A husband and wife stand by a table, talking simultaneously to their two adult sons, who are seated.
Kimberly Schraf (Linda), Danny Gavigan (Happy), Craig Wallace (Willy Loman) and Thomas Keegan (Biff) in the Ford’s Theatre production of Death of a Salesman, directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A Universal Classic: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

4 min read

One of the preeminent American playwrights of the 20th century, Arthur Miller was born in 1915 to Polish immigrants in New York City. Miller’s father was the owner of a successful women’s clothing company, and his mother was an educator. When he was 14, Miller’s father lost everything in the Wall Street crash, and the family was forced to move from Manhattan to a small house in Brooklyn. There, Miller began to write short stories.

Miller attended the University of Michigan, where he wrote for the student paper and completed his first play, No Villain. The play won him the school’s Avery Hopwood Award and sparked his career as a playwright.

Throughout his long career, Miller wrote more than 30 plays. He frequently wrote plays that questioned how to deal with personal accountability, betrayal, injustice, life events and death. Not all of his plays were successes. His Broadway debut, The Man Who Had All the Luck, received overwhelmingly bad reviews and closed after four performances. On the other hand, Miller’s second Broadway show, All My Sons, earned him his first Tony Award for Best Author. Miller’s long-lasting career earned him a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards for such plays as The Price and The Crucible.

 Death of a Salesman, Miller’s most lauded and successful play, was written in a small studio that Miller built in his own back yard. The first act took Miller less than a day to write. Loosely based on the experiences of a childhood neighbor, Manny Newman, the character of Willy Loman is a salesman who has worked hard, believed in a national promise of success and still found himself at the bottom of the ladder. This timeless experience resonated with audiences in New York and abroad, spurring numerous stage and film adaptations.

China, in particular, warmly welcomed Death of a Salesman in a production that Miller directed himself. In a journal he kept and published about his time in Beijing, Miller explained that his purpose for bringing the play to China was to “show that there is only one humanity.” He encouraged the cast not to “act American,” but interpret the work in a way that reflected their own unique culture. Miller hoped that the Chinese would find Death of a Salesman moving not for its reflection of Western society, but for its statement on family relations, which transcends cultures. Miller’s lead actor in the Chinese production commented on the play by saying his audiences “have no hopes of becoming rich or famous themselves, they are ordinary men and women. But this gap in the play—this generation gap—they can identify with, it is absolutely Chinese.”

Craig Wallace, Thomas Keegan, Kimberly Schraf and Danny Gavigan star in the 2017 production of Death of a Salesman at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Miller’s theme of our one humanity in Death of a Salesman is also echoed here in the United States. Theatres across the nation, including Ford’s, are showcasing the timelessness of this classic with multicultural casts that reflect the current dynamics of our ever-changing country. In doing so, companies are able to break barriers and show that similar experiences can affect all people, regardless of cultural background.

Miller’s other work often provided commentaries on the state of the economy or reflections on the government. The Crucible, which told a fictional story of the Salem Witch Trials, was also a metaphor for McCarthyism in a time when the government targeted American citizens for suspicion of being Communist.

In 1957, Miller was convicted of contempt of Congress and had his passport revoked for refusing a request by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to identify writers believed to hold Communist sympathies. With his wife, Marilyn Monroe, by his side, Miller cited the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, saying “I could not name the name of another person and bring trouble to him.” The United States Court of Appeals overturned the conviction the following year.

Arthur Miller’s ability to write the “everyman” story—one that acknowledges the dream of success, but does not diminish the harsh reality of the world around us—is a major reason his plays remain successful today. His characters are simple, everyday people, facing everyday challenges as well as the internal battle that results when our idealism is overpowered by reality. By making his characters real—ordinary, even—and focusing on events that every person may experience, Miller speaks to all human-kind. This ensures Miller, Willy Loman and Death of a Salesman will live on for many generations to come.

Erika Scott is Artistic Programming Manager and Washington Metro-area native. She has always known that the theatre was her in her blood. She strives to express her creativity to the max daily and live her own version of the American Dream. Follow her on twitter at @Musiqal_onE. #FordsSalesman

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Erika Scott is Artistic Programming Manager and Washington Metro-area native.