A Critical Review of 'Death of a Salesman'

Is Arthur Miller's Classic Play Simply Overrated?

Have you ever loved a rock band that had lots of great songs you cherished? But then the band’s hit single, the one everyone knows by heart, the one that gets all the airtime on the radio, isn’t a song you particularly admire?

That’s the way I feel about Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." It’s his most famous play, yet I think it pales in comparison to many of his less popular dramas. Although it’s by no means a bad play, it certainly is overrated in my view.

Where's the Suspense?

Well, you have to admit, the title does give everything away. The other day, while I was reading Arthur Miller’s esteemed tragedy, my nine-year-old daughter asked me, “What are you reading?” I replied, "Death of a Salesman," and then at her request, I read a few pages to her.

She stopped me and announced, “Daddy, this is the world’s most boring mystery.” I got a good chuckle out of that. Of course, it’s a drama, not a mystery. However, suspense is a vital component of tragedy.

When we watch a tragedy, we fully anticipate death, destruction, and sadness by the play’s end. But how will the death occur? What will bring about the destruction of the protagonist?

When I watched "Macbeth" for the first time, I guessed that it would conclude with Macbeth’s demise. But I didn't know what the cause of his undoing would be. After all, he and Lady Macbeth thought they’d never be “vanquished until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” Like the main characters, I had no idea how a forest could turn against them. It seemed absurd and impossible. Therein lay the suspense: And as the play unfolded, sure enough, the forest comes marching right up to their castle!

The main character in "Death of a Salesman," Willy Loman, is an open book. We learn very early on in the play that his professional life is a failure. He’s the low-man on the totem pole, hence his last name, “Loman.” (Very clever, Mr. Miller!)

Within the first fifteen minutes of the play, the audience learns that Willy is no longer capable of being a traveling salesman. We also learn that he is suicidal.

Spoiler!

Willy Loman kills himself at the end of the play. But well before the conclusion, it becomes clear that the protagonist is bent upon self-destruction. His decision to kill himself for the $20,000 insurance money comes as no surprise; the event is blatantly foreshadowed throughout much of the dialogue.

The Loman Brothers

I have a hard time believing in Willy Loman’s two sons.

Happy is the perennially ignored son. He has a steady job and keeps promising his parents that he’s going to settle down and get married. But in reality, he’s never going far in business and plans to sleep around with as many women as possible.

Biff is more likable than Happy. He has been toiling on farms and ranches, working with his hands. Whenever he returns home for a visit, he and his father argue. Willy Loman wants him to make it big somehow. Yet, Biff is fundamentally incapable of holding down a 9-to-5 job.

Both brothers are in their mid-thirties. Yet, they act as though they are still boys. We don't learn much about them. The play is set in the productive years following World War II. Did the athletic Loman brothers fight in the war? It doesn’t seem like it. In fact, they don’t seem to have experienced much during the seventeen years since their high school days. Biff has been moping. Happy has been philandering. Well-developed characters possess more complexity.

By leaps and bounds, their father, Willy Loman, is the strongest, most complex character of Arthur Miller’s play. Unlike many of the show’s flat characters, Willy Loman has depth. His past is a complicated tangle of regrets and undying hopes. Great actors such as Lee J. Cobb and Philip Seymour Hoffman have mesmerized audiences with their portrayals of this iconic salesman.

Yes, the role is filled with powerful moments. But is Willy Loman truly a tragic figure?

Willy Loman: Tragic Hero?

Traditionally, tragic characters (such as Oedipus or Hamlet) were noble and heroic. They possessed a tragic flaw, usually a bad case of hubris, or excessive pride.

In contrast, Willy Loman represents the common man. Arthur Miller felt that tragedy could be found in the life of ordinary people. While I agree with this premise, I also have found that tragedy is most powerful when the main character’s choices become whittled away, much like a masterful yet imperfect chess player who suddenly realizes he is out of moves.

Willy Loman has options. He has a lot of opportunities. Arthur Miller seems to be criticizing the American Dream, claiming that corporate America drains the life out of people and casts them away when they are no further use.

Yet, Willy Loman’s successful neighbor continually offers him a job! Willy Loman declines the job without ever explaining why. He has a chance to pursue a new life, but he won't let himself give up his old, soured dreams.

Instead of taking the decent paying job, he chooses suicide. At the play’s end, his loyal wife sits at his grave. She does not understand why Willy took his own life.

Arthur Miller claims that Willy's internalization of the dysfunctional values of American society killed him. An interesting alternate theory would be that Willy Loman suffered from dementia. He exhibits many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. In an alternate narrative, his sons and his ever-attentive wife would recognize his failing mental condition. Of course, this version would not qualify as a tragedy either.