Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman
First edition cover (Viking Press)
Written by Arthur Miller
Characters Willy Loman
Linda Loman
Biff Loman
Happy Loman
Ben Loman
The Woman
Date premieredFebruary 10, 1949
Place premiered Morosco Theatre
New York City
Original languageEnglish
SubjectThe waning days of a failing salesman
Genre Tragedy
SettingLate 1940s; Willy Loman's house; New York City and Barnaby River; Boston

Death of a Salesman is a 1949 stage play written by American playwright Arthur Miller. The play premiered on Broadway in February 1949, running for 742 performances. It is a two-act tragedy set in 1940s New York told through a montage of memories, dreams, and arguments of the protagonist Willy Loman, a travelling salesman who is disappointed with his life, and appears to be slipping into senility. The play contains a variety of themes, such as the American Dream, the anatomy of truth, and betrayal. It explores the psychological chaos of the protagonist, and the capitalist society's impact on his life. [1] [2] It won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. It is considered by some critics to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. [3]


Since its premiere, the play has been revived on Broadway four times, [4] winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival. It has been adapted for the cinema on ten occasions, including a 1951 version from an adaptation by screenwriter Stanley Roberts, starring Fredric March.



Willy Loman returns home exhausted after a business trip he has cancelled. Worried over Willy's state of mind and recent car accident, his wife Linda suggests that he ask his boss Howard Wagner to allow him to work in his home city so he will not have to travel. Willy complains to Linda that their son, Biff, has yet to do something with his life. Despite Biff's potential as a football star in high school, he failed in mathematics and was therefore unable to enter a university.

Biff and his younger brother, Happy, who is temporarily staying with Willy and Linda after Biff's unexpected return from the West, reminisce about their childhood together. They discuss their father's mental degeneration, which they have witnessed in the form of his constant indecisiveness and daydreaming about the boys' high school years. Eventually, Willy walks in, angry that the two boys have never amounted to anything. In an effort to pacify their father, Biff and Happy tell him that Biff plans to make a business proposition the next day.

The next day, Willy goes to ask Howard for a job in town while Biff goes to make a business proposition, but they both fail; Willy gets angry and ends up getting fired when Howard tells him he needs a rest and can no longer represent the company, while Biff waits hours to see a former employer who does not remember him and turns him down. Biff impulsively steals a fountain pen. Willy then goes to the office of his neighbor Charley, where he runs into Charley's son Bernard, now a successful lawyer. Bernard tells him that Biff originally wanted to go to summer school to make up for failing math, but something happened in Boston when Biff went to visit his father that changed his mind. Charley gives the now-unemployed Willy money to pay his life-insurance premium, and Willy shocks Charley by remarking that ultimately, a man is "worth more dead than alive."

Happy, Biff, and Willy meet for dinner at a restaurant, but Willy refuses to hear bad news from Biff. Happy tries to get Biff to lie to their father. Biff tries to tell him what happened as Willy gets angry and slips into a flashback of what happened in Boston the day Biff came to see him: Willy had been in Boston for work, and Biff went to visit him to ask Willy to convince his teacher to curve Biff's failing math grade. Willy was in the middle of an affair with a receptionist, when Biff arrived unexpectedly at the hotel room, and saw the woman, who was half-dressed. Biff did not accept his father's cover-up story, and angrily dismissed him as a liar and a fake before storming out. From that moment, Biff's views of his father changed and set him adrift.

Biff leaves the restaurant in frustration, followed by Happy and two girls that Happy picked up, leaving a confused and upset Willy behind. When they later return home, Linda angrily confronts them for abandoning their father while Willy remains outside, talking to himself. Biff tries to reconcile with Willy, but the discussion quickly escalates into another argument. Biff conveys plainly to his father that he is not meant for anything great, insisting that both of them are simply ordinary men meant to lead ordinary lives. The argument reaches an apparent climax as Biff hugs Willy and begins to cry as he tries to get Willy to let go of his unrealistic expectations. Rather than listen to what Biff actually says, Willy appears to believe his son has forgiven him and will follow in his footsteps, and after Linda goes upstairs to bed, lapses one final time into a hallucination, thinking he is talking to his long-dead brother Ben. In Willy's mind, Ben approves of the scheme Willy has dreamed up to kill himself in order to give Biff his insurance policy money. Willy exits the house, and Biff and Linda cry out in despair as the sound of Willy's car blares up and fades out.

The final scene takes place at Willy's funeral, which is attended only by his family, Charley and Bernard. The ambiguities of mixed and unaddressed emotions persist, particularly over whether Willy's choices or circumstances were obsolete. At the funeral, Biff retains his belief that he does not want to become a businessman like his father. Happy, on the other hand, chooses to follow in his father's footsteps, while Linda laments her husband's decision just before her final payment on the house.


Reality and illusion

Death of a Salesman uses flashbacks to present Willy's memory during the reality. The illusion not only "suggests the past, but also presents the lost pastoral life." Willy has dreamed of success his whole life and makes up lies about his and Biff's success. The more he indulges in the illusion, the harder it is for him to face reality. Biff is the only one who realizes that the whole family lived in the lies and tries to face the truth. [6]


Miller creates his own version of a traditional tragedy by including aspects like comparing characters to Greek icons and centering the focus of the play on the life of a common man in Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman was a common salesman who was image driven and appearance was everything to him. He noted how appearance was a leading factor in sales, so Willy felt his sons were destined to have great success. In Terry Thompson’s academic journal, he explained how Willy Loman compared his sons to Hercules and that they were “built like Adonises” (Miller 33). This equalization to higher beings tied in the one of the traditional aspects of tragedies. In typical tragedies, the story was focused on royal beings with Oedipus and Orestes complexes. Arthur Miller wanted to show that the common man and those with status were more equal than people usually thought. They had the same mental processes and emotions to similar situations. Mankind cherishes tragedies so Miller felt that he should create a tragedy that resonates with his audiences to allow them to feel pity and fear for the characters since the audience may be feeling the same feelings in their own lives. A tragedy captivates the audience and should evoke feelings similar to those that are felt by the characters of the story. [7] [8]


In the United States

Death of a Salesman first opened on February 10, 1949, to great success. Drama critic John Gassner wrote that "the ecstatic reception accorded Death of Salesman has been reverberating for some time wherever there is an ear for theatre, and it is undoubtedly the best American play since A Streetcar Named Desire ." [9] Eric Bentley saw the play as "a potential tragedy deflected from its true course by Marxist sympathies." [9]

In the United Kingdom

The play reached London on July 28, 1949. London responses were mixed, but mostly favorable. The Times criticized it, saying that "the strongest play of New York theatrical season should be transferred to London in the deadest week of the year." Eric Keown, theatre critic of Punch , praised the production for its "imagination and good theatre-sense", noting that "Mr. Elia Kazan makes a complicated production seem extraordinarily natural." [9]

In Germany

The play was hailed as "the most important and successful night" in Hebbel Theater in Berlin [ when? ]. It was said that "it was impossible to get the audience to leave the theatre"[ by whom? ] at the end of the performance. The Berlin production was more successful than New York, possibly due to better interpretation. [9]

In India

Compared to Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller and his Death of a Salesman were less influential. Rajinder Paul said that "Death of a Salesman has only an indirect influence on Indian theatre practitions." [9] However, it was translated and produced in Bengali as 'Pheriwalar Mrityu' by the theater group Nandikar. Director Feroz Khan adapted the play in Hindi and English by the name "Salesman Ramlal" played by Satish Kaushik and with the role of his son portrayed by Kishore Kadam. [10] [11]

In China

Death of a Salesman was welcomed in China. There, Arthur Miller directed the play himself. As Miller stated, "It depends on the father and the mother and the children. That's what it's about. The salesman part is what he does to stay alive. But he could be a peasant, he could be, whatever." Here, the play focuses on the family relationship. It is easier for the Chinese public to understand the relationship between father and son because "One thing about the play that is very Chinese is the way Willy tries to make his sons successful." The Chinese father always wants his sons to be 'dragons.' [12]


The original Broadway production was produced by Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried. The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, closing on November 18, 1950, after 742 performances. The play starred Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, Mildred Dunnock as Linda, Arthur Kennedy as Biff, Howard Smith as Charley and Cameron Mitchell as Happy. Albert Dekker and Gene Lockhart later played Willy Loman during the original Broadway run. It won the Tony Award for Best Play, Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Arthur Kennedy), Best Scenic Design (Jo Mielziner), Producer (Dramatic), Author (Arthur Miller), and Director (Elia Kazan), as well as the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Jayne Mansfield performed in a production of the play in Dallas, Texas, in October 1953. Her performance in the play attracted Paramount Pictures to hire her for the studio's film productions. [13]

The play has been revived on Broadway four times:

It was also part of the inaugural season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1963.

Christopher Lloyd portrayed Willy Loman in a 2010 production by the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont, which toured several New England venues. [15]

Antony Sher played Willy Loman in the first Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play directed by Gregory Doran in Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring of 2015, with Harriet Walter as Linda Loman. This production transferred to London's West End, at the Noël Coward Theatre for ten weeks in the summer of 2015. This production was part of the centenary celebrations for playwright Arthur Miller. [16]

The play ran until Saturday, 4 January 2020 at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, starring Sharon D. Clarke and Wendell Pierce. [17]

Adaptations in other media

Awards and nominations

Original Broadway production

1949 Tony Awards Best Play Won
Best Author of a Play Arthur Miller Won
Best Producer of a Play Kermit Bloomgarden & Walter FriedWon
Best Featured Actor in a Play Arthur Kennedy Won
Best Director Elia Kazan Won
Best Scenic Design Jo Mielziner Won
New York Drama Critics' Circle Best American PlayArthur MillerWon
Theatre World Award Cameron Mitchell Won
Pulitzer Prize Drama Arthur MillerWon

1975 Broadway production

1976 Tony Award Best Actor in a Play George C. Scott Nominated

1984 Broadway production

1984 Tony Awards Best Revival Won
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Dustin Hoffman Won
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play John Malkovich Won
David Huddleston Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding RevivalWon
Outstanding Debut PerformanceJohn MalkovichWon

1999 Broadway production

YearAwardCategoryNomineeResult nothing
1999 Tony Awards Best Revival of a Play Won
Best Actor in a Play Brian Dennehy Won
Best Featured Actor in a Play Kevin Anderson Nominated
Howard Witt Nominated
Best Featured Actress in a Play Elizabeth Franz Won
Best Direction of a Play Robert Falls Won
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Brian DennehyWon
Outstanding Actor in a Play Kevin AndersonWon
Howard WittNominated
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play Elizabeth FranzNominated
Best Director of a Play Robert FallsNominated
Outstanding Music in a Play Richard WoodburyNominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Revival of a PlayNominated
Outstanding Actor in a PlayBrian DennehyNominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a PlayKevin AndersonWon
Outstanding Featured Actress in a PlayElizabeth FranzNominated
Outstanding Director of a PlayRobert FallsNominated
Drama League Award Distinguished Production of a RevivalWon

2012 Broadway production

2012 Tony Awards Best Revival of a Play Won
Best Actor in a Play Philip Seymour Hoffman Nominated
Best Featured Actor in a Play Andrew Garfield Nominated
Best Featured Actress in a Play Linda Emond Nominated
Best Direction of a Play Mike Nichols Won
Best Lighting Design of a Play Brian MacDevitt Nominated
Best Sound Design of a Play Scott LehrerNominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play Won
Outstanding Actor in a Play Philip Seymour HoffmanNominated
Outstanding Actor in a Play Bill CampNominated
Outstanding Director of a Play Mike NicholsWon
Outstanding Lighting Design Brian MacDevittWon
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Revival of a PlayWon
Outstanding Actor in a PlayPhilip Seymour HoffmanNominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a PlayAndrew GarfieldNominated
Outstanding Director of a PlayMike NicholsNominated
Outstanding Lighting DesignBrian MacDevittNominated
Drama League Award Distinguished Revival of a PlayWon
Theatre World Award Finn Wittrock Won
Clarence Derwent Awards Most Promising Male PerformerWon

2019 West End production

2019 Critics' Circle Theatre Award [19] Best Actress Sharon D. Clarke Won
Evening Standard Theatre Award [20] [21] Best Actor Wendell Pierce Nominated
Best Director Marianne Elliott and Miranda CromwellNominated
2020 Laurence Olivier Award [22] Best Revival Nominated
Best Actor Wendell Pierce Nominated
Best Actress Sharon D. Clarke Won
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Arinzé Kene Nominated
Best Director Marianne Elliott and Miranda CromwellWon

See also

Related Research Articles

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