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 the American playwright Arthur Miller. The play premiered on Broadway in February 1949, running for 742 performances. It is a two-act tragedy set in late 1940s Brooklyn told through a montage of memories, dreams, and arguments of the protagonist Willy Loman, a travelling salesman who is despondent with his life and appears to be slipping into senility. The play addresses a variety of themes, such as the American Dream, the anatomy of truth, and infidelity. [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] The play was selected as one of the best plays of 1948–1949, with an excerpted version published in The Burns Mantle Best Plays of 1948–1949. [4]


Since its premiere, the play has been revived on Broadway five times, [5] winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival. It has been adapted for the cinema on ten occasions, including a 1951 version by screenwriter Stanley Roberts, starring Fredric March. In 1999, New Yorker drama critic John Lahr said that with 11 million copies sold, it was "probably the most successful modern play ever published." [6]


The genesis of the play was a chance encounter between Miller and his uncle Manny Newman, a salesman, whom he met in 1947 in the lobby of a Boston theater that was playing All My Sons . [6] Writing in a critical study of the play, author Brenda Murphy observed that Manny "lodged in his imagination and created a dramatic problem that he felt compelled to solve." [7]

Miller later recounted that when he saw Manny at the theater, "I could see the grim hotel room behind him, the long trip up from New York in his little car, the hopeless hope of the day's business." Without acknowledging Miller's greeting or congratulating him on the play, Manny said "Buddy is doing very well.'" [6] Buddy was Manny's son, and Manny saw Miller and his older brother as "running neck and neck" with his two sons "in some race that never stopped in his mind." When visiting Manny as a youth, Miller felt "gangling and unhandsome" and usually heard "some kind of insinuation of my entire life's probable failure." [8] Seeing him again in Boston, Manny seemed to the playwright to be "so absurd, so completely isolated from the ordinary laws of gravity, so elaborate in his fantastic inventions," yet so much in love with fame and fortune that "he possessed my imagination." [7] Manny died by suicide soon after, [8] which was the cause of death of two other salesmen Miller had known. One of Manny's sons told Miller that Manny had always wanted to create a business for his two sons. Learning that transformed Manny, in Miller's mind, to "a man with a purpose."

Miller had been thinking about a play about a salesman for years. He also had new interest in the simultaneousness of the past and present that was evident at their meeting, as it was plain that he and his cousins were viewed by Manny as they were when they were adolescents, many years earlier. Miller sought to "do a play without any transitions at all, dialogue that would simply leap from bone to bone of a skeleton that would not for an instant cease being added to, an organism as strictly economic as a leaf, as trim as an ant." [7]

In creating Willy and the other characters, Miller also drew on his relationship with his father as well as another salesman. Miller was himself the model of the young Bernard. [7]


The play takes place in 1949. The setting is the Loman home in Brooklyn, [9] located amidst a typical row of urban apartment buildings.

Willy Loman suddenly returns home exhausted after a canceled business trip to Boston. Worried over Willy's state of mind and recent car accident, his wife Linda suggests that he ask his boss, Howard, to allow him to work in his home city so he will not have to travel. Willy complains to Linda about their son, Biff, who is 35 years old and has yet to do something with his life. Despite Biff having a promising football career 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 an ambitious business proposition the next day.

The next day, Willy goes to Howard’s office for a job in town while Biff goes to make a business proposition, but they both fail. Howard refuses to give Willy a New York job, despite Willy's desperate pleas. Willy then loses his temper and ends up getting fired when Howard tells him that he needs a long rest and is no longer allowed to represent the Wagner Company. On the other hand, Biff waits hours to see a former employer who does not remember him and turns him down. In response Biff, feeling crushed, impulsively steals a fountain pen. Willy then goes to the business office of his neighbor Charley, where he runs into Charley's son Bernard, who is now a successful lawyer about to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. 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 then offers Willy a stable do-nothing job, but Willy vehemently refuses despite losing his job. Charley, who feels insulted, reluctantly gives the now-unemployed Willy money to pay off 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 the bad news from Biff. Happy tries to coax 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: Biff had come to Boston to ask Willy to convince Biff's teacher to curve Biff's failing math grade, so he could graduate. However, Willy was in the middle of an extramarital affair with a receptionist when Biff arrived unexpectedly, and saw the half-dressed woman with him. Biff did not accept his father's cover-up story for her presence, 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 whom 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 emotional conflict. 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 wealthy brother Ben. In Willy's mind, Ben "approves" of the scheme Willy has dreamed up to take his own life in order to give Biff his life insurance money to help him start a business. 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 car crashes and Willy dies.

The final scene takes place at Willy's funeral, which is attended only by his family, Charley and Bernard (who is the only character to not speak during the final scene). The ambiguities of mixed and unaddressed emotions persist, particularly over whether Willy's choices or circumstances were obsolete. At the funeral, Biff upholds 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.

Characters and cast

Notable casts

CharacterOriginal Broadway
Broadway Revival
Royal Shakespeare
2nd Broadway Revival
3rd Broadway Revival
4th Broadway Revival
5th Broadway Revival
Willy Loman Lee J. Cobb George C. Scott Bob Peck Dustin Hoffman Brian Dennehy Philip Seymour Hoffman Wendell Pierce
Linda Loman Mildred Dunnock Teresa Wright Francesca Annis Kate Reid Elizabeth Franz Linda Emond Sharon D. Clarke
Biff Loman Arthur Kennedy James Farentino Michael Maloney John Malkovich Kevin Anderson Andrew Garfield Khris Davis
Happy Loman Cameron Mitchell Harvey Keitel Paul Greenwood Stephen Lang Ted Koch Finn Wittrock McKinley Belcher III
Uncle Ben Thomas Calmers Jack Somack Peter Guiness Steve Pickering Louis Zorich John Glover Andre DeShields
Bernard Joe Maross Lewis J. Stadlen Shaun Scott David ChandlerRichard Thompson Fran Kranz Stephen Sotkcing
Charley Howard Smith James Greene Paul Moriarty Charles Durning Howard Witt Bill Camp Delaney Williams
The Woman Naomi Stevens Rosalyn Kahn Helen Mirren Kathryn Rossetter Kate Buddeke Molly Price Lynn Hawley


Reality and illusion

Reality and illusion are prominent themes in Death of a Salesman. The play uses flashbacks to present Willy's memories, but it is unclear whether they are accurate. He 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 realizes the problem and wants to face the truth. In this conflict, the play shows how the American Dream can be a lie. [10]


In several statements, Miller compared the play's characters to Greek tragedy. Miller wanted to show that the common man and those with status had much in common. [11] [12]

Writing in The New York Times in 1999, journalist John Tierney argued that the play was not constructed like a classical tragedy. He observed that the mental illness suffered by Loman was a "biochemical abnormality" that was "not the sort of tragic flaw that makes a classic play." But he noted that "Willy's fate is supposed to be partly a result of his own moral failings, in particular the adulterous affair [...], he is haunted by the memory of his infidelity and by the fear that it ruined his son's life." [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 ." [13] Eric Bentley saw the play as "a potential tragedy deflected from its true course by Marxist sympathies." [13]

In the United Kingdom

The play opened in London on July 28, 1949. British 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." [13]

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. [13]

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." [13] 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, the son was portrayed by Kishore Kadam. [14] [15]

In China

Arthur Miller directed the play himself in China, stating that it was 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." Many traditional Chinese fathers want their sons to be 'dragons.' [16]


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. [17]

The play has been revived on Broadway five 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. [20]

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. [21]

The play ran until Saturday, 4 January 2020 at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, starring Sharon D. Clarke and Wendell Pierce. [22]

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 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 Featured 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 [25] Best Actress Sharon D. Clarke Won
Evening Standard Theatre Award [26] [27] Best Actor Wendell Pierce Nominated
Best Director Marianne Elliott and Miranda CromwellNominated
2020 Laurence Olivier Award [28] 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

2022 Broadway revival

2023 Tony Awards Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play Wendell Pierce Nominated
Best Lighting Design of a Play Jen SchrieverNominated
Drama Desk Awards [29] Outstanding Revival of a Play Nominated
Outstanding Direction of a PlayMiranda CromwellNominated
Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play Sharon D. Clarke Nominated
Wendell Pierce Nominated
Drama League Awards [30] Distinguished Performance Award Sharon D. Clarke Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award [31] Outstanding Revival of a Play (Broadway or Off-Broadway)Nominated
Outstanding Featured Performer in a Broadway Play Sharon D. Clarke Nominated

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Further reading