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Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy
MODERN TRAGEDY: IBSEN AND MILLER - A
SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE
Traditionally in European drama, tragedy has centred on the figures and downfalls of kings or other powerful rulers - showing the influence of Greek drama. In modern Europe and America, there is no equivalent figure or system. Thus Ibsen drew his heroic figures from the professional and upper middle classes, and contrived their downfall with tragic effect.
Miller admired Ibsen’s ability to convey a density, or complexity, of character and action such as we are more familiar with in the novel. He also admired Ibsen’s ability to dramatise change and progression, all within the context of ‘naturalistic drama’. (This is a set of dramatic assumptions which demands that an appearance of real life is presented upon the stage. The audience looks into a room; action is based on chronological time; dialogue will appear to be such that it could be heard in any comparable situation, and a surface realism of inexorable logic moves events to a climax in the final Act).
Many of Ibsen’s plays begin near the end of a sequence of events. Most of the important things which have shaped the characters and given form to their characters have occurred in the past, but they are now likely to erupt with new force into the present period of the play’s action. Miller’s play is the same, but to emphasise the idea of process still further, Miller has disrupted the time sequences and hence broken beyond the limits of naturalism. He has said: “
The Salesman image was from the beginning absorbed with the concept that nothing in life comes ‘next’ but that everything exists together and at the same time within us; that there is no past to be brought forward in a human being, but that he is his past at every moment, and that the present is merely that which his past is capable of noticing and smelling and reacting to.”
Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy
Death of a Salesman
is typically classified as a modern tragedy. This implies that it follows the example of the classic Greek tragedies, Roman tragedies and Shakespearian and Jacobean tragedy. There are, however, subtle but vital differences between these forms. Aristotle’s classic view of tragedy saw the form as one which only properly deals with the fate of gods, kings and heroes. In the twentieth century, such a restricted definition would consign tragedy to the waste bin of literary history. Consequently, in
Death of a Salesman
, Miller challenges this view and presents us with an entirely new one.
Our increasingly secular world no longer believes in gods, and kings and heroes are increasingly humbled, brought down to the level of ordinary men and women. Miller therefore embarked upon a project to reinvigorate the classic tragic form in order to make it more relevant to the world we live in.
Miller uses elements of the classical tragedy to create a new and compellingly human drama, one which is true to tradition but conceived on a domestic scale so that audiences can identify with the chief protagonist and draw parallels with their own lives.
The basic elements of the Aristotelean tragedy may be summarised as follows:
A play with an unhappy ending.
Serious, wide in scope, and complete in itself.
Having a “hero” who, because of a particular tragic flaw, goes from happiness to misery and death.
Frequently having a sense of waste at the death of the tragic hero, together with relief that he no longer has to endure pain or suffering.
A point at which the tragic hero recognises both his fate and the weaknesses in himself that have brought him to it - this is often referred to as
or purging of emotions at the end, often leading to a sense of ultimate peace and regeneration or the rebuilding of lives and societies.
Miller’s redefinition of the tragic form
Death of a Salesman
, Miller suggests that the natural hero of the tragedy is the man in the street, you and me, the individual attempting to gain his rightful place in society. Yet, the life of the tragic hero must have intensity. Miller argued that, in Willy Loman, the audience recognises the human passion to surpass his given bounds, a fanatical insistence upon his self-conceived role (and a struggle to define what this might be – salesman, father, husband, hunter-gatherer…) Furthermore, his thinking must be dominated by the issues of, for instance, the survival of the race, the relationships of man to God – the questions, in short, whose answers define humanity and the right way to live so that the
world is a home, instead of a battlefield.
Implications of this redefinition for a modern audience
If Miller’s redefinition of the form of tragedy is correct, there are profound implications for both playwrights and audiences. In this redefinition of ‘modern’ tragedy, the writer has a much wider canvas on which to paint a tragic view of modern life. His subjects can be ordinary people in a whole host of situations, from the spectacular media issues such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, famines, disasters at sea or in the air, to domestic conflict, mugging, rape, homelessness, cot death, redundancy, AIDS, and countless other situations that impact on individuals, families, or communities.
For the audience, there is instant recognition that gives the play more impact as they cannot help but feel that
there but for the grace of God go I
. If the writer has created believable characters in recognisable human situations, his audience will find it easy to identify with the drama as it unfolds and, inevitably, find parallels with the real world. Such a close examination of contemporary issues and situations may be uncomfortable for some theatregoers, mirroring too nearly perhaps their own lives, but they will be more likely to become engaged than if the characters on stage are the remote figures of history and from a social background alien to their own.
In short, Miller believes that modern drama can explore just as profoundly the themes and issues that Marlowe or Shakespeare could but with the added punch of doing so through the lives of ordinary people.
Willy’s personal path to tragedy: tracing the roots of a modern tragedy
Willy’s suicide provides the unhappy ending so essential in classical tragedy. Its roots, however, lie deep in the past. It has been argued that Willy’s nomadic childhood has left him feeling ‘kind of temporary’ about himself. Never having known a secure home, he is obsessed with providing one for Linda and his sons, and increasingly aware of his own failings as a husband and father. A deep-seated need for affection and reassurance leads him to seek the companionship of other women when he is away on business. He is also known to inflate his achievements in order to gain approval from Linda, his sons, and older brother and father-substitute, Ben. This, in turn, leads to the self-deception that is his fatal flaw. The stories he tells, the lies and half-truths, become more reassuring to him than reality. Reality is so harsh and painful that he escapes into illusion. (Unfortunately, his example prompts his sons to do the same).
Willy’s habit of exaggerating and inventing is addictive: once he starts, he soon finds that he cannot stop himself. When life becomes unbearable, Willy conjures Ben and memories of the golden times when his sons were young and innocent and full of promise. His distortion of the past helps him to survive the present and, in the end, provides the courage he needs to kill himself.
Miller’s narrative form
The fact that the story is told through both present events and Willy’s versions of the past means that it is entirely self-contained. All the essential details of his childhood, his life away from Linda and his sons and the mainsprings of his character are revealed so gradually that they are easily absorbed and understood. We are left in no doubt as to what is fact and what is fantasy in the frequent re-enactments. The audience sees Willy’s own accounts being neatly balanced by those of other characters.
Miller’s almost kaleidoscopic approach allows us to believe in, and be engaged by, the tragedy that unfolds in a way that would be difficult in a more traditional dramatic presentation. A straightforwardly chronological account would be both less interesting and less revealing than the juxtaposition of scenes Miller gives us. It is often the sidelights thrown on events by seeing them re-enacted and hearing Willy draw conclusions from them that enables us to gain a clear picture of what happens. In this way, we are able to appreciate the scale of Willy’s decline and his own part in it.
Unlike the kings and heroes of classical tragedies, Willy is so fully-fleshed, so human, that it is difficult not be fooled into believing he is a real person and not simply a character in a play.
The path to tragedy: a wheel of fortune…
Death of a Salesman
is to qualify as a tragedy, it needs to show how Willy’s fatal flaw impels him from happiness to misery and death. Miller’s treatment of this theme has much in common with the Jacobean concept of the Wheel of Fortune. Stated simply, this concept dictates that happiness (like all other forms of human success) is fleeting and in that happiness are the seeds of tragedy. When everything seems achieved the ‘hero’ is at the top of the wheel. However, a flaw in his own character means that the situation is doomed, the moment passes and a slide into misery and, ultimately, death is inevitable.
Death of a Salesman
, it is at the very moment when the Loman family seems most secure and united that the seeds of the tragedy are sown. Miller presents us with an almost idyllic portrait of Willy, Linda, and their two sons.
The proud father revels in the popularity and athletic prowess of his eldest son, the son worships his father. Their relationship could not be closer, but it is founded on illusion. Willy is neither the successful salesman nor the perfect husband he appears to be. Biff, despite his supreme confidence that he is destined for University, has been so inflated by his father’s estimate of him, so convinced by his father that personal attractiveness will carry him through, that he does not do enough work and flunks Math. Where Bernard can refer to his father, Charley, as soon as a problem arises, Biff has to travel to Boston at his moment of crisis.
His total faith in Willy’s ability to fix things impels him disastrously to his father’s hotel room and the realisation that Willy is unfaithful to Linda. Suddenly, in his boyish idealism, his father and all he stands for is fraudulent. From now on, the illusion is preserved only by Biff’s silence. He turns his back on all Willy has taught him but, despite the hurt of betrayal, cannot stop loving him and is torn between his instinctive need for the freedom of the open air and the dream of material success that has been drummed into him since birth. The tension drives him away but keeps him coming back to the family home. For Willy, this is the start of the decline that leads to the realisation, at last, that his dreams have let him down, that he is on the scrap-heap or, in his own terms, has not got ‘
a story left in his head
The slide from happiness to misery begins in Boston and has immediate impact; Willy’s orders are ignored, his pleas fall on deaf ears, and Biff’s accusation hits home: ‘
You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!
’ This statement haunts Willy. He shies away from it, blames Biff’s life thereafter on anyone but himself, but it never leaves him. Their relationship is broken and Willy attempts, in the only way he knows, to make amends. He tries to cajole Biff into going to Summer School and re-taking Math. When that fails, he pays for correspondence courses for him, selling the diamond tie-pin Ben gave him as a present in order to finance one of them. It is all in vain. The accusation stands between them like an impenetrable wall. Whereas before the visit to Boston they laughed and joked, afterwards they are constantly fighting.
Willy keeps up the illusion with Linda and Hap but it is the loss of Biff, apparently forever, that gnaws at him, that is at the heart of his misery. Reconciliation seems impossible. All that Willy hears in Biff’s voice is hatred and ‘
’ and all that Biff can see in his father’s face is ‘...
a twist of mockery…I can’t get near him.
’ The misery is deepened by the fact that neither man can acknowledge the love he feels. By the time Biff opens up, it is too late. Willy is described as [
] by the fact that his son cries to him and is seen to be [
] with his love in response. Yet this moment, instead of effecting a reconciliation, confirms Willy’s decision to kill himself as the only way he can do something practical to show how much he loves his family.
With supreme tragic irony, Biff tries to end the hostility as a way of preventing the very outcome his outburst precipitates: ‘
Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?
’ The catharsis achieved at this moment in the play enables Biff to walk away, finally, from the false dream he has been following. As he says at Willy’s funeral, ‘
I know who I am, kid
.’ This is something he could not say before then. It also helps Willy to realise, as he tells Ben, that Biff: ‘
Always loved me. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?
’ The moment comes after his realisation that his life has amounted to very little. His question to Ben:
’Does it take more guts to stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero?
’ is the point at which, finally, he sees the reality behind all his lies and illusions. In a sense, we can see how empty Willy’s future is and, although we’re sad at his passing, we cannot help but breathe a sigh of relief that all his struggles are over.
The tragic irony is that it is his last dream, for Biff to see that: ‘
I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am, Ben! He’s in for a shock, that boy!
’ This last dream is to turn dust, like all the others. At the funeral he had hoped would be a vindication, Linda asks, ‘
But where are all the people he knew?
’ Her lack of understanding highlights the difference between Willy and the rest of the characters in the play. Where he is obsessed with what Miller calls his self-conceived role, the others are more moderate in their demands on themselves: Charley advises him to
Forget about him
(Biff)’; Bernard that, ‘
sometimes…it’s better for a man just to walk away.
’ Neither they, nor members of his own family, have the intensity that, in Miller’s terms, makes Willy a tragic hero. He is always isolated or, as the Woman in Boston describes him: ‘…
the saddest, self-centredest soul I ever did see-saw.
’ Willy’s obsession with his sense of himself marks him out as capable of tragedy in a way that is both fascinating and challenging to a modern audience. In an age of conformism, Miller infers, only the Willy Lomans of this world are worthy of the term ‘hero’. In
Death of a Salesman
, he has fulfilled all the criteria of the classical form but made of them a drama of human proportions with which an audience can readily identify. It is because Willy is like us, a Common Man, that
the lessons of the tragedy are more difficult to ignore than if he were some remote figure from history or myth. We could leave the theatre and bump into his equivalent in the street. In a sense, his story adds dignity to our own lives and challenges us to either fight for self-realisation or to walk away and, in Miller’s terms, fail as human beings.
Expressionism V Naturalism
The first title of the play was
The Inside of His Head
and Miller, attempting to work out a way of revealing the contradictions in Willy’s consciousness, at first considered “an enormous face the height of the proscenium arch which would appear and then open up, and we would see the inside of a man’s head.” But as he worked, the two European traditions of naturalism and expressionism merged: the firm recognisably realist base of Ibsen’s method remained, and this was blended with the dream sequences of past life existing in the present which was a derivation from expressionist drama. In the final version of the play, the stage setting ‘expresses’ Willy’s divided consciousness, as the reality of the house walls may be breached. Time and space may exist for the surrounding apartment houses and their inhabitants, but may be dissolved within the reality of the Loman household. As the drama progresses, this is made evident by the action, as reality dissolves for Willy at certain points in the play, and the dream-like or nightmarish evocations of the past take place on the forestage. Miller sees Willy as living “at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present.” He asserts that “in dramatic terms the form, therefore, is this process, instead of being a once-removed summation or indication of it.”
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. An A level English Workbook,
Ilminster, Wessex Publications
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