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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Monday, January 14, 2008


In his play Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller investigates the notion of creating a modern day tragic hero. He frames his play around a character from the working class strata of American society. In so doing he willfully ignores the long established western tradition of the heroic tragic figure emerging from the noble and ruling class. Indeed, Miller’s attempt at creating his modern tragic hero is more akin to a classic comic character like Dikaiopolis from Aristophanes’ The Acharnians rather than the tragic King Oedipus. How does the playwright manage to raise the character of Willy Loman, a common man from the working class, to the level of a tragic hero in the classic style?

At the beginning of Death of a Salesman the salesman Willy Loman is worn out. He enters carrying the mark of his trade; two large sample cases as described in the opening directions:

He is past sixty years of age, dressed quietly. Even as he crosses the stage to the doorway of the house, his exhaustion is apparent.
(Miller, Death of a Salesman p. 12)

Within a few minutes he is stating his disillusion about the current state of the world to his wife:

WILLY: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them? ... They should’ve arrested the builder for cutting those down. They massacred the neighborhood. … There’s more people! That’s what’s ruining this country! Population is getting out of control. The competition is maddening! (Death of a Salesman p. 17-8)

Willy Loman works himself into a frenzy over the growth that has altered the architecture of his neighborhood. As the landscape around him changes, he clings to his hard earned real estate, but the intrusion of the towering apartment buildings on either side of his home has reduced his once fertile patch of ground into a sparse wasteland that can no longer support a carrot. He longs for the happier days of the past when there was prosperity, or at least the appearance of success, in and around his home.

To begin The Acharnians, Aristophanes introduces his hero, the aged Dikaiopolis, directly addressing the audience:

My heart has drunk deep of the cup of woe, and scant the joys I’ve known … I’m fed up with my city and just craving to get back to my village. Ah! my village. We had none of this ‘Coal for sale’, nor oil or vinegar either; we’d never even heard the word ‘for sale’. Everything we needed we produced ourselves … this time I’ve come prepared: if anybody dares say a word about except peace, I’ll heckle him like fury until he shuts his cakehole tight. (Aristophanes, The Acharnians p. 49-50)

Like Willy Loman, Dikaiopolis is fed up with the state of affairs, and longs for a return to his comfortable and manageable village life away from the city, but the war with Sparta keeps him from accomplishing this. He is concerned with trying to persuade the members of the Assembly to make peace with Sparta so that citizens like himself can get back to their peace-full lives away from Athens.

In contrast to the first glimpses of either Willy or Dikaiopolis, both of whom we meet alone and downtrodden, Sophocles’ Oedipus enters at the top of his form. The chorus is already present, as they are the bearers of lamentation and woe. Oedipus wishes to reassure them and is fully concerned with aiding their plight:

Oh my children, the new blood of ancient Thebes,Why are you here? Huddling at my altar,praying before me, your branches wound in wool.Our city reeks with the smoke of burning incense,rings with cries for the Healer and wailing of the dead.I thought it wrong, my children, to hear the truth
from other messengers. Here I am myself—
(Sophocles, Oedipus the King 1-7)

It is the procession of the chorus that is described as broken and despondent, while Oedipus is described by the chorus as robust:

…we do rate you first of men,both in common crises of our livesand face-to-face encounters with the gods.You freed us from the Sphinx, you came to Thebesand cut us loose from the bloody tribute we had paid
that harsh, brutal singer. We taught you nothing,no skill, no extra knowledge, still you triumphed.
(Oedipus the King 41-7)

Oedipus has a record of achievement. He has single-handedly liberated the city from an oppressive beast and was raised to the highest position in the city, that of a respected ruler. He is a mature man, but not yet old. Many of the other characters are older than he is, including the leader of the chorus, the blind prophet Tiresias, and his queen Jocasta. Oedipus, unlike the old men at the center of the other two works, is a man enjoying the prime of his life. Oedipus is at his height, supplying ample energy for the spring that is the tragic mechanism from the start of Oedipus the King.

What signals the tenor of each play, whether we are in for a comedy or tragedy? While Willy may share the physical and social attributes of Dikaiopolis, and even shares the despairing over current affairs, it is clear at the onset that Dikaiopolis world is that of the comedic while Willy’s world is that of the dramatic. The signal is the tone. Where The Acharnians begins with Dikaiopolis’ meta-theatrical direct address to the audience acting as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge-this-is-a-play-you’re-watching, Death of a Salesman begins with the sound of a flute and a stage shrouded in darkness. From the darkness the two towers of the apartment buildings that frame either side of the play-world appear, followed by the outline of the house. Miller describes the effect the light should have on the observer, “An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.” (p. 11). The world occupied by Willy Loman is fragile and distinctly unreal. It is interesting to note that Willy’s world is not set at the level of the tragic immediately by any signals other than the title of the play. At the opening of the curtain Death of a Salesman could potentially be a heightened drama, but not necessarily rise to tragic levels.

Oedipus the King possesses tragic potential from the onset. The layering of the fate of Oedipus is established in the opening strains of the play simply by sounding his name, “I am Oedipus.” (Oedipus the King 9). A name so famous that twenty-five hundred years after the play was first performed its significance still resonates. The depth of the tragic crime at the heart of the play is not a secret. Oedipus’ guilt is articulated in the first quarter of the work, when blind prophet Tiresias declares, “You are the curse, the corruption of the land.” (Oedipus the King 401)

One third of the way into Act One of Death of a Salesman Willy is established as a fraudulent braggart as he speaks to his wife Linda about his success selling on the road:

WILLY: I did five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston. 
LINDA: No! Wait a minute, I’ve got a pencil. She pulls pencil and paper out of her apron pocket. That make your commission… Two hundred—my God! Two hundred and twelve dollars! 
WILLY: Well, I didn’t figure it yet but… 
LINDA: How much did you do? 
WILLY: Well, I—I did—about a hundred and eighty gross in Providence. Well, no—it came to—roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip. 
LINDA without hesitation: Two hundred gross. That’s… She figures. 
WILLY: The trouble was that three of the stores were half closed for inventory in Boston. Otherwise I woulda broke records.
(Death of a Salesman p. 35)

Only the reality that Linda must know the correct figures in order to pay the bills compels Willy to confess the true sales numbers to her. Later in the play it is apparent that Willy is no longer able to sort reality from his fabrications, as when he speaks with his young boss Howard:

WILLY: …Now pay attention. Your father—in 1928 I had a big year. I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions. 
HOWARD, impatiently: Now, Willy, you never averaged— 
WILLY, bnging his hands on the desk: I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year 1928! And your father came to me—or rather, I was in his office here—it was right over this desk—and put his hand on my shoulder— 
HOWARD, getting up: You’ll have to excuse me Willy, I gotta see some people. Pull yourself together.(Death of a Salesman p. 82)

Willy’s lifetime of spinning larger-than-life truths to raise himself in the eyes of others has led to his current state; he can no longer decipher truth from deception. Although in this passage we see him try to manage some truth, as when he corrects himself over the detail regarding how Howard’s father had spoken to him. Here we witness the struggle Willy has to correct a small detail, but we watch him continue to negate the truth regarding his past success when it is challenged by Howard. What is uncertain is whether Willy knows that he is inflating the numbers, or whether he believes the fiction he has created. Miller leaves this for his audience to decide from moment to moment. Part of the subtlety of the play is that as our understanding of the story grows, our assumptions regarding what’s real and what’s false become as malleable as Willy’s numbers.

Dikaiopolis also uses deception to meet his ends, but unlike Willy he does not lose his grasp on recognizing reality from fiction. As he dresses in rags borrowed from the character wardrobe of Euripides he makes clear the intent of his disguise, “—the audience have got to know who I am, but the Chorus have got to be fooled.” (The Acharnians p. 69)

Unlike either Willy or Dikaiopolis, Oedipus is a seeker of truth. While the tragic tract of the play will lead to the revelation that Oedipus is in fact the cause of the curse, he is not a character who hides the truth, nor does he deny the truth once it is irrevocably proven:

Take me away, far, far from Thebes,quickly, cast me away, my friends—this great murderous ruin, this man cursed to heaven,the man the deathless gods hate most of all!
(Oedipus the King 1477-80)

Oedipus is a man who shoulders responsibility.

The architecture of each play-world establishes rules regarding time and place. In both of the ancient Greek plays the action of the play takes place outside in public spaces. This is part of the architectural aesthetic inherent in the restriction mandated by the playing of the action in an outdoor theater. But even here, there are variations. Oedipus the King is set in one location, the area just outside of the palace. Exits and entrances into and out of the palace are employed. The proximity of the private chambers is paramount as the play nears its climax:

O light—now let me look my last on you!I stand revealed at last—cursed in my birth, cursed in my marriage,cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands!
(Oedipus the King 1308-1310)

This passage is followed by a stage direction, “(Oedipus) Rushing through the doors with a great cry.” The fallen king retreats to his private chambers while the action remains on the stage and the chorus continues describing the great calamity. But the door to the private chambers is visible. We do not follow the character, but the presence of the threshold reminds us of the terrible private things happening beyond our sight.

The restriction of location establishes a sense formality that reinforces the dramatic themes of the play. It enhances the discipline inherent in the tragic form, heightening the dramatic tension. Oedipus lives under many restrictions regarding conduct and law, and so does the structure of the play.

In contrast, the world created by Aristophanes is concerned with the scrutiny and deconstruction of the letter of the law. It willfully pokes established social norms and formal laws in the eye. Hence the form freely switches locations enhancing the manic themes of individual enterprise and cunning.

The play world created by Miller is one that utilizes a modern architecture, one where lighting and spatial scope can be minutely controlled. The world of Willy Loman changes location, but unlike either of the two classic works, much of Death of a Salesman takes place indoors, inside the private world. As the story spins some of the action moves to public areas of business, but even those places are indoors. Only when Willy washes the car with his boys does the play move outdoors, but these are scenes of remembering. How reliable is memory? Are these moments outdoors as authentic as the moments that take place indoors in the present? That is a question that Miller raises, and one that helps heighten the dramatic tension. What do we trust when we view the private world not just indoors, but within Willy’s mind?

This notion of memory is an interesting facet of Miller’s play, and it is the mechanism that pulls the focus from simply performing a series of actions in the present, as in The Archarnians, to the accumulated actions of a lifetime to this one moment. This is how Miller establishes the dynamic of tragic proportion. Willy Loman has a past, and it is that past that clings to his being and drives his current mental state and actions. Whether he will be able to survive grappling with the past is the question that drives the play. This is how Miller manages to diverge the character of Willy Loman from his association with the comic characterizations of Aristophanes and squarely merges him with the tragic figures found in Sophocles.

Dikaiopolis has no past, or he has no past that has any bearing on his present actions. The only past that affects his actions is the recent social past that he claims to be abandoning. He has a wife and children, but they are only mentioned once or twice, and they very quickly fall away from any significance to the hero’s actions. He is railing against the Athenian society that is at war with Sparta because the war is disrupting his life. The accumulation of past events, his personal history, has nothing to with the progression of the play. Dikaiopolis is so rooted in the immediate present that he is sometimes aware that he is a character in a play and is therefore able to stride directly to the King-Archon’s seat in the audience and address him directly:

Behold the empty jug. Will you acclaim meAs champion of Bacchus’ festival? (The Acharnians, p. 103)

His request has the double meaning of speaking as the character Dikaiopolis about having drunk so much wine, and as the voice of the playwright requesting that the play win the prize at the festival. Dikaiopolis can accomplish this because he is a character divorced from his past and from any serious repercussions in the world of the play.

Oedipus and Willy, on the other hand, have a great deal at stake in their respective play-worlds. Both carry the burden of their past actions. Both have an articulated past that haunts them. While the techniques used to present the back-stories of the characters are different, the result is the same; that we understand the burden of the accumulated effect of past choices. This awareness of the past and its impact on the future heightens the tragic forces of each of these plays.

Near the end, Oedipus curses his newly gained knowledge of his past:

Dark, horror of darknessmy darkness, drowning, swirling around mecrashing wave on wave—unspeakable, irresistibleheadwind, fatal harbor! Oh again,the misery, all at once, over and overthe stabbing daggers, stab of memoryraking me insane. (Oedipus the King 1450-5)

Stabbing out his own eyes, he sets himself on the path of an outcast and a beggar. He does not hasten death because this is not his destiny. He knows his fate is to die elsewhere, and he can also fathom the fate that awaits his children now that the truth about their parentage is set loose in the world. The tragedy of the Oedipus cycle, past—present—future is contained in these moments. With all of the pieces and images assembled the scope of the tragedy is fully present and engaged both for the play’s characters and for its audience.

It is this presence of scope, of uniting the multiple temporal dimensions of past—present—future, which raises Death of a Salesman to the tragic strata. Willy Loman, in the final passages of the play, realizes the scope of his life, and that it continues into the future not as his single life, but through the life of his son Biff. Willy at long last establishes the connection that unites himself with multiple temporal plains:

BIFF, at the peak of his fury: Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing Pop. Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it any more. I’m just what I am, that’s all. 
Biff’s fury has spent itself, and he breaks down, sobbing, holding on to Willy, who dumbly fumbles for Biff’s face. 
WILLY, astonished: What’re you doing? What’re you doing? To Linda: Why is he crying? 
BIFF, crying, broken: Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens? Struggling to contain himself, he pulls away and moves to the stairs. I’ll go in the morning. Put him—put him to bed. Exhausted, Biff moves up the stairs to his room. 
WILLY, after a long pause, astonished, elevated: Isn’t that—isn’t that remarkable? Biff—he likes me! 
LINDA: He loves you, Willy! 
HAPPY, deeply moved: Always did, Pop 
WILLY: Oh, Biff! Staring wildly: He cried! Cried to me. He is choking with his love, and now cries out his promise: That boy—that boy is going to be magnificent!
(Death of a Salesman p. 133)

At last Willy recognizes a deep truth, that his son loves him—has always loved him. With this recognition of the truth Willy determines to take action, to propel that love into the future. He swears an oath, that his boy will be magnificent. Willy believes he must ensure the boys success by staking his future. The only means for accomplishing this task is through his own death, for his death will bring the insurance payment to his family. By sacrificing his life he can ensure his son’s future.

Like Oedipus, Willy Loman sacrifices himself for a greater good. Like Oedipus, he carries the weight of his past and understands the potential of his family’s future. Like Oedipus, the lifetime that has come before is defined by this one action in this one moment. Willy Loman rises from the ranks of common citizens because he, unlike Dikaiopolis, is willing to abandon his personal notions of success and comfort for the benefit of others. By accumulating the past, Willy Loman’s story deftly expands across a temporal landscape. This subtle expansion that builds throughout the play, compels heroic action that is fulfilled when Willy is finally able to recognize a deeply human truth and is then willing to take selfless action. Through Willy Loman, Arthur Miller manages to transcend the trappings of the comic hero and shape them into a moving and tragic tale.
Resource List:
1. Aristophanes, Lysitrata/The Archanians/The Clouds, trans. Alan H. Sommerstein (London: Penguin Books, 1973).
2. George Plimpton, ed., Playwrights At Work: The Paris Review Interviews, interviewer Christopher Bigsby (New York: Random House, 2000).
3. Erich Segal, The Death of Comedy, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
4. Toby Cole, ed., Playwrights on Playwriting, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960).
5. Lisa A. Barnett, Broadway’s Fabulous Fifties: How the Playmakers Made It Happen, interviewer Ted Mabley (New York: New Dramatist Publications, 2002).
6. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, (New York: Viking Press, 1949).
7. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1984).
8. C. Whitman, II Comic Heroism, from Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964).

1 comment:

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