Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: The Magic Informing Both Plays

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: The Magic Informing Both Plays

Article excerpt

In 1987, Harold Bloom, the distinguished scholar/critic, listed six plays that he believed to be "the half-dozen crucial American plays" (1). These plays are The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill, The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and The Zoo Story by Edward Albee.

Many critics and scholars have tried to determine and have expressed views as to why one or more of these six plays have succeeded and endured. Despite their critical/scholarly excellence from traditional/conventional perspectives, the reviews and analyses all fail to make explicit the aesthetic cores of these plays-to probe adequately that broader and deeper essence that drew and still draws the critics and theatrical attendees to respond so powerfully to these works. Perhaps there is nothing more fundamental to discover, or, perhaps, despite the existence of a foundational essence, they have found that essence ultimately inaccessible and indescribable. This essay attempts to confront that challenge-to try to bring to light the generative elements of one or more of these plays. To effect this discovery, the most promising path is to engage in comparison and contrast of two of the plays.

Setting one play against the other should result in clues as to how to reach the aesthetic primum mobile-the magic of each play. The two plays chosen are Long Day 's Journey Into Night and Death of a Salesman. The extraordinary reputation of these two plays is undeniable, as reflected in two commentaries in the Dictionary of literary Biography. Of O'Neill's play, the Dictionary states, "Long Day's Journey into Night is generally regarded as O'Neill's best play, as one of the masterpieces of world drama" (Stilling). Similarly, the Dictionary comments that Death of a Salesman is "widely considered to be one of the greatest American plays of the twentieth century" (Marino).

These plays do have at least some similarities. It is clear, for example, that both are fundamentally four character plays (a family: male and female parents and two sons), and some minor characters, who play a more prominent role in Salesman than in Journey. The settings of the plays are largely, although not exclusively, in the family household. In both plays, the life condition of one or more of the major characters adversely affects all of the other major characters. Despite these and other similar elements in the plays, the differences between them are immediately striking and pervasive. The title Salesman provides a direct key to the contrasts. Whereas Journey explores the dynamics of a family, the Tyrone family, Salesman's aesthetic core includes other family members, but lies with its central character, Willy Loman.

Michael Brandon Lopez calls attention to the aesthetic centrality of the Tyrone family when he comments that "the entire action of Long Day 's Journey into Night is centered within the context of the family" (68). Although Salesman certainly enacts a world that includes all members of the Loman family, the author's consciousness and that of each viewer and/or listener is drawn primarily to the plight and life of its central character. Joseph Hynes succinctly summarizes the matter of centrality when he says: "The only one who gains awareness is Biff, but the play is Willy's..." (577). So compelling, intense, multifaceted, and comprehensive is Miller's portrayal of the character Willy Loman that some critics and scholars consider him not only the central character, but a modem tragic hero.

Whether Salesman is a tragedy is a debate that has lasted for decades. At times, certain broad, inclusive phrases have been employed as substitutes for attempts to describe, and sometimes prescribe, bonafide tragic criteria. These include Miller's "Tragic Vision of Man," then "Tragic Situations," "Tragic Feelings," "Tragic Implications," and "Tragic Rhythms," etc. …

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