings, ambiguities, in the best or worst of men — for fleshing caricature into character. Blame runs through Miller's two early Broadway hits, All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949) like toxic waste in a sylvan stream. Joe Keller, the munitions manufacturer in the first play, fudges the specs on airplane cylinders; to do otherwise would doom his company and, he thinks, his family. Because of his shortsightedness, other men's sons die, and Joe pins the crime on his partner. Blame blame, shame shame. Willy Loman is not so black-and-white a figure — at least, not so black — but his compulsion to be accepted, along with his adulteries on the road and his inability to understand his sons, certainly set him up for the audience's disapproval.

These are a young man's plays, eager to identify the sins of the father, of all the fathers who grabbed for too much, who didn't care enough. But I dasn't blame Miller. He wasn't just painting slogans on placards. Even as a ten-year-old in my Philadelphia living room, with my own salesman father asleep upstairs, I knew that Miller was after, and had achieved, something more than finger-pointing.

He was grieving for mankind, for man's inability to connect with his fellow man, maybe for the need to dream. Miller saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream. In the starkest and most sympathetic terms, he was describing the American Tragedy, and I think I recognized it as such so long ago. So I have to thank Arthur Miller for alerting me to the real world. He was an obstetrician, spanking my social conscience to life. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have been enlightened by his harsh, expert hand.


In an obit published on the New York Times website today, Miller is quoted as seeing playwrighting as an agent of change — political instruction — and "that meant grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck." The Times also cites his early sense of vocation: that, "with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do."

In American life there have been such solemn, stolid gents, driven to enlightening the masses. John Adams was one such — and, of current public figures, Ralph Nader. He and Miller even looked a bit alike. Tall, slim, slightly stooped by the burden of their calling, the two carved fairly exemplary lives of crusading. And both had a humanity unblemished by humor. Miller was of Polish-Jewish ancestry, and Nader is an Arab-American, but both remind me of New England preachers, so righteous, so sure of being right, that they risk exhausting or alienating their parishioners. We can't be as good as they insist.

Fine, then, change the world. Fix things — but through playwriting? As it happens, before All My Sons, Miller had tried most of the other forms of entertainment haranguing. He had written a best-selling novel, Focus, about a man named Newman who is mistaken for a Jew and pummeled with prejudice. (The plot, similar to that of Laura Hobson's Gentleman's Agreement, reminds me of the comment a stagehand is supposed to have made to director Elia Kazan while making the film version: "I understand now. We should be nice to Jewish people because they might turn out to be gentiles.") A TIME profile in 1949 reported that Miller "had tried Hollywood briefly ('like swimming in a sea of gumdrops') and for three years wrote for radio ('like playing a scene in a dark closet')." That left the stage as his preferred medium for protest.

It worked out fine, for a time. Death of a Salesman was the first work to win the playwright's Triple Crown: the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. For a while he was a one-man industry, adapting An Enemy of the People (by Henrik Ibsen, the playwright thought to have most influenced him) while churning out new plays, notably his proletarian tragedy A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, which used the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 to comment on the so-called witch hunt of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

The premiere of A View from the Bridge, in 1953, had real-life reverberations. That was the year HUAC found Miller guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name friends who had been members of the Communist Party. Since Kazan, Miller's friend and the director of All My Sons and Salesman on Broadway, had cooperated with HUAC, leftists and certain people of conscience had a readymade hero and villain, who would be an iconic tandem for the rest of their lives — the salesman who refused to sell out his friends, and the Greek immigrant who believed in telling the awful truth, even about those whose beliefs he once shared.


Miller became a playwright more through sheer will and hard-won skill than from a natural gift. In this way, he was closest to Eugene O'Neill, the preeminent American playwright of the first half of the 20th century. O'Neill blended grand themes with formal innovations to mask his lack of eloquence. "Stammering," his stand-in Eugene says in the memory play Long Day's Journey into Night, "is the native eloquence of us fog people." Mary McCarthy wrote that O'Neill was a playwright the way another man might be a wheelwright — a craftsman, dutifully hammering his ideas into plays. A wright, that is, more than a writer.

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