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Why Death of a Salesman is as relevant today as it ever was


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A prodigious figure in the history of theatre, Arthur Miller is one of America’s most prominent playwrights. Much is owed to the author whose portfolio of works includes seismic works such as The Crucible and A View from the Bridge. His legacy remains visible today with many of his plays still being performed across the world. 

Arguably his greatest work, Death of a Salesman is a play which is still full of resonance. Set in New York at the end of the 1940s, it tells of Willy Loman, an elderly salesman, as he struggles to cope with the changing climate in a post-war America. The play details both Willy’s current predicament and flashes back to crucial episodes from his past which now, very much inform his present. 

Image courtesy of Robert Blyth via Flickr

Miller’s protagonist is an ‘Everyman’. Many of the catastrophes faced by the Loman family are ones deeply recognisable to contemporary audiences. The play initiates a dialogue regarding issues such as toxic masculinity, male suicide and infidelity, and is painfully relevant irrespective of the time which has elapsed since its publication. The play’s three major male characters, Happy, Biff and Willy are all struggling against a system which forces them into boxes of archetypal masculinity. All three strive to be that which society asks of them; to be strong and successful, hard-working and popular. Yet, for the Lomans, all these qualities do not come naturally and their desperate attempts to achieve them form the basis of the play’s tragedy. 

The only character to realise the true pitfalls of society is Biff. A once thriving golden boy, the exact system which elevated him to such heights is the one which has brought him so low. Unlike his father, he sees through the rampant materialism and obsession with success within his society, yet is incapable of acting due to the constraints forced upon him by these very conventions. Death of a Salesman sets the tone way ahead of its time, inverting a typical critique of the patriarchy and looking at the toxic environment it creates for men. 

Yet, the discussion of toxic masculinity is not the only area in which Death of a Salesman advances current issues. The portrayal of mental illness throughout the play is honest and authentic. Willy struggles to cope under the pressures of his own interpretation of societal demands, and it is this struggle which forms the major narrative of the play. Miller reflects the tragedy of such strife candidly, inviting the audience to witness the various stages of his protagonist’s break-down, without over-sensationalising it. The play as a whole suggests the tragedy of mental deterioration, a theme which was perhaps uncommon at the time of the play’s first performance. 

A timeless play, Death of a Salesman discusses important issues which are still prevalent in society today. Through the character of Willy Loman, Miller comments upon both the constraining nature of the patriarchal culture in which his play is set and the effects which such a toxic environment has upon one’s mental health. Although it was written for post-war audiences, Death of a Salesman holds fast in its relevance for audiences today. 

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