‘Death of the salesman’ was written by Arthur Miller and was first published in 1949. The Times described it as ‘ “The first play that questioned the American consumer dream.” ‘
The play is about the story of a man named Willy Loman who is a failed and elderly salesman; we see what subsequently be the last few days of his life. Even though the play is set around the last days of his life, we can see through flash backs, the acts and memories he has of his life. He re-lives this as if it was real.
This play has a underlying theme running all the way through; this is the fact that Willy is too stubborn and unwilling to accept that the fact that he and his sons are failures in the business world. Willy says; ” I am not a dine a dozen! I am Willy Loman, go to Filenes’s, go to the Hub, go to Slattery’s, Bosta, Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens.” Willy starts of as a ‘normal’ salesman but he slowly starts to degenerate into a gibbering wreck. We are told at the beginning that, “His exhaustion is apparent”.
He believes the American dream that anyone can be successful as it’s the land of opportunity and land of the free. Also that if you’re well liked you can be very successful.
Willy lives in New York as he has moved their after rejecting the offer to go to Alaska, instead he became a New York salesman, to follow the ‘American dream’ So he had hoped he could go into New York with nothing and leave ‘rich’ This formed part of the ‘phoney American dream’
At the beginning of the play we see that Willy is a tired, elderly man who is a travelling salesman (we never find out exactly what he sells). We first meet him when he arrives back home unexpectedly, from a business trip. We see he is confused, He tells his wife that he has been travelling in the car, which he used to have not his one he has now. This makes us think, from the audience’s point of view, he may be suffering from althzymer’s disease.
When he arrives home, his wife greets him, but also there are his two sons, Billy and Happy. It is not unusual for Happy to be at the house but it is for Biff to be there. Through Willy’s flashbacks we see that Biff was Willy’s favourite, but we also see there is tension and anger between the two as we watch the play.
Willy and Linda are talking in the kitchen and through out their conversation Willy contradicts himself a lot. For example he says:
“Biff is a lazy bum!”
Then later in the conversation he exclaims.
“There’s one thing about Biff- he’s not lazy.”
His wife, Linda is very caring for Willy; “she more than loves him” and she is very loyal and supportive of him. This is perhaps, why, as we find out, she is hiding the fact that she knows the reason why Willy is acting strangely is because he is trying to kill himself. We hear that there have been witnesses that he has been trying to crash his car on purpose. This comes up in a conversation between Linda, Biff and Happy.
We see as Willy is becoming worse at his job and that he has been borrowing money off his next-door neighbour, Charley, who is a successful businessman. Linda knows about this but hasn’t confronted or said anything to Willy about it. Linda blames Biff for the strange things that has been happening to Willy as even though when the boys were little he and Willy got on well, they don’t see eye to eye any more. Linda confronts Biff about this and he says that he doesn’t trust his father any more but he is, however, willing to stay on and help sort out the problems.
Biff then talks to Willy and Happy about what they are going to do with their lives and they come up with an idea of a sporting goods company. They believe they will do this by Biff going to see Bill Oliver (an old employer) to borrow some money to fund the new project. Willy believes that his boss, Howard will let him have a desk job, as he believes he is too old for travelling everyday. The next day Willy leaves to go to work and tell/ask Howard.
This scene at the office is one of the most dramatic scenes in the whole play as it turns it all around. As the first act finishes there is hope and dreams, for Willy will get an office job, Biff and Happy will start the new business and they will all live happily. However, in this scene we see that the first part of the dream, all his hope of success in the business world, will end, and so the whole business dream will end at the end of the play.
At the start of the scene we see again that Willy isn’t a successful businessman and this is because of how much Willy lacks knowledge of modern technologies. He accidentally turns on the wire recorder and doesn’t understand how its works, then Howard enters and starts boasting about how good it is. However this seems like he is rubbing it in to Willy how much money he has and how little Willy has; but Willy goes along with him talking away like he has lots of spare money. This also shows how he is in denial about how unsuccessful a businessman he really is. We know from at the beginning of the play where he says he bought a fridge because it had the ‘biggest ads of any of them,’ that he only buys things to show off his wealth but this isn’t good when he has to borrow money off Charley to pay the instalments.
Secondly, we see another way in which why Willy has failed as a businessman: his knowledge of the working world isn’t much and it works in a completely different way.
Howard’s firm knows that Willy has lost his touch and this is apparent when they pay him on commission only, so then they wouldn’t just be throwing money away. When Willy asks for a paid desk job he believes he’ll get it because he is ‘well-known’ and ‘well-liked’, he talks about the old working days when ‘there was personality… respect, comradeship
And gratitude’ then he goes on to say ‘ today its all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear- or personality.’
Howard replies to this by saying ‘But its business, kid, and everyone’s gotta pull his own weight.’
This is the last straw for Willy but he is still not coming to terms with the fact that he is a failure, so he sells the last thing he can; himself. He does this by starting off by offering his services to Howard for ‘sixty-five dollars a week’ this however then shows us how he has lost his touch and then his price goes down: “All I need to set my table is fifty dollars a week,” and in the end he is saying, “if I had forty dollars a week- that’s all I need.” This scene in Howard’s office is the scene that we actually see Willy at work and how much he has failed as a salesman as he can’t even self himself. Not only does he not sell himself for an office job he also gets fired altogether making a mockery out of his skill as a salesman.
Howard is half the age of Willy but already he is more successful than Willy has ever been, his wealth is shown when he tells Willy about his ‘maid turning on the recorder’ and when he tells Willy the wire-recorder was worth ‘only hundred and a half’. He also shows his wealth by talking about his hobbies, ‘I tell you, Willy, I’m going to take my camera, my bandsaw and all my hobbies, and out they go. This is the most fascinating relaxation I ever found’. Willy replies to this by saying “definitely going to get one.” This is a total lie as we all know he couldn’t afford it.
We also see how Willy is finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that some-one half his age is more successful than him and we see him attracting Howard’s attention by going ‘pst, pst,’ this is not the normal way that an employee would attract the attention of his or her boss.
When listening to Howard praise his son and daughter for all the good things he has recorded them doing, it brings it home to Willy how much his sons are failures, as well as him. He cannot work out how his sons were ‘well-liked’ but they are nobodies and this, to Willy, is hard to believe, as his theory is if you’re ‘well-liked’ you could go far.
Still, at the end of the meeting he is still trying to get a job and this shows how he cannot admit defeat, he desperate ‘ you can’t eat the orange and throw away the peel.’ However, Howard has had enough and wants to go away so he goes and see some people, leaving Willy all alone in the office.
Willy then has another flash back in which he talks to Howard’s dad (who first owned the company) pleading him for a job. This doesn’t work and when Howard comes back Willy is practically begging for a job as he knows how he is a failure and all his dreams have been shattered. He begs for money as he doesn’t want to admit to his family, his sons, that he has failed them and so lose his dignity and pride.
After his meeting with Howard Willy goes to meet his sons but he doesn’t want to hear what they have to say when Biff tells him about his failure at his meeting. However, then he seems to feel guilty about Biffs failure and starts to get mad, showing Biff that he has disappointed him, ‘You had to go and flunk math.’
Also a bit later in the scene Happy denies that Willy is his father to some girls’ showing that he isn’t proud of his father and thinks he is a failure.
After this we find out why Biff doesn’t like his father and says he is a fake to his mother. We see it is because the only problem Biff ever needed fixing by his father was when he flunked math and he came to his father for help but he found him with another women, all Biff’s dreams after this are shattered.
The play is set around a father and his two sons who have failed in the business world and all of their lives have been lies and secrets to do with money and women. We see that they all cannot admit failure especially the father Willy. We see that the only way in which Willy could ever come to terms with his failure is to kill himself. At, the end he does so once he knows that he has failed his family and wont be able to get another job. The only way in which he can help his family is by killing himself so they then will get some money by inheriting his life insurance.
The scene where Howard fires Willy is an important one, because this is where the audience see Willy precipitated into suicide. We recognised the importance for Willy of his job in a way that Howard doesn’t. The loss of job confirms his failure and Willy believes a failure has no right to exist; so, he must die. He manages to convince himself that he is better of dead; he even tells Charley he “is worth more dead”.
The end of the play shows how pathetically misguided he is in this view, when nobody turns up to his funeral. This scene lays the foundations for all that follows.