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  • Arthur Miller

Death of a salesman - critical review

After being interested in the idea of the hero after reading 'The Iliad' and then 'Paradise Lost', I wanted to read something that looked at the archetype in a different form through the 'tragic hero' and portraying the identity due to different reasons perceived in ancient Greek literature such as strength, bravery and military strength. After reading 'Death of a salesman' by Arthur Miller, published in 1949, what intrigued me was not only the identity of Willy Loman as the tragic hero but even more so the exploration of consciousness through theatre. It was interesting that it was a portrayal of the idea of 'stream of consciousness', used by modernist writers such as James Joyce and Virginia wolf, but through dramatic writing rather than the novel. It is a portrayal of Willy Loman's consciousness, but unlike a novel, is able to portray this visually on stage. Furthermore, this idea of the 'stream of consciousness' also portrayed ideas of fate and the constant presence of the past in the present, and the play is not only a tragedy but a 'Psychological tragedy', in which the hero and antagonist are the same identity.

'Death of a salesman' explores Willy's consciousness throughout the play, through presenting scenes of his memories of the past simultaneously with the present. However, the memories that are presented to the audience are not just fragments of the past, but instead a portrayal of the past co-existing in the present. Miller said that he wanted to portray that "nothing in life comes 'next' but that everything exists together at the same time within us: the present is that which the past is capable of noticing and smelling and reacting to" and that "the play's eye was to revolve from within Willy's head […] there are no flashbacks in this play but only a mobile concurrency of past and present." The use of the stage allows this portrayal of past and present unlike a novel can: through visually showing that they exist simultaneously. The set shows many different rooms of the house, as well as an apron at the front which is the space used for 'Willy's imaginings' which allows for the constant reminder that the past and present cannot be separated: they are not two distinct moments but one experience. Therefore, through the constant imaginings of Willy occurring as the present time continues, the play seems to be a visual representation of the consciousness of the protagonist. It portrays the ideas of time adopted by modernists and influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson, who highlighted the difference between quantitative and qualitative time: clock and objective compared to subjective qualitative time. In 'Death of a salesman', Miller portrays Bergon's idea that the mathematical and measurable idea of time does not show the full extent of time: in which it is an experience which past flows into the present. Willy Loman's constant imaginings in the past interrupt the clock time of the twenty-four hours and show this subjective idea of time in comparison to objective universal time.

Arthur Miller highlighted that it is questionable how reliable and accurate the memories and imaginings of Willy are, but that this is besides the point, and instead what is important is the fact it is "the way he remembers it" and therefore "the way it affects him." Therefore, it is not about the accuracy of the imaginings, but instead why he remembers or fictionalises a moment after an event in the present, and this can be studied through looking at the links between the present happenings and the imaginings of Willy. For example, after he is fired by Howard he remembers his refusal to go with his brother Ben abroad, who had extensive success. Likewise, after Biff's report of failure in getting financial support, Willy remembers the moment Biff discovered Willy's betrayal of his wife in his affair. Therefore, the fact these memories are triggered by happenings in the present shows the effect of decisions in the past on the present and future. Wily getting fired goes back to his denial of going with his brother and Biff not getting money goes back to Willy's own mistake of betrayal. This suggests Willy's constant guilt, in believing that all tragedies are to do with his own actions. Willy portrays that for him, the American dream means success is on account of being well-liked, however, these episodes portrayed in Willy's head show that he is aware of the consequences of his own actions and mistakes, instead of just his personality traits. Miller said that he "wished to create a form which, it itself as a form, would literally be the process of Willy Loman's way of mind", and therefore through the scenes selected, the audience sees the truth of Willy's mind that isn't portrayed through his speech on stage. It conveys a deeper truth on the reality of Willy's thought and reveals his guilt and loss of hope and personal accountability.

The play, therefore, adopts this form of 'psychological tragedy', in which unlike that of 'The Iliad' and 'Paradise Lost', the hero and antagonist are the same person. The enemy of Willy is only himself, and we see this duality of his conscience through the contrast of what he says to other characters on the stage compared to what we see visually through the scenes which are happenings inside Willy's head. The play imitates Greek tragedy but creates a new protagonist of the common man, and moves the tragic conflict to inside Willy's consciousness. It is not only an inner conflict of morality but also a conflict of attitudes of the American Dream, in which there is a sense that Willy is aware that his analogy is incorrect that the only virtue needed to be a good salesman is popularity. The play is tragic since the enemy of Willy: himself, defeats him, through his suicide. Miller portrays that he dies because of his lack of viable human values, and therefore he shows the consequences of having a lack of these values. Willy seems to have superficial and virtueless ideas: for example the importance of being liked or not liked, along with the sense that he has abandoned his true morals through a betrayal of all that he loves (for example his affair), and this side of Willy: the vacuum of any purpose or positive morals: defeats him. There does seem a sense that a part of Willy does have these values, through his constant referral to earlier moments of his life influencing the failure in the present, fictional conversations with his brother Ben which create a sense of knowledge of his own failure as well as frequent occurrences in which Willy's younger sons are displayed, showing a loving relationship between him and them which juxtapose that of the present: however, he cannot fully encapsulate this awareness and find and hold on to values as the side which dominates him is that which destroys him.

To conclude, Miller takes the form of a classic tragedy and uses modernist ideas adopted by Wolf and influenced by philosophers such as Henri Bergson to show the psychological tragedy of an ordinary man: Willy Loman, a salesman: who is in constant conflict with ideas of the American dream and can't grasp a sense of true virtue through human values. The use of constant scenes that are outside of the present adopt the idea of qualitative, subjective time within objective time: and portrays the idea of consciousness and its experience of time. The idea of the past constantly being in the present through certain scenes that are inside Willy's head, create a contrast between internal and external and show the audience more than Willy himself portrays, or even is aware of himself: and shows his underlying guilt of his actions and his awareness of their influence on the present, and creates the play to become even more tragic.

articles I read after I read the play:

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