Death of a Salesman: Coroner's Report

Jim Farrar (1985)

The otherwise dependable David Denby, writing in last January's issue of The Atlantic Monthly, praised Dustin Hoffman's performance in the revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, although the play itself, according to Denby, can't "legitimately support a great deal of emphasis. As tragedy, it is notoriously a failure" (40).

Mr. Denby should know better. I generally agree with him in such matters, his film reviews in New York magazine being the only reason I subscribe to it. But this time, I'm afraid I must take exception to his remarks.

Denby's main objection to the play, which has been echoed many times by other critics, is that Willy Loman, as the central character, is much too insignificant to be considered a true tragic figure. As Denby goes on to say in his review:

Willy is too small for tragedy: he's foolish, a man with ignoble dreams; he lies, cheats on his wife, sets up false ideals for his son; he never attains a moment of clarity or transcendence – he's as deluded at the end of the play as at the beginning (40).

Partly true. But this also makes for an apt description of what might be considered the classic tragic flaw. And this is precisely the reason why the play is so powerful, even thirty five years after it was originally produced on the Broadway stage. I'll get round to that thought later.


I seem to remember, from a theatre arts class taken many years ago, a professor saying that true tragedy contains seven essential elements, chief among them being a conflict of magnitude between protagonist and, of course, antagonist. The protagonist is, of necessity, a figure larger than the (comparatively) proletarian audience. Furthermore, this so-called tragic hero must possess some inherent flaw in his character (hubris, man's excessive pride is the classic example, I believe) in order for the play to propel itself forward and fulfill its own definition of tragedy. The action of the play, then, is largely concerned with this "hero's" unwitting pursuit of his own inevitable doom. Eventually, by definition, there is a moment of self-discovery and a reversal of the tragic flaw, albeit too late change the outward situation which flows through the play's plot structure. The only reward the poor protagonist finds is self-discovery, an emotional purging, which, as we all know, is called the catharsis. This presupposes spiritual enlightenment, which is shared by the audience as well as the character being portrayed on stage.

This is what I was taught, at least in school, about the nature of tragedy. Whether or not it follows the Aristotelian model of tragedy is not important. I've heard several other definitions of this dramatic form in the years since and I've noticed that the common strand running through all of them is this notion of vicarious self-discovery, this cathartic element which is arguably the universal function of serious theatre. Those who say that Death of a Salesman cannot be viewed as tragedy in the classical sense are missing the point, I think.

Rather, it is much more appropriate to consider this cathartic element, this universality, and ask whether or not it applies to Mr. Miller's play. Does the play teach us anything? What kind of emotional response does it evoke? What does Willy Loman symbolize?


Tennessee Williams wrote about Willy Loman's significance in the theatre in his introduction to The Rose Tattoo. Reacting to a remark by an unidentified London critic, he said

(But) the implication that Willy Loman is consequently a character with whom we have no reason to concern ourselves in drama, reveals a strikingly false conception of what plays are. Contemplation is something that exists out of time, and so is the tragic sense (299).

A character need not be a king or a prince to be a true tragic figure. Going back to Mr. Denby's contention of Willy being too small for tragedy, one can just as easily say that Willy's temperament is so close to our collective personality that it makes us wince with recognition. Willy clings to his vacuous dream like a bull terrier, just as we subscribe, in our own inner cauldron that we call a value system, to the American back-slapping ideal that emphasizes competition and success at the expense of compassion and, yes, love. And why? The answer can be found in the classic definition of tragedy: pride.

It's no wonder, then, that the play makes so many people uncomfortable, even today, thirty five years after it was first served up to an unsuspecting public. If critics dismiss it as being minor, it's only because its message remains intact and still holds true, even after three and a half decades. Small? Not hardly. Willy Loman symbolizes the American Dream gone sour; he symbolizes and speaks for a very large part of our population, and he always will, unless we change our values. After all, if we're going to have winners in this society, we're also going to have losers. The loser defines the winner. Arthur Miller has created a character who speaks from our conscience. Whose fault is it if we don't like what we see? Tennessee Williams says, later in the same introduction quoted above, that

The classic tragedies of Greece had tremendous nobility. The actors wore great masks, movements were formal, dance-like, and the speeches had an epic quality which doubtless were as removed from the normal conversation of their contemporary society as they seem today. Yet they did not seem false to the Greek audiences: the magnitude of the events and the passions aroused by them did not seem ridiculously out of proportion to common experience. And I wonder if this was not because the Greek audiences knew, instinctively or by training, that the created world of a play is removed from that element which makes people little and their emotions fairly inconsequential (300).

And so it is with this play, only the principle works in reverse.

Instead of the audience elevating itself to the level of the characters on stage, Death of a Salesman speaks to us from a more humble perspective.

But that's not the point, not what's important. What is important is that the audience recognize the thematic significance of what's going on onstage. The material must be accessible in order for people to relate to it. Whether or not the character in question is a king or a salesman is immaterial.

True tragedy, I submit, transcends social position and addresses, instead, all humanity. This involves the cathartic element of tragedy for, as noted, the audience also experiences it.

And where is this enlightenment, this purging, in Death of a Salesman? Many critics, David Denby among them, say that it never occurs. Willy, they say, is as much in the dark at the end of the play (and, by implication, so is the audience), as he is at its outset. I disagree.

Willy's "enlightenment" occurs late in the second act, almost before the final curtain. But occur it does. Miller handles the scene so well that we almost overlook its significance. When Biff finally collapses into Willy's arms, sobbing out a lifetime of frustration, lies, and hollow expectations, Willy finally realizes that his son loves him, really loves him. And he loves him in spite of what he is, not because of it.

"Isn't that remarkable," Willy says. It is, and Willy knows it. There's nothing phony about it, and Willy knows that as well.

Willy also knows that his dream rings false. The tragedy is that he bought it so long ago and now he's duty-bound to play it to the final hand. It's no accident that Willy's always trying to grow something. The garden behind the Loman house is a much more important metaphor than we might initially give it credit for. Biff's longing for the simpler life and his guilt at feeling that way in the first place works almost contrapuntally to Willy's own hunger for success. Willy's infatuation with his garden is at once symbolic of his dream, yet betrays his disillusionment with it at the same time.

As Charley says in the final scene, "he was a happy man with a batch of cement." Many are. Break a leg.

Works Cited

Denby, David. "Stranger in a Strange Land: A Moviegoer at the Theater." The Atlantic, Jan. 1985, pp. 37-50.

Williams, Tennessee. Eight Plays. New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1979.

Back to Jim's Writing