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A-level English - Death of a Salesman: The Play

A guide to resources about Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, compiled by your librarians.

Pulitzer prize

"Death of a Salesman" won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1949

It is Arthur Miller's tragic masterpiece about Willy Loman, an ageing travelling salesman who is driven by empty dreams of prosperity and success...

The Plot....

Title 
.. 
The complete title of the play is Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. The word 'Death' signifies the literal demise of Willy Loman but even more the death of his hopes for a better life for himself and his family.  Requiem means restRequiem also refers to a song for the dead.

Type of Work

Death of a Salesman is a stage play in the form of a tragedy. It contains two acts and a conclusion called a “Requiem.” Death of a Salesman focuses on an ordinary person, a common American salesman.The play won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award after it debuted in New York City.

Year of Publication and Historical Background

Death of a Salesman was published in 1949. America was then in an economic boom which had given rise to trend: the acquisition of small businesses by large corporations which led diminishing importance of the worker and increased importance of the company  - whose main focus was the bottom line. By circumstances, Willy Loman was complelled to cope with this trend.

Settings

The main setting is at Willy Loman’s house in the New York City area, with other events at other New York locales, including a hotel room in Boston. Some of the events are presented in flashback.

The Play

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is often considered to be a fine example of contemporary American drama. The play, first produced in 1949 and portraying hopes and fears of middle-class America, immediately found an emotional rapport with audiences. 

Arthur Miller was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for this play. It had a lengthy run (742 performances) on Broadway.

It has become one of the most performed and adapted plays in American theatrical history following its premiere on Broadway.  

Main Characters

Willly Loman is an elderly salesmen lost in false hopes and illusions. The sales firm he works for no longer pays him salary. Working on straight commission, Willy cannot bring home enough money to pay his bills. After thirty-four years with the firm, they have spent his energy and discarded him.

Willy's sons, Biff and Hap, are also failures, but Willy doesn't want to believe this. He wants his sons, especially Biff, to succeed where he has not. He believes his boys are great and cannot understand why they are not successful. This is a major source of conflict throughout the play.

Hap is the Loman's youngest son. He lives in an apartment in New York, and during the play is staying at his parent's house to visit. Hap is of low moral character; constantly with another woman, trying to find his way in life, even though he is confident he's on the right track.

Hap has always been the "second son" to Biff and tries to be noticed by his parents by showing off. When he was young he always told Willly, "I'm losin' weight pop, you notice?" And, now he is always saying, "I'm going to get married, just you wait and see," in an attempt to redeem himself in his mother's eyes. Hap also tries to be on Willy's good side and keep him happy, even if it means perpetuating the lies and illusions that Willy lives in.

Biff Loman is Willy's son and it is the conflict between the two that the story of the play revolves around. Biff was a star football player in high school, with scholarships to two major universities. He flunked math his senior year and was not allowed to graduate. He was going to make the credit up during the summer but caught Willy being unfaithful to Linda. This shock changed Biff's view of his father and everything that Biff believed in.

Biff then became a drifter and was lost for fifteen years. He was even jail for stealing a suit once. But now, he has come home and the problems begin.

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