Lots of critics have debated the tragic dimension of Death of a Salesman. Two levels have often been considered: the notion of genre, by referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, and the possibility of a new approach to tragedy, that would be concerned with the response of mankind to rapid technological advance.
The generic discussion (from genre) has often borne on an opposition between social drama dealing with the little man as victim of an oppressive, social and economic system, and tragedy in which the transcendental aspect is emphasized.
Miller himself has reflected on this issue in a seminal essay Tragedy and the Common Man (The New York Times, February 27, 1949). It is clear that Death of a Salesman raises the possibility of a modern tragic because unlike the absurdist theatre (Ionesco and Beckett), it postulates that ‘life has meaning’.
The question of the tragic in contradistinction to social drama will be treated along three axes.
Firstly, it can be argued that Death of a Salesman is more than social document that it creates a modern myth through a central symbol: salesmanship (Eugene O’Neill : The Iceman Cometh).
Secondly, we may wonder whether or not Loman is invested with a tragic dimension.
Thirdly, is Death of a Salesman a ruthless indictment of the American Society, along Marxist or, at least radical (in the American acceptation) lines, or does it go much beyond its social and historical context to bring about tragic catharsis in the audience?
Social testimony versus tragic myth?
The contemporary absence of tragedy
According to Miller, the absence of tragedy in contemporary American drama (1949) can be explained by the fact that man’s motivations are increasingly accounted for in purely psychiatric and sociological terms.
Literature tends to suggest that man’s miseries are born and bred within man’s mind: this is the psychological argument or, that society must be held responsible for man’s distress because of the deterministic laws that govern it – this is the point made by sociologists. In each case, the possibility of the tragic is denied because tragedy stems from an individual choice to assess, then to call into question and ultimately to rebel against the order of things.
“The thrust for freedom is equality in tragedy which exalts” (Tragedy and the Common Man, p.5)
If Willy Loman is simply considered as the poor, helpless victim of capitalist big business, then he is deprived of any tragic dimension. If he is merely a cog in the gigantic capitalist wheel that eventually crushes him to death, he is denied a tragic dimension. If he’s driven to madness, he has no tragic potential either.
A democratic tragedy
In our modern society, the agon (the contest, the struggle that is central to tragedy) can no longer be induced by a confrontation between the tragic hero and the Gods imposing their will on human mortals, as happened in Greek tragedy (Oedipus). The Gods have been replaced by the enslaving forces of modern society. Death of a Salesman is more subtle, sophisticated than the standard propaganda play of the 1930s, denouncing the evils of capitalism (The Adding Machines, Elmer Rice or the plays by Clifford Odets Awake and Sing).
The scene in which Loman is given the axe (p.59-66) is imbued with a certain ambiguity, a certain complexity, that make for tragic tension. It does not show a ruthless executive consciously firing the trusted employee, out of calculated mercenary motives.
The irony resides in the discrepancy between Howard Wagner and our preconceived representation of the capitalist businessman. Howard is the « nice guy », cornered into a situation that he is at a loss to handle nicely, which only makes the ugliness of it all even worse. There is no manichean opposition, it is more a case of a little man being fired by another little man (only a little higher up in the social scale).
In Howard’s presence, Willy is not simply confronted to the employer, but also to the doting father, who enthuses over his beloved children. Just speaking about his daughter, Howard exclaims « she’s crazy for me » (p.60) and of his son he says « five years old, Willy! » to point to his precocity and intelligence.
Both men (Willy and Howard) are not fundamentally different, at bottom, they just happen to find themselves into different social camps, at this point in time. Thus ambiguity gives tragic potential to the scene because « in tragedies and in them alone, lies the belief – optimistic, if you will – in the perfectibility of man » (Tragedy and the Common Man).
This is precisely the exact opposite to the Theatre of the Absurd, from which meaningfulness has been dismissed, and also very different from what happens in propaganda plays which set simplistic oppositions between the goodies and the villains.