This is an attempt to classify Arthur Miller’s proclaimed tragedy, Death of a Salesman, as a realistic play. In his A Glossary of Literary Terms, M. H. Abrams says: “realistic fiction is written to give the effect that it represents life and the social world as it seems to the common reader, evoking the sense that its characters might in fact exist, and that such things might as well happen.”
Miller’s play might not epitomize a realistic representation of the capitalistic world, but we find some evidence which is very much down-to-earth. David Rush, in his book, A Student Guide to Play Analysis, has minutely examined the evolution of realism in fiction. Hence, this paper intermingles the thoughts of Abrams and Rush on the concept of realism, whereas, for a critical explanation of the play, some of the published reviews are mentioned.
Abrams presents realistic fiction as opposed to romantic fiction. He says:
“the romance is said to present life as we would have it be – more picturesque, fantastic, adventurous, or heroic than actuality; realism, on the other hand, is said to represent life as it really is.”
Miller does not glorify the contemporary world, rather he depicts the real nature of America. After World War II, America became the world’s superpower economy. It resulted in the birth of the American dream, a dream where life is fuller, richer, and better for everyone, with opportunity for each according to the ability regardless of social class. Like most writers, Miller also has demonized the American dream by portraying it only as a myth.
In Death of a Salesman, the American dream is a fruitless pursuit. Though the world of this play is at odds with that of Thomas Mann’s Utopia, we cannot call it a dystopian world because it does not merely reveal the negative attributes. It is rather a realistic depiction of the contemporary world which is under siege from post-war capitalism. After the end of World War II, the manufacture of weapons radically dropped which cost employees their jobs and the uneducated people had to struggle to find jobs that could fulfill their hand-to-mouth problems. In the American dream, everybody enjoys being liked, being involved in business prospectively. Whenever Biff says he is well liked at Bill Oliver’s company and shares his plans for future, his father, Willy Loman, immerses in a daydream. However, when the reality of his failed salesmanship and his sons’ failure at making any progress hit him, he directly pours his anger upon his wife, Linda, and his both sons, Happy and Biff…
In A Student Guide to Play Analysis, Rush, while talking about the point of view of the author in realistic play, says that there is no total objectivity in any play. Moreover, he says “Characters and events in realistic plays may strike us as strange and unworldly, but they always behave in ways that we can ultimately understand. Willy Loman has no problem in living his life as an ordinary human being. But he is enthusiastically following the American dream which only results in his own ruination. Nonetheless, he has reasons to do so. Which father would want their children to fail in their lives? Like Loman, everybody desires that their kids be above any other people in the world, or at least in their society. Rush claims that plots of realistic plays are, by and large, linear, causal and chronological.
Death of a Salesman is not exceptional since Loman is fired at the age of sixty for being old and unproductive, though he had served as a traveling salesman for almost half his life. Having lost his job he gets frustrated by his unproductive sons too. Both Happy and Biff seem to play with the emotion of their father because whenever he mutters and babbles, they come up with very good plans for their future and make him happy for a short time. In spite of these all, he still hasn’t given up on his myth of success. But when he realizes that his family has completely failed, he kills himself by riding out of control. Likewise, Rush explains also the texture of the characters. He says: Characters who appear in realistic plays are meant to be three-dimensional and lifelike. We are to assume they operate from psychological motives and instincts that are like ours, whether they speak in prose or blank verse. The three key elements apply to all realistic characters:
1) Goal: what specific thing does the character want to achieve?
2) At stake: how is the character vulnerable; what does he most dread losing?
3) Strategies: what sort of approach does the character embark upon in order to accomplish that goal? (199)
All of Miller’s characters seem to have the same goal, though Willy is most desiring. He never thought he would be fired one day from his job. Despite his failure at earning a significant amount, he still hopes that his sons will take on his dream. Likewise, Biff Loman also hopes to make a fortune at Bill Oliver’s but he is retired from there long before he could make his dream come true. Happy plans to own a ranch, cooperatively with Biff, in Texas and it is a sign that he also wants to wipe out the tag of poverty from his life.
Members of the Loman family are, in Biff’s word, “don’t know what the future is. I don’t know – what I am supposed to want.” The first thing they dread is the disintegration of the family. Everyone tries hard to get along well with every other member of the family but in order to accomplish their desires, they are bound to earn money anyhow. Both Biff and Happy try to impress their father together but they unluckily materialize the real happiness on Willy. He rushes everywhere in order that he could gain a sense of joy by forgetting the
family problems. His struggle continues till death but he gains nothing, neither his sons progress.
While talking about form, Rush argues that nearly all realistic plays are representational. The characters on stage have a world that is different from the world of the audience. He adds that some plays use a combination of both representational and presentational elements. It is very much obvious plays are written for representation, but sometimes the characters present themselves in the plays. For example, Willy says to his wife, Linda:
The street is lined with cars. There is no breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass doesn’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard. They should have had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there?
Willy is representing the entire neighborhood. The issue he is talking about is not only his problem, but all the neighboring people are suffering unknowingly. He is raising an issue of rapid urbanization and the negative impact of technological enhancement. On the other hand, sometimes, Willy talks to himself when everybody else has left. When other characters do not want to listen to him, he mutters to himself which means he is talking about himself. We may call it to soliloquy and it is presentational.
In the realistic play, Rush argues, the setting plays a different sort of role.
“Because the intent of realism is to examine the world as a scientific phenomenon, it is often concerned with the effect a person’s environment has upon her character development (200).”
The stage is Willy the salesman’s house which is not less than a hut in face of the towering skyscrapers around it in Brooklyn. Moreover, the yard and places Willy visits are staged as well. Willy’s family has never lived a standard life, but now when he is fired from his job, he is heavily hit by the surrounding environment. They want to have an economic status equal to that of their neighbors, but to no avail. Since they have some rich relatives, they share visits and the rich ones give them some ideas to earn money. Unfortunately, things don’t quite work the same for both rich and poor people. They always struggle but without success. Despite, they never give up on the hope of getting rich overnight. And when an old, poor, man tries to earn a fortune and is not backed up by his sons, there is no question if he couldn’t accomplish.
Though it is hard to find book reviews of Death of a Salesman, so many reviews on the stage performance of the play have been published. And some interviews of the author are available online. In The New York Times, under the title “Review: ‘Death of a Salesman,’ Diluted by Too Many Experiments,” Alexis Soloski does not fully agree that this play is realistic. However, on one occasion, he says:
It’s almost always a good time to resurrect Willy. An Everyman making a desperate tally of his small triumphs and greater disappointments, he speaks to those who feel left behind by social progress, caged in the sweet land of liberty. His story ought to resound just now.
He might have a different take on this play, but we should never hesitate to point out the realistic pieces of evidence. Comparatively, there are fewer characters, most important being Willy Loman. It is the story of just twenty-four hour in the life of a salesman and his family but this family is just a representative. In a world of capitalism, there is the majority of working class people like Loman family, whereas there are a handful of bourgeoisie people. The suffering of the Loman family is very much representative of the suffering of the people of proletarian class.
In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson, under the title “At the Theater,” has briefly written about Miller’s play. He says:
It is the story of an aging salesman who has reached the end of his usefulness on the road. There has always been something unsubstantial about his work.
But suddenly the unsubstantial aspects of it overwhelm him completely. When he was young, he looked dashing; he enjoyed the comradeship of other people–the humor, the kidding, the business. Willy says:
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.”
This is not a warning, rather he is explaining what has happened to him. ‘Commodification’ is a very common word in the theory of capitalism where a person’s body is assumed to be a commodity. If someone is beautiful, their body is dignified and people enjoy the share of that body. But when Willy has become old, he is no more respected at his job but he is fired instead. Even inside his family, he is made to live in illusion by his own sons though there is no question that his sons loved and respected him when he could earn well.
In an interview with William R. Ferris in National Endowment for the Humanities, has said,
“I felt a certain happiness that the play had dealt with the issue that everybody was worried about privately, and that I had brought it to the surface.”
The economic problem is a very common thing but few people bring them to the surface. In some ways, he has brought out the problem that had always been repressed. Because nobody enjoys being called ‘poor’ and being pitied, that is why they keep their problems all to themselves and they hide their true color. For this reason, Miller has depicted the reality that is mostly hidden.
This paper has been an effort at proving how Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is realistic. Attempts have been made to show the verisimilitude of Miller’s play with the reality. Since it is a fictional work it is undeniable that some aspects of this play are more imaginary than real, but it possesses some features that are realistic. Miller has explored what other writers have not, in a family. Hence, the play might sound quite different from that of other playwrights. That’s why we may assume Death of a Salesman as a new experimental realistic play.
Abrams, Meyer Howard, and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.
“Arthur Miller Interview.” National Endowment for the Humanities. N.p., 07 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2017.
Atkinson, Brooks. “At the Theatre.” The New York Times. n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2017.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. Print.
Soloski, Alexis. “Review: Death of the Salesman Diluted by too Many Experiments.” The New York Times. n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2017.