The early 1900’s saw the beginning of the progressive movement of labor and cultural reform in the USA, and its rise as a world power. They were starting to be taken seriously, and their foreign policy was driven by a powerful patriotic sentiment. 1917 saw the declaration of war on the Empire of Germany. Economic growth followed the end of the war, building through the ‘roaring 20’s’ and ending in economic disaster in the crash of 1929. The great depression lasted right through to 1940, when the Second World War fueled an economic rebound, as a result of war production. The 1940’s were the beginning of the ‘Baby Boomers’ generation. This population growth was supplemented by increasing immigration from Europe, continuing its artistic and intellectual influence on the USA, begun earlier.
Arthur Miller was born in 1915, and grew up during the Great Depression; indeed his family lost almost everything in the crash of 1929. Miller worked menial jobs to pay for his college tuition, studying Journalism at the University of Michigan. It was here that he wrote his first play No Villain. He enjoyed increasing acknowledgement as a playwright, both for his controversial subversive writing, and his first real success was All My Sons (1946), winning him the Tony Award for Best Author. The culture of theatre, within which Miller became established as a writer, had some particularly relevant elements. Indicative are some significant American plays from this period. A few include Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), The Skin of our Teeth (1942), and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Our Town deals with the familiar family microcosm, and the preciousness of life, as intimated through the relationships of his characters. The Abstractionist influenced The Skin of Our Teeth is a tribute to human durability in the face of disaster (a response to the Depression), and spotlights the struggling American family. A Streetcar Named Desire is a desperate tale of self -delusion and futility, set in the harsh and gritty New Orleans. It is interesting to consider that this period is the context in which Miller hit his stride (he received his BA in English in 1938).
Themes such the ‘American Dream’, family life affected by social and economic pressures, conflicting ideals and values, and the continuing rise of individualism all give rich subject matter to Death of a Salesman. The play is one the most influential of the 20th century, if not the most. It was the first play to win all three of the top theatre awards, the Pulitzer, the Tony and the Drama Critic’s. Perhaps one of the reasons for the play’s success is its incredibly effective melding of the public and private realms. The domestic drama draws attention to the cultural shifts of the time. It is set in a family home in Boston, in the 1940’s, and in the places the family members go during the story. In this limited environment, we peer into the life of an ordinary family. There is a dreamlike quality to the play, used to portray the worsening mental condition of the protagonist, Willy Loman. Willy is an ageing salesman, obsessed with greatness, though possessing none. A slow and painful process of disillusion takes place, and we observe the effects of the change through the relationships between the family member’s private interactions. Willy is married to Linda Loman, and has two sons, the recently returned eldest, Biff Loman, and Happy Loman. All three are affected by Willy’s worsening condition, and this is the main source of dramatic tension in the play. The content and themes are emotionally compelling, and give crucial weight to the subject matter. Whilst all of the dynamics between the characters are powerful, perhaps the most poignant is that between Willy and Biff. Central to the play is the conflict between the two, and powerful identity issues around idealistic expectations, self-aggrandizement, and the pressure to succeed are engaged with through the dysfunction of the father-son relationship. Biff is in many ways an antagonist. Because he is pressured to meet desperate expectations of success, he becomes a scapegoat for failure. His identity evolves through the play to eventually disown the unwanted projections. Thus, Biff cannot save his father from the doom of reality, that he is not great, that his dreams are dead. The final scene is intensely powerful, and in it we are shown the critical nature of the struggle of the common man against his condition. The play can be seen as a cross-section of the effects of the environmental pressures of the time, on a family made of people that we are endeared to because of their realness. There is no grand manifestation of heroism here, only the gritty truth of human imperfection. The domestic nature of the ancient theme of the ‘tragic fall’ is the source of its accessibility, and thus it continues to be an important text today.
Arthur Miller said, “The mission of theatre is to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities”. In this context, the actor can be seen as an agent of consciousness, working with the language of theatre to give expression to the perhaps obvious but unvoiced elements and dynamics of human experience. Death of a Salesman is a fine example of this at work. Elia Kazan, who was heavily influenced by Group Theatre, directed its first running. Group Theatre was intended as a springboard for the kind of theater its founders believed in, a forceful, naturalistic and socially conscious theatre. The teachings of Stanislavsky were developed through Group Theatre, into what was known as American Method, or Method Acting. This method involved a direct embodiment of genuine emotional experience, and so we see the actor being a vessel, or a channel for the shifting energies of the psyche, both individual and collective. This channeling process in the theatrical context gives a focus point, an arena for revelation, and thus the evolution of consciousness. Great tensions, internal and external, between humanity and our environment, are released through great art.
Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller – Penguin Plays 1961