The Promised End: The Conclusion of Hoffman's Death of a Salesman

By Hart, Jonathan | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Promised End: The Conclusion of Hoffman's Death of a Salesman


Hart, Jonathan, Literature/Film Quarterly


The debate whether Death of a Salesman is a tragedy can still be heard. Just as Shakespearean tragedy does not always comply with Aristotle's view of tragedy, which he founded on a study of Greek tragedy, Arthur Miller's tragedy of the common man is not the stuff of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The values of tragedy appear bound up with the historical milieu in which it is written. Willy Loman is an American protagonist of the 1940s, but his appeal is much more universal. The problem for most critics has been Willy's death and the Requiem. Performance can often affect the critical interpretation of a text. Such an influential performance need not be solely in theatre or film but can also occur on television. I intend to examine the ending of the recent production of Salesman on television, which based itself closely on a broadway production, to see whether it can illuminate the critical problem of the conclusion of Miller's play and of its genre.

If Olivier's Richard III and Henry V served as a measure of interpretation for those plays a generation ago, Huffman's Salesman will probably fulfill that role for this play in our time.1 Whether the director, Volker Schlondorff, interprets the play, and the problematic ending, in an expressionistic or realistic way, will affect the longstanding debate whether the Requiem is merely sentimental and pathetic, in Miller's sense, or enhances the tragic experience of the play. As John Hagopian and Brian Parker have pointed out, Miller's critical comments on Salesman do not always illuminate the nature of the play.2 Nonetheless, at times the playwright's views help focus critical debate. Although Miller does not relate 'Tragedy and the Common Man" to Salesman, he writes it about the same time as the play, and it bears upon the discussion of pathos or tragedy in Salesman. At the end of the article. Miller's exhortation and distinction between the pathetic and tragic imply that he thinks Willy is a tragic figure:

The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.

Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief-optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.

It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time-the heart and spirit of the average man.3

Salesman has split critics on its pathetic or tragic nature just as Miller himself has both regrets and hopes for the tragedy of the play. According to Miller, he is "sorry the self-realization of the older son, Biff, is not a weightier counterbalance to Willy's disaster in the audience's mind" but he says "the tragedy of Willy Loman is that he gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it."4 In examining Schlondorffs interpretation, we should ask how tragic and how pathetic are the final confrontation between Biff and Willy, and the Requiem. An author cannot, and should not, control critical response to this work, and the contradictions in Salesman must be explored by critics and directors as well as by Miller himself.

The end of the play raises questions about the connection between expressionism and realism, the relation of Willy and Biff, and the role of Linda. Others have explored these aspects, but the way Schlondorff interprets them will facilitate a better understanding of the conclusion and determine whether its effect is tragic. Parker has aptly noted the dramatic excitement in Salesman that derives from "its apparent uncertainty in apportioning realism and expressionism. …

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