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Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman
First edition cover (Viking Press)
Written by Arthur Miller
Characters Willy Loman
Linda Loman
Biff Loman
Happy Loman
Ben Loman
The Woman
Date premiered February 10, 1949
Place premiered Morosco Theatre
New York City
Original language English
Subject The waning days of a failing salesman
Genre Tragedy
Setting Late 1940s; Willy Loman's house; New York City and Barnaby River; Boston

Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play written by American playwright Arthur Miller. It was the recipient of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. The play premiered on Broadway in February 1949, running for 742 performances, and has been revived on Broadway four times,[1] winning three Tony Awards for Best Revival. It is considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.[2]


  • Characters 1
  • Summary 2
  • Theme 3
    • Reality and Illusion 3.1
    • The American Dream 3.2
      • Willy Loman 3.2.1
      • Uncle Ben 3.2.2
      • Biff 3.2.3
      • Bernard and Charley 3.2.4
  • Reception 4
    • Death of a Salesman in America 4.1
    • Death of a Salesman in the United Kingdom 4.2
    • Death of a Salesman in Germany 4.3
    • Death of a Salesman in India 4.4
    • Death of a Salesman in China 4.5
  • Productions 5
  • Film and television adaptations 6
  • Awards and nominations 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
    • Editions 10.1
    • Criticism 10.2
  • External links 11
    • At Playbill Vault 11.1


  • William "Willy" Loman: The salesman. He is 63 years old and very unstable, tending to imagine events from the past as if they are real. He vacillates between different perceptions of his life. Willy seems childlike and relies on others for support. His first name, Willy, reflects this childlike aspect as well as sounding like the question "Will he?" His last name gives the feel of Willy's being a "low man," someone low on the social ladder and unlikely to succeed; however, this popular interpretation of his last name has been dismissed by Miller.[3]
  • Linda Loman: Willy's wife. Linda is passively supportive and docile when Willy talks unrealistically about hopes for the future, although she seems to have a good knowledge of what is really going on. She chides her sons, particularly Biff, for not helping Willy more, and supports Willy lovingly despite the fact that Willy sometimes treats her poorly, ignoring her opinions over those of others. She is the first to realize that Willy is contemplating suicide at the beginning of the play, and urges Biff to make something of himself, while expecting Happy to help Biff do so.
  • Biff Loman: Willy's older son. Biff was a football star with lots of potential in high school, but failed math his senior year and dropped out of summer school when he saw Willy with another woman while visiting him in Boston. He wavers between going home to try to fulfill Willy's dream for him as a businessman or ignoring his father by going out West to be a farmhand where he is happiest. He likes being outdoors and working with his hands, yet wants to do something worthwhile so Willy will be proud. Biff steals because he wants evidence of success, even if it is false evidence, but overall Biff remains a realist and informs Willy that he is just a normal guy and will not be a great man.
  • Harold "Happy" Loman: Willy's younger son. He's lived in the shadow of his older brother Biff most of his life and seems to be almost ignored, but he still tries to be supportive towards his family. He has a restless lifestyle as a womanizer and dreams of moving beyond his current job as an assistant to the assistant buyer at the local store, but is willing to cheat a little in order to do so, by taking bribes. He is always looking for approval from his parents, but rarely gets any, and he even goes as far as to make things up just for attention, such as telling his parents he is going to get married. He tries often to keep his family's perceptions of each other positive or "happy" by defending each of them during their many arguments, but still has the most turbulent relationship with Linda, who looks down on him for his lifestyle and apparent cheapness, despite his giving them money.
  • Charley: Willy's wisecracking yet understanding neighbor. He pities Willy and frequently lends him money and comes over to play cards with Willy, although Willy often treats him poorly. Willy is jealous of him because his son is more successful than Willy's. Charley offers Willy a job many times during visits to his office, yet Willy declines every time, even after he loses his job as a salesman.
  • Bernard: Charley's son. In Willy's flashbacks, he is a nerd, and Willy forces him to give Biff test answers. He worships Biff and does anything for him. Later, he is a very successful lawyer, married, and expecting a second son ‒ the same successes that Willy wants for his sons, in particular Biff. Bernard makes Willy contemplate where he has gone wrong as a father.
  • Uncle Ben: Willy's older brother who became a diamond tycoon after a detour to Africa. He is dead, but Willy frequently speaks to him in his hallucinations of the past. Ben frequently boasts, "when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich." He is Willy's role model, although he is much older and has no real relationship with Willy, preferring to assert his superiority over his younger brother. He represents Willy's idea of the American Dream success story, and is shown coming by the Lomans' house while on business trips to share stories.
  • Miss Francis: A woman with whom Willy cheated on Linda.
  • Howard Wagner: Willy's boss. He was named by Willy, but sees Willy as a liability for the company and fires him, ignoring all the years that Willy has given to the company. Howard is extremely proud of his wealth, which is manifested in his new wire recorder, and of his family.
  • Jenny: Charley's secretary.
  • Stanley: A waiter at the restaurant who seems to be friends or acquainted with Happy.
  • Miss Forsythe: A girl whom Happy picks up at the restaurant. She is very pretty and claims she was on several magazine covers. Happy lies to her, making himself and Biff look like they are important and successful. (Happy claims that he attended West Point and that Biff is a star football player.)
  • Letta: Miss Forsythe's friend.


Willy Loman returns home exhausted after a cancelled business trip. Worried over Willy's state of mind and recent car accident, his wife Linda suggests that he ask his boss Howard Wagner to allow him to work in his home city so he will not have to travel. Willy complains to Linda that their son, Biff, has yet to make good on his life. Despite Biff's promising showing as an athlete in high school, he flunked senior-year math and never went to college.

Biff and his brother Happy, who is temporarily staying with Willy and Linda after Biff's unexpected return from the West, reminisce about their childhood together. They discuss their father's mental degeneration, which they have witnessed in the form of his constant indecisiveness and recurrent instances of talking to himself when he thinks he is alone. Willy walks in, angry that the two boys have never amounted to anything. In an effort to pacify their father, Biff and Happy tell their father that Biff plans to make a business proposition the next day.

The next day, Willy goes to ask his boss, Howard, for a job in town while Biff goes to make a business proposition, but both fail. Willy gets angry and ends up getting fired when the boss tells him he needs a rest and can no longer represent the company. Biff waits hours to see a former employer who does not remember him and turns him down. Biff impulsively steals a fountain pen. Willy then goes to the office of his neighbor Charley, where he runs into Charley's son Bernard (now a successful lawyer); Bernard tells him that Biff originally wanted to do well in summer school, but something happened in Boston when Biff went to visit his father that changed his mind.

Happy, Biff, and Willy meet for dinner at a restaurant, but Willy refuses to hear bad news from Biff. Happy tries to get Biff to lie to their father. Biff tries to tell him what happened as Willy gets angry and slips into a flashback of what happened in Boston the day Biff came to see him. Willy had been having an affair with a receptionist on one of his sales trips when Biff unexpectedly arrived at Willy's hotel room. A shocked Biff angrily confronted his father, calling him a liar and a fraud. From that moment, Biff's views of his father changed and set Biff adrift.

Biff leaves the restaurant in frustration, followed by Happy and two girls that Happy has picked up. They leave a confused and upset Willy behind in the restaurant. When they later return home, their mother angrily confronts them for abandoning their father while Willy remains outside, talking to himself. Biff tries unsuccessfully to reconcile with Willy, but the discussion quickly escalates into another argument. Biff conveys plainly to his father that he is not meant for anything great, insisting that both of them are simply ordinary men meant to lead ordinary lives. The feud reaches an apparent climax with Biff hugging Willy and crying as he tries to get Willy to let go of the unrealistic expectations. Willy still clings to high expectations for him and cannot accept him for who he really is. He still cannot confront his son about his own moral lapses and indiscretions and weeps while he prepares to go to bed, exhausted. Willy, "astonished," says, "Biff - he likes me." Linda comforts him and tells him, "He loves you, Willy."

Rather than listen to what Biff actually says, Willy appears to believe his son has forgiven him and thinks Biff will now pursue a career as a businessman. Willy kills himself, apparently intentionally by crashing his car so that Biff can use the life insurance money to start his business. The ambiguities at the funeral of mixed and unaddressed emotions persist. At the funeral Biff retains his belief that he does not want to become a businessman like his father. Happy, on the other hand, chooses to follow in his father's footsteps.


Reality and Illusion

Death of a Salesman use flashbacks to present Willy’s memory during the reality. The illusion not only “suggests the past, but also presents the lost pastoral life.” Willy has dreamed of success his whole life and makes up lies about his and Biff’s success. The more he indulges in the illusion, the harder it is for him to face reality. Biff is the only one who realizes that the whole family lived in the lies and tries to face the truth.[4]

The American Dream

The American Dream is the theme of the play, but everyone in the play has their own way to describe their American Dreams.

Willy Loman

Willy Loman dreamed to be a successful salesman like Dave Singleman who has both material success and freedom. His way to achieve success is to be well-liked, which is also the way he teaches his sons. His dream cannot be achieved in that way, and such that society becomes the reason to pushing him to death.[5] Throughout Willy’s flashbacks, it is found that he believes success is indicated through someone who is rich, well liked, and demonstrates a good personality. He believes that someone who is rich and well-liked is being successful because “Society tries to teach that if people are rich and well-liked, they will be happy. Because of this, Willy thought that money would make him happy. He never bothered to try to be happy with what he had, …” (Sarkar 5)[6] Willy also believes in order to obtain success in his life that he must have a good personality. We see that, "“He believes that salesmanship is based on ‘sterling traits of character’ and ‘a pleasing personality’. But Willy does not have the requisite sterling traits of character; people simply do not like him as much as he thinks is necessary for success,” (Bloom 51).[7]

Uncle Ben

Ben represents the ideal of American Dream. He thinks American Dream is to catch opportunity, to conquer nature and to gain a fortune. Just like what he says “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. (He laughs.) And by God I was rich” Ben symbolizes another kind of successful American Dreams for Willy.[5]


After seeing his father’s real identity, Biff does not follow his father’s “dream” because he knows that “Willy does see his future but in a blind way. Meaning that he can and cannot see at the same time, since his way of seeing or visualising the future is completely wrong.”[8] Biff has a dream to get outside, to farm and work hard with his own hands, his father prevents him from pursuing his dream. Biff realized his father’s dream is “wrong” during his father's funeral.[5]

Bernard and Charley

One thing that is apparent from the Death of a Salesman is the hard work and dedication of Charley and Bernard. Willy criticizes Charley and Bernard throughout the play, but it is not because Willy hates them. He finds himself to be jealous of their success in their lives, and doing so without being under Willy’s standards. The models of business success provided in the play all argue against Willy’s personality theory. One is Charley, Willy’s neighbor and apparently only friend. Charley has no time for Willy’s theories of business, but he provides for his family and is in a position to offer Willy a do-nothing job to keep him bringing home a salary. (Bloom 51)[7]


As a play, Death of a Salesman has been performed in many countries. Receptions to the play have differed between countries:

Death of a Salesman in America

Death of a Salesman first opened on February 10, 1949, and won great success. It was regarded as one of the finest dramas of American theatre. John Gassner said that “The ecstatic reception accorded Death of Salesman has been reverberating for some time wherever there is an ear for theatre, and it is undoubtedly the best American play since A Streetcar Named Desire.” This great success is what allowed the play to travel to other countries.[9]

Death of a Salesman in the United Kingdom

The play reached London on July 28, 1949. Its responses in London were mixed, but more favourable. The Times criticized it, saying that “the strongest play of New York theatrical season should be transferred to London in the deadest week of the year.” However, the public understanding of the ideology of the play was different from that in America. Many people, such as Eric Keown, think Death of Salesman as "a potential tragedy deflected from its true course by Marxist sympathies".[9]

Death of a Salesman in Germany

The play was hailed as “the most important and successful night” in Hebbel-Theater in Berlin. It was said that “it was impossible to get the audience to leave the theatre” at the end of the performance. The Berlin production was more successful than New York, possibly due to better interpretation.[9]

Death of a Salesman in India

Compared to Tennessee Williams and Beckett, Arthur Miller and his Death of Salesman were not influential. Rajinder Paul said that “Death of Salesman" has only an indirect influence on Indian theatre practitions.”[9]

Death of a Salesman in China

Death of a Salesman was welcomed in China. Here, Arthur Miller directed the play by himself. As Miller stated, “It depends on the father and the mother and the children. That’s what it’s about. The salesman part is what he does to stay alive. But he could be a peasant, he could be, whatever.” Here, the play focuses on the family relationship. It is easier for the Chinese public to understand the relationship between father and son because “One thing about the play that is very Chinese is the way Willy tries to make his sons successful." The Chinese father always wants his sons to be ‘dragons.’[10]


The original Broadway production was produced by Kermit Bloomgarden and opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, closing on November 18, 1950, after 742 performances. The play starred Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, Mildred Dunnock as Linda, Arthur Kennedy as Biff, Howard Smith as Charley and Cameron Mitchell as Happy. Albert Dekker and Gene Lockhart later played Willy Loman during the original Broadway run. It won the Tony Award for Best Play, Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Arthur Kennedy), Best Scenic Design (Jo Mielziner), Producer (Dramatic), Author (Arthur Miller), and Director (Elia Kazan), as well as the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Jayne Mansfield performed in a production of the play in Dallas, Texas, in October 1953. Her performance in the play attracted Paramount Pictures to hire her for the studio's film productions.[11]

The play has been revived on Broadway four times:

It was also part of the inaugural season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1963.

Christopher Lloyd portrayed Willy Loman in a 2010 production by the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont, which toured several New England venues.[13]

Antony Sher played Willy Loman in the first Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play directed by Gregory Doran in Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring of 2015, with Harriet Walter as Linda Loman. This production transferred to London's West End, at the Noel Coward Theatre for ten weeks in the summer of 2015. This production was part of the centenary celebrations for playwright Arthur Miller.[14]

Film and television adaptations

Awards and nominations

1949 Broadway
  • New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play (win)
  • Pulitzer Prize for Drama (win)
  • Tony Award for Best Play (win)
  • Tony Award, Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic)- Arthur Kennedy (win)
  • Tony Award, Best Scenic Design — Jo Mielziner (win)
  • Tony Award Author — Arthur Miller (win)
  • Tony Award Best Director — Elia Kazan (win)
1975 Broadway revival
  • Tony Award Best Actor in Play — George C. Scott (nominee)
1984 Broadway revival
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival (win)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actor in a Play — Dustin Hoffman (win)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play — John Malkovich (win); David Huddleston (nominee)
  • Tony Award for Best Reproduction (win)
1999 Broadway revival
  • Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play (win)
  • Tony Award Best Actor in Play — Brian Dennehy (win)
  • Tony Award Best Featured Actor in a Play — Kevin Anderson (nominee); Howard Witt (nominee)
  • Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Play — Elizabeth Franz (win)
  • Tony Award Best Direction of a Play — Robert Falls (win)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play (win)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actor in a Play — Brian Dennehy (win)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress in a Play — Elizabeth Franz (nominee)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play — Kevin Anderson (win); Howard Witt (nominee)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director of a Play — Robert Falls (nominee)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Music in a Play — Incidental music by Richard Woodbury (nominee)

2012 Broadway revival

  • Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play (win)
  • Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play — Mike Nichols (win)
  • Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play — Philip Seymour Hoffman (nominee)
  • Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play — Andrew Garfield (nominee)
  • Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play — Linda Emond (nominee)
  • Tony Award for Best Lighting Design of a Play — Brian MacDevitt (nominee)
  • Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play — Scott Lehrer (nominee)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play — Philip Seymour Hoffman (nominee)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play (nominee)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play — Mike Nichols (win)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design — Brian MacDevitt (win)

See also


  1. ^ "Death of a Salesman". Retrieved 6 March 2011. 
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ Martin Gottfried (2004). Arthur Miller: His Life and Work. Perseus Books Group. p. 118.  
  4. ^ Koon, Helene. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of Salesman. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. 
  5. ^ a b c Bradford, Wade. """The American Dream in "Death of a Salesman.  
  6. ^ Sarkar, Saurav. Th American Dream in Context of Death of A Salesman. Academia. 
  7. ^ a b Bloom, Harold (2009). The American Dream. Infobase Publishing. 
  8. ^ Ziaul Haque, Md. & Kabir Chowdhury, Fahmida. "Death of a Salesman and Arthur Miller's King Oedipus"The Concept of Blindness in Sophocles' , International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, vol. 2, no. 3; 2013, p. 118, Retrieved on April 02, 2015.
  9. ^ a b c d Meserve, Walter. Studies in Death of Salesman. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.  
  10. ^ Arthur, Miller. Salesman in Beijing. New York: Viking Press. 
  11. ^ Sullivan, Steve. Va Va Voom, General Publishing Group, Los Angeles, California, p.50.
  12. ^ Gans, Andrew."Starry Revival of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' Opens on Broadway", March 15, 2012
  13. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (25 August 2010). "'"Christopher Lloyd stars in 'Death of a Salesman. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-09-08. 
  14. ^ Itzkoff (8 April 2015). "Arthur Miller Classic Death Of A Salesman To Make West End Transfer]". Retrieved 2015-04-22. 

Further reading


  • Miller, Arthur Death of a Salesman (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1996) ISBN 9780140247732. Edited with an introduction by Gerald Weales. Contains the full text and various critical essays.


  • Hurell, John D. (1961). Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Scribner. pp. 82–8.  
  • Sandage, Scott A. (2005). Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  

External links

At Playbill Vault

  • First Revival −1975
  • Second Revival – 1984
  • Third Revival – 1999
  • Fourth Revival – 2012
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