A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller’s best play, the American classic Death of a Salesman, was a hit in a brilliant West End production formerly seen in Chicago and New York.  Director Robert Falls has assembled an outstanding British cast of actors in support of his original star, Brian Dennehy with Clare Higgins as wife Linda and Douglas Henshall as son Biff. That the teary-eyed opening night audience in 1949 corralled Miller at intermission to ask how he knew the story of their uncle, or father, or brother is not surprising; that audible sniffles were heard from the 2005 London audience during a recent performance is testimony to the play’s lasting impact.

In the final twenty-four hours of salesman Willy Loman’s life, he relives the happy times of the past while existing “on the edge of the abyss” in the present, as he loses his job and argues with his beloved son Biff over the values by which Willy has lived: “The man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”  To compound their conflict, Biff as a teenager discovered Willy’s infidelity during his travels, confronted him as a “fake,” and never achieved the “success” his father craved, living instead as a farmhand in the West.  Although Biff returns home from time to time, both suffer guilt over their split.

As the play opens, we see in the windows of the house the headlights of the car that becomes symbolic; Willy has returned home late at night, carrying his heavy sample cases unopened, being unable to make his usual road trip from Brooklyn to New England.  As admirably interpreted by Clare Higgins, wife Linda’s love for him is apparent, blending encouragement and concern.  As she keeps the accounts, it is she who sees through Willy’s bluffing that he earns more than he does, that he “kills them dead” on his selling trips, while even in the best of times barely meeting the necessity for repairs -- to the refrigerator or the hot-water heater or the car. Yet she is always upbeat and supportive of Willy.  Says Miller: “She has strength; she has held this family together….It is she who is marshaling the forces, such as they are, that might save Willy.”

As Willy sits in the kitchen in the opening scene, his “private conversations” begin: he is in the past, in the happy days when his sons were teenagers, “built like Adonises,” who would therefore achieve success. High school hero Biff enters, carrying a “borrowed” football, as Willy, “laughing with him at the theft,” says the coach will probably congratulate Biff for his “initiative.”  The red Chevrolet, a family status symbol, is seen on stage, as the boys wash and simonize it, and then the family drive off in it to the football game where Biff will shine.  That in the happy past Willy condones dishonesty, taking bribes from sellers to favor them with an order, or encouraging his sons to steal building materials, reverberates in the dismal present when Biff reveals his kleptomania.

Ghosts from the past who appear to Willy are the Woman with whom he had an affair while on the road (Abigail McKern) and his brother Ben.  Willy regards his older brother as “success incarnate,” the American dream, a man who “knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, at the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!”  Ben not only represents the success Willy dreams of but never achieves, but also the passing of time; he’s always looking at his watch, or saying, “Time, William, Time.”  When Willy almost leaves with him to go to Alaska, Linda and Willy decide he will stay, because “I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.”  “It’s not what you do, Ben.  It’s who you know and the smile on your face!  It’s contacts, Ben, contacts!”  Yet we never know what Willy is selling, because he is too busy selling himself.   His realistic neighbor Charley tells him, “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.  And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.” 

In a performance nothing short of brilliant, Brian Dennehy manages to physically change from the confident, exuberant Willy of the past to the present Willy struggling to see why things went wrong -- confused, unsure of himself, confessing to Linda his worry about his appearance.  “How do we get back to all the great times?” he asks Ben as the play nears its end. Now, as Ben is always indicating, time is running out, while in the past there was a future, “always some kind of good news coming up, always something nice coming up ahead.”

Beautifully effective and wonderfully acted is the scene between Willy and Douglas Henshall’s Biff, who, after telling Willy off, embraces him, and at last Willy realizes his son loves him.  Propelled by this love and the knowledge that Biff, with his $20.000 life insurance policy, will be “magnificent,” Willy takes the car out one last time.  We see the headlights and hear the crash.  The irony is that Biff wants only to return to the country, and says in the Requiem that “He had the wrong dreams.”  But his brother Happy asserts that “It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man.  He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.”

Quotations from Arthur Miller are from my book, Understanding Arthur Miller, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.