Written in 1948 in one day shortly after moving into his studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, Death of a Salesman became one of Arthur Miller’s most famous works. The story of a middle-aged salesman who is facing a mid-life crisis, and on a downward slide to suicide. He is haunted by the ghosts of his past mistakes.
As Willy Loman’s sanity fades the apparition of his dead brother, who he talks to, and has lucid daydreams of his past life, with his wife and sons. His oldest son, Biff is said to represent his better nature and the promise of a bright future. He also represents Willy’s poetic and vulnerable side.
His youngest son, Happy is a representative of Willy’s business drive. His baser more ruthless nature. The play first appeared on Broadway on February 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre. It was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Mildred Dunnock as Linda, Cameron Mitchell as Happy, Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman and Arthur Kennedy as Biff.
The play was an immediate success winning awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also won the Tony Award for Best Author and the New York Drama Circle Critic’s Award. It was the first play to win all three awards.
The death of a Salesman ran for seven hundred and forty-two performances, it was also revived to the Broadway stage four times, winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival. Miller traveled to China in 1983 to produce and direct the play. He subsequently wrote a book on the trip entitled, Salesman in Beijing. In 1984, the play was transferred into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman.
The death of a Salesman opens at the Salesman’s house. It is a small home surrounded by apartment buildings. Willy Loman, the Salesman, enters through the back door into his kitchen. He is carrying two large sample cases. There is a flute playing in the background. He hears it but ignores it. Willy Loman is exhausted. His wife, Linda, hears him enter. She gets out of bed and puts on her robe, calling his name. They are both older, he around sixty.
Since he came home early she asks him what happened. He finally admits to her that he couldn’t go any further. He couldn’t concentrate on his driving and seemed to forget he was driving a few times, crossing the center line. Willy Loman is very unhappy. He doesn’t want to travel as much as he does, he wants to work in the New England offices.
He loves his sons but thinks Biff is not living up to his potential. Although his wife, Linda loves him and tries to be understanding, she can’t relate to the changing temperaments of a man going through a mid-life crisis. Linda helps him go back to bed, while they discuss their children and his job. He regrets his harsh words to Biff and plans to apologize. She tells him not to worry, Biff has a date. This cheers him.
Meanwhile, Biff and his brother, Happy are discussing their father. They wonder if he is home early because he had an accident. They worry about him. He has trouble concentrating when driving and mumbles to himself. They also talk about Biff trying to find a direction for his life. Biff tells his brother that he is unhappy and asks his brother if he is happy with the great job he has that makes so much money.
“Happy: Hell, no!” He admits that although he has everything he ever wanted, “My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely.” Biff asks Happy to join him out west. They could buy a ranch and raise cattle. “Men built like we are should be working out in the open.” Then they talk about finding a nice girl to settle down with, but Biff thinks Happy would not be faithful, since he sleeps with lots of women, and the wives of co-workers, as well has supervisors.
Next Biff says he plans to speak to Bill Oliver, who offered to help him out. He hopes to ask for money to buy a ranch. Happy tells him Oliver will probably back him. They hear their Dad mumbling to himself, he seems to be talking to Biff and that infuriates him.
The light fades from Biff and Happy, then brightens on Willy. He is in the kitchen talking to younger versions of his sons. It was a simpler time, and the boys had washed the car to make their father happy. He brought them a surprise, a new punching bag. When Bernard, a neighborhood boy, comes by to ask Biff to study math with him, Willy tells him to go and study. But, Biff, who is obviously Willy’s favorite, distracts his father, and they let Bernard leave.
Willy asks the boys if Bernard is liked, and the boys reply that although he is liked, he is not well liked. Willy informs his sons that they will be more successful in business because they are well liked. Willy is still in his daydream of fifteen years ago when he speaks to the apparition of his wife. He tells her he had some productive sales. After she calculates his commission, Willy is forced to admit that he didn’t do as well as he first told her.
They realize his commission won’t be enough to cover the bills. He blames his failure in business on nArthur Kennedy as Biffot being well liked. She disagrees, but he says the reason he is not liked is because he makes too many jokes and is fat. He recently hit a man for calling him a walrus. Apparition Linda tells him that he is successful enough, but Willy tells her that his neighbor, Charley, Bernard’s father is more successful because he is quieter. He is very jealous of his Charley.
Apparition Linda tells him he is the most handsome man ever and Willy tells her how much he misses her when he travels and she is his best friend. There is a woman’s laughter off stage at this remark. The laughter belongs to Willy’s mistress and the secretary for one of his buyers. She tells him that she picked him out of all the other salesman that come past her desk because he makes her laugh. She thanks him for the stockings he bought her.
The scene fades back to Linda who is mending her stockings. Willy angrily tells her to throw them out. Bernard fades back in again. He is asking Biff to study math, but Willy wants Bernard to give Biff the answers. He says he can’t because it’s a state exam. Then Linda tells Willy that the mothers are afraid for Biff to be around their daughters because he is too rough with them.
Willy gets angry and shouts for Linda and Bernard to leave. Linda leaves in tears. The illusions fade and Happy comes into the kitchen to check on his father. Willy tells him that he wishes he had left with his brother, Ben to Alaska. He says that Ben made his fortune by discovering a diamond mine in Africa. Soon Charley arrives at the door. He heard the shouting and came to investigate. Happy goes back to bed and Willy plays cards with Charley.
Willy is losing the game and starts to see an apparition of his brother, Ben. He tells Charley that Ben’s wife called to tell him Ben was dead. Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy gets angry and turns him down. Charley leaves when Willy begins alternating talking to him and to his dead brother.
After Charley leaves, Willy starts to see the illusion of his brother more clearly. He begins to remember the past. Their father left them when Willy was about three or four. Ben was seventeen and went to Alaska to search for their father who had left for the Alaska gold rush.
He never finds him, but Willy asks Ben to tell his sons, Happy and Biff about their grandfather. The man had many jobs, but one of them was a traveling salesman selling flutes. Then Ben playfully wrestles with Biff, and Willy begs Ben to stay longer. But, Ben tells him he has to run to catch a train.
When Willy’s shouts wake Linda and Biff they find him outside in his slippers. Biff asks his mother how long these delusions have been going on, and she tells him that they have gotten worse because of his loss of salary. He only gets paid by commission. He borrows fifty dollars a week from Charley and tells her it is his salary. She chastises her sons for being ungrateful to their father. She calls Happy a philanderer. Biff offers to stay with them and get a job to help out. She asks him to stop fighting with his father. She tells them that his many car accidents are actually attempts at suicide. She also found evidence of his trying to use gas to kill himself.
Willy overhears them talking about him and yells at them. Biff tries to jolly his father into a better mood, but Willy thinks he is calling him crazy. Willy tells him he is a great salesman. That he is a “big shot” Biff tells his father that he is planning on seeing Oliver the next morning to ask him to loan him the money to open a sporting gear store. Happy says that when he was in Florida he had an idea. The two brothers could demonstrate the sporting equipment since they are both natural sportsmen.
Willy thinks the Florida idea is a good one and offers broken bits of advice. When Linda tries to speak up, he yells at her. This angers his sons who tell him not to yell at their mother. Linda coaxes Willy to bed, and Biff removes the rubber hose his father had stashed to kill himself with gas. The curtain closes.
As the curtain rises “music is heard, gay and bright,” then fades away. Willy is sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, while Linda fills it. Willy is rested and seems to be improved. Linda is cheerful and tells him their sons have both left for the day. Happy went to work and Biff went to see Oliver. “His whole attitude seemed to be hopeful.”
This made Willy hopeful, too. As he heads out to work, Linda tells him that their sons want him to meet them for dinner that evening at Frank’s Chop House. Then she reminds him to take his glasses, his handkerchief, and saccharine. When he kisses her goodbye he notices she is mending a stocking and asks her not to do that around him. “It gets me nervous.”
Willy has decided to see his boss about a nontraveling position. He timidly walks into Howard’s office and asks him about a job, and also the pay he wants. Even though Willy lowers his pay requests repeatedly, Howard tells him there are no positions available. He is condescending to Willy and keeps calling him the kid, even though he is much younger, and Willy helped his father name him.
Finally, Willy says he will go to Boston, but Howard tells him they don’t want him to represent the company right now, and he needs to take a rest. He can come back after a good rest and they will see what they can do then. Willy says he needs the job, then Howard tells him to have his sons support him while he rests. Willy becomes agitated and relates the story of Dave Singleman. He was eighty-four and sold to thirty-one states. Then he died the “death of a salesman,” in Boston. Hundreds of salesman attended his funeral.
Howard leaves and Willy stays a bit longer. Soon, the apparition of his brother, Ben enters, while Willy goes into another daydream. He remembers a time when Ben tried to talk him into going with him to Alaska. But, apparition Linda is a bit afraid of Ben and says that Willy already has a good job. Then Bernard enters and wants to walk to the ball game with the Romans. He begs to carry Biff’s helmet. Harry wants to carry it, so Bernard carries his shoulder pads. Then Charley comes over to tease Willy about putting too much importance on Biff’s ball games.
In the real world, an adult Bernard is asked by his father’s secretary to deal with Willy, who just got off the elevator, When he enters, he finds Willy arguing with an absent Charley. Bernard says that he must leave, because he has a meeting in Washington, D.C. Willy asks Bernard what happened with Biff. He had such promise before that game. Bernard tells him that after Biff went to Boston to see his dad, he came back and burned his sneakers. Biff was upset about something that happened in Boston and asks Willy what it could be. Willy becomes upset and asks Bernard if he blames him for Biff’s problems.
Charley comes out of his office and reminds Bernard that he has a case to argue at the Supreme Court. Although Willy is jealous he is also proud. Then Charley shows Willy into his office. When he offers him his usual fifty dollars, Willy asks for one hundred because he has insurance to pay. Charley offers Willy a job, again, but this angers Willy. Even though the job would keep him off the road, Willy turns it down. Willy reiterates that the key to success is being well liked. But Charley gets angry, too, saying that no one likes J. P. Morgan. Then he throws the money to Willy so he can pay his insurance. Willy leaves almost in tears.
Fade out, then fade into a restaurant where a young waiter, Stanley carries in a table, followed by Happy with some chairs. Happy is flirting with a pretty young girl named Miss Forsythe. She tells him she is a cover model, and he tells her he is the successful champagne salesman. When Biff arrives, Happy tells her he is a famous football player. After she leaves, Happy makes a few comments that hint she may be a prostitute.
She calls a girlfriend to join them. Biff tells Happy that he waited six hours to see Oliver and the man didn’t remember him. Biff steals a pen before he leaves. Happy advises Biff to keep the information from their father since he will let the whole idea fade away. When Willy arrives he tells his sons that he has been fired and needs some good news.
Biff tries to tell him the truth, but Willy starts to yell at him saying Biff can’t blame him for his failures since he is the one who flunked math. Biff tries again to calm his father and tell him what happened with Oliver, but Willy goes into another daydream. He relives young Biff finding him and his mistress in the Boston hotel room. Today’s Biff tries to lie and calm his father, but Willy still rants.
When Miss Forsythe and her friend, Letta enter, Willy angrily leaves them and goes to the bathroom, mumbling to himself the whole way. Happy tells the girls they don’t know Willy, but Biff gets angry, leaving instructions for Happy to take care of their father while he storms out. But, Happy pushes the women ahead of him and leaves also.
Willy is alone in the bathroom. But, his daydreams send him to the hotel room in Boston. The Woman is primping in front of a mirror when there is a knock at the door. Willy convinces her to hide in the bathroom while he opens the door. Biff is there. He has failed math and wants his dad to talk to his teacher. Willy tries to get Biff to leave promising him that they can leave right away.
When Biff mocks his teacher’s lips, the Woman laughs from the bathroom. Then she opens the bathroom door and comes out in a negligee. Willy pushes her out into the hallway, but she demands the stockings he promised her while she grabs her clothes. He gives them to her and makes her leave. She is angry and humiliated. Willy tries to convince his son that she is a buyer from a nearby room that needed to borrow his shower.
Biff is sitting on the suitcase crying. He tells Willy that he gave her his Mom’s stockings. Trying to placate him, Willy offers to talk to his math teacher right away, but Biff says that no one would believe him since he is a “phony little fake.” Biff leaves and Willy is on his knees yelling at Biff to return.
In the real world, Stanley finds Willy in the bathroom. He tells Willy that his sons left with the girls and said they would meet him at home. After he tips the waiter, he asks directions to the nearest seed store. When Willy turns, Stanley slips the tip back in Willy’s pocket and gives him the directions. The waiters move the table and chairs as the light fades.
The next scene opens with Biff and Happy entering the kitchen at home. They have a bouquet of roses for their mother, but she is livid because they left their sick father in the bathroom at the restaurant. Happy tries to deny it, but Biff accepts her condemnation. She yells at them for being terrible sons and tells them to pack their bags and leave. Biff finally finds his father planting seeds in the backyard, in the dark.
Willy is discussing a twenty thousand dollar opportunity with the apparition of Ben. He tells Willy that the insurance company may not honor the policy. He tells Ben that Biff will think better of him when he sees how many people attend his funeral. But, Ben tells Willy that Biff will think he is a coward for killing himself.
When Biff finds his father he tells him that he is leaving and will not return. Biff wants Willy to forget him. Willy accuses Biff of wasting his life and blaming him for it. Then Biff tells him that he has lost all the jobs he’s gotten since leaving high school and spent three months in jail for theft. Biff accuses his father of building up his ego so much that he couldn’t take orders from any of his bosses.
Biff says everyone in the house lies. Happy is not an assistant buyer, but one of two assistant buyers to the assistant. But, that is not the job he wants, he wants to work in the open air. Biff wants his father to admit they aren’t special, they are all just regular people. Then Biff leaves in tears.
Willy is happy because Biff’s tears mean that he still likes him. Linda and Happy tell Willy that Biff has always loved him. Willy tells them to go to bed while he continues to plant seeds, he tells Linda that he will join her soon. Willy begins talking to an apparition of Ben. He thinks Biff will go far with the twenty thousand dollars from Willy’s life insurance policy.
Willy realizes Ben is gone and hears Linda call him to come to bed. Linda and Biff both cry no to him when they hear the car speed away. The music crashes. Biff returns to his room slowly. He and Happy put on their jackets, they go to the kitchen door where the meet Charley and Bernard. Linda enters dressed in mourning and takes Charley’s arm. They walk to the front of the stage where Linda lays flowers on the grave.
Linda is kneeling at the grave. Charley tries to get her to leave, as well as her sons. Happy is angry because of his father’s accident. They would have helped him. Charley just grunts at that. Linda wants to know why no one came to the funeral. Where are all his friends? Why would he do this when they were so close to paying off all their bills.
Biff says that his father was happiest when he was working on the house. Biff says that his father’s dreams were wrong, and he was not as honest to himself as Biff is to himself. Charley says that a salesman must have his dreams. Happy is angry at Biff’s comments and vows to become the best salesman, following his father’s dream.
Linda asks them all to give her a few minutes alone with Willy’s grave. She says she can’t cry, she feels like Willy is just on another trip. She also says that she just made the last payment on their house, and they were free. She finally begins to cry and Biff returns to escort her off stage. Bernard and Charley follow behind with Happy leaving last. The only thing left is a flute, only the apartment buildings remain. “The curtain falls.”
Willy Loman – The traveling salesman. He is an over weight man of about sixty years old. He still believes in the “American Dream” but knows he will never reach it and can’t understand where he went wrong. When he realizes his oldest son, Biff is also not going to reach the American dream, he blames himself for his own failings as a father, although he tries to deny it.
Soon, Willy decides to take out an insurance policy and kill himself in an auto accident. His mental health begins to deteriorate and he sees apparitions of his dead brother, and his own life in past days. He is failing at work, failing as a father, and sees his only way out in death. He even fails as a husband, because although his wife is devoted and happy with him, he was unfaithful. The guilt of this action is one of the many ghosts that haunt him.
Biff Loman – Linda and Willy’s oldest son. He is thirty four years old and his glory days are far behind him. Biff was a high school football hero. Popular with the girls. He had them trailing after him. He also had a lot of male friends, who basked in his shadow. Unfortunately, he failed math in his senior year and couldn’t graduate with his class.
When he drove to Boston to ask for his father’s help, Biff walked in on his father’s affair. Biff was completely devastated and gave up on school. This makes Biff begin to steal. His minor thefts make him lose every job he has gotten since high school and even landed him in jail for a few months. Biff is a realist and has no patience for his father’s dreams. He angers quickly at his father’s delusions.
Happy Loman – Linda and Willy’s younger son. He is thirty two years old, and has always been the lesser son. He knows that Biff is the star of their family, so he over compensates with work and women. He over extends himself financially so he can have a nice apartment and car, trying to step out of his brother’s shadow and prove himself worthy to his father.
He also works in sales. As an assistant buyer to an assistant buyer Happy inflates his position but then threatens his job by sleeping with the wives and girlfriends of his superiors. He also has no patience with his father’s weaknesses and denies him as his father. Happy is very angry at his father after he dies, but plans to honor his memory by continuing his work as a traveling salesman and becoming more successful.
Linda Loman – Willy’s wife. She is devoted and caring. She is Willy’s best friend and supporter. Her love for him is unquestioning, which is why he feels worse about being unfaithful. Linda is the backbone of the family. Her sons are devoted to her, and care deeply about her opinion. Willy loves her, too, but as his delusions deepen, he becomes short tempered with her because of the guilt he feels. She is always forgiving and unwavering in her devotion to her husband, even when his words are hurtful.
Arthur Miller Biography
Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York. He was of Polish-Jewish decent and the second of three children born to Isadore Miller from Galicia and Augusta, who was born in New York City, but whose parents were from Galicia, also. His father owned a successful clothing manufacturing business that went under with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. They were forced to move to Brooklyn where Arthur delivered bread in the morning to help with finances.
They were forced to move to Brooklyn where Arthur delivered bread in the morning to help with finances.
Due to a high school football injury, Arthur was exempt from military service during World War Two. He attended college for journalism at the University of Michigan, then transferred to English when he began to write plays. Arthur was a theater purist and wouldn’t write for the screen. Although, his plays have been translated into movies and television.
Arthur was the recipient of many awards for his writing, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for The Death of a Salesman, which also won the Tony Award for Best Author and the New York Drama Circle Critics Award. He wrote his first play while attending college, No Villain, of which he won the Avery Hopwood Award.
In 1956 Arthur divorced his wife of sixteen years, leaving his two children from that marriage also, to marry Marilyn Monroe. They have been having an affair for five years. He finally gave in to assisting in the filming of one of his plays when Monroe was cast in Misfits. In 1961 they divorced and nineteen months later she was dead of a drug over dose. This was also the last movie for Clark Gable and one of the last for Montgomery Cliff. In 1962 he married Inge Morath a photographer and was with her until her death in 2002.
In 1961 they divorced and nineteen months later she was dead of a drug over dose. This was also the last movie for Clark Gable and one of the last for Montgomery Cliff. In 1962 he married Inge Morath a photographer and was with her until her death in 2002.
In the early 1950’s the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was on a witch hunt. They were persecuting Elia Kazan, making him name names of other Communist supporters. Although he was not included in Kazan’s list, Arthur flew to see Kazan. Then Arthur wrote the play, The Crucible to highlight the actions of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Which brought him to their attention. They denied his passport and wouldn’t let him travel to London for the viewing of the play. Kazan wrote On the Waterfront to defend his own actions.
In 1956 Arthur was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee when he asked for another passport. He agreed to appear if they wouldn’t ask him to name names. Marilyn Monroe accompanied him, putting her own career at risk. They asked him to name names and he refused. They found him guilty of Contempt, then they fined and imprisoned him. The appeal turned the decision due to being misled by the HUAAC.
Arthur died at the age of eighty-nine in 2005, on the fifty-sixth anniversary of the Broadway debut of The Death of a Salesman. He was surrounded by family and friends and laid to rest in the Roxbury Center Cemetery in Roxbury, Connecticut.