Ambition. It's one of those things that can be either your best friend or your worst enemy.
On one hand, ambition can motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and follow our dreams. On the other hand, ambition can keep us from recognizing our own limits, trapping us in the delusional grandeur of imagined achievements.
For Willy Loman, ambition is the ultimate foe—the Darth Vader to his Luke Skywalker, the Voldemort to his Harry Potter, the Cruella to his Pongo.
Death of a Salesman is a tragedy about the differences between the Loman family's dreams and the reality of their lives. The play is a scathing critique of the American Dream and of the competitive, materialistic American society of the late 1940s. The storyline features Willy Loman, an average guy who attempts to hide his averageness and failures behind increasingly delusional hallucinations as he strives to be a "success."
The idea for the play first manifested itself as a short story, which author Arthur Miller initially abandoned. His interest was renewed later on however, by an uncle who was a salesman. When the play version appeared on Broadway, it was a total hit. It won Arthur Miller the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. By this point in his career, Miller had already proven his chops with his hit play, All My Sons. However, with Death of a Salesman, Miller's career was launched into a whole new level.
Death of a Salesman is widely considered even to this day to be one of the greatest American plays ever written. It's often ranked right up there with classics like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Like all classics, Death of a Salesman's themes still ring true today. Its harsh criticism of American capitalism may not be quite as shocking as it was when the play first premiered, but we have a feeling that every modern-day audience member knows exactly what Miller is getting at—whether you agree with him or not.
Think about Michael Scott from The Office.Having trouble picturing him? Try this. Better? Great—because that’s Willy Loman in a nutshell. He’s delusional, thinks everyone loves him, and is depressing in an "I’m manifesting everyone’s fears about obsession with material success" kind of way.
But now that we’ve gotten a flashy pop-culture reference out of the way, let’s get to the bigger picture. Death of a Salesman is often considered an attack on the American Dream. Sound familiar? In 2004, surveys found one-third of Americans adamantly insisting they were not living the American Dream, with half of them saying it wasn’t even attainable for them.
What has the American Dream come to mean, anyway? For Willy Loman, it was popularity and demeanor. For many of us, it’s a big-screen TV and a bimmer in the garage. The bigger question is what we’re sacrificing for this big, glittery dream. "Success" starts being a relative term. You’re only successful if you’re more successful than other people you know; your car is only sexy if it’s sexier than the one next door.
So try to read Death of a Salesman with this in mind: if the American Dream isn’t working, or if it has shifted to the point where success is no longer equated with happiness, what’s the point? Or, if you know anything about Indie rock, please apply the following Metric lyrics: "Buy this car to drive to work; drive to work to pay for this car."
A film version of Death of a Salesman that won four Golden Globe awards.
1966 TV Movie
A TV version of Death of a Salesman that won three Emmy awards.
1985 TV Movie
A movie of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman as Willy and John Malkovitch as Biff.
2000 TV Movie
A TV movie of Death of a Salesman. Brian Dennehy won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Willy.
A picture of Arthur Miller with Marilyn Monroe.
Cover of the 1985 Movie with Dustin Hoffman
How Little House on the Prairie is this?!