Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama

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.

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Death of a Salesman: the play's structure, a memory play

Death of a Salesman: the play's structure, a memory play photo

If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be divided into chronologically organised sequences: Act one (Monday evening and night); Act two (Tuesday), and the requiem a few days after (Willy's burial), the same is not true of the internal plot: Willy's stream of consciousness. In "the inside of Willy's head", past and present are blurred. Memories constantly impinge on present situations and, conversely, the present is put at some distance by the flood of recollections.

The past/present dichotomy is replaced by a non-past; non-present, in which different temporal layers commingle and coalesce. This non-past/non-present is confined to Willy's inner mind, to Willy's subjective world.

'A mobile concurrency of past and present'

(The expression is by Miller, from his introduction to his Collected Plays, p.26)

Miller's aim in Death of a Salesman is to erase any gap between a remembered past - that would be evoked through words - and a present that would be performed on stage. In Death of a Salesman both past and present are given theatrical representation. There is no clear cut boundary between them. Thanks to the expressionistic technique of scrim and curtain, the characters may exist in both the present and the past. For example, Biff and Happy are seen as teenagers and adults successively.

There are no flashbacks in Death of a Salesman. Better than the erroneous term flashback, the phrase double exposure would be more appropriate. In Willy’s mind, past and present exist on the same level, Willy perceives himself both in the present and in the past - which is made up of various strata. In a way, Willy is schizophrenic; overwork, worry and repressed guilt have caused his mental collapse. In this state of nervous breakdown, past and present are inextricably mingled, time is, as it were, exploded.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy is both the self-remembering I, looking back upon himself, and the remembered I itself, that is to say the salesman as he used to be. Similarly, the same actors play their present and past selves, this is the case not only for Willy’s sons but also for Bernard, who has become a successful lawyer.

The dramatic unities, notably time, have been abolished in the most radical sense, indeed the function of memory entails a multiplicity of temporal levels, a series of different locations (Boston; New York but also the Prairie - through Willy’s father), and finally a loss of any fixed identity. In a sense, the exploded house, with its transparent walls, its scrims and curtains is an objective correlative (a concrete, practical, tangible image) for an exploding consciousness, in which spatial and temporal fragments get intertwined.

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