Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
and the American Dream

William Heyen

Nothing about Death of a Salesman, once I step away from it, strikes me as quite believable, quite intelligent, quite intelligible, quite interesting. Characters, plot, even the language that so often falls into the poetry of romantic cliché, will not quite bear scrutiny. Reviewing the play in 1949, one irritated critic [ Eleanor Clark] objected to its "speciousness." "The play," this reviewer said, "with its peculiar hodge-podge of dated materials and facile new ones, is . . . an ambitious piece of confusionism, such as in any other sphere would probably be called a hoax, and which has been put across by purely technical skills not unlike those of a magician or an acrobat." A hoax! Now, this is pretty strong and pretty silly. But, once I give the play some distance, almost everything about it irritates me or makes me laugh. But Salesman is much more than the sum of its parts. Once the curtains part, a flute begins to play and I am caught up in the poverty and dream and bitter bliss of the Lomans.

There is no question but that the play is elusive. As Miller himself has said, " Death of a Salesman is a slippery play to categorize because nobody in it stops to make a speech objectively stating the great issues which I believe it embodies." The play does not mirror, or reflect, or state; it embodies, and often puts us at a loss to enunciate the ideas and feelings it calls forth. That's the thing about Salesman: it reverberates, echoes, resonates. Its rhythms roll deep down toward and into American desires and delusions. Fear, pity, a sense of loss for what might have been, a qualified joy for Willy's happiness as he commits suicide—these are the

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From American Drama and Theater in the 20th Century, edited by Alfred Weber and Siegfried Neuweiler. © 1975 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.

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