In Death of a Salesman, Mr. Miller stated in clean dramatic terms his belief that the tragic hero of the American 20th century was the average man. Charles Isherwood, New York Times February 11, 2005
Death of A Salesman has been called the first 'Great American Tragedy.' The play offers a glimpse into the last twenty-four hours in the life of Willy Loman. Willy is a salesman in his sixties who has been furiously chasing the American Dream his whole life without ever catching it.
Reality versus Illusion
'I'll go to Hartford. I'm very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don't seem to take to me.' —Willy
Reality versus Illusion is a major theme in Death of A Salesman. It permeates the story, the structure, the characters and even the set. In order to get the dream he wants, Willy has created a world of illusion: He's great at his job, he has material wealth, he's well liked and has many friends, and his sons are on their way to something big.
Willy is so used to lying that he believes his created world is reality. He is dead certain of himself when he tells Howard he averaged one-hundred and seventy dollars a week, even though Howard knows this is not the case. This is why his eventual fall is so devastating: Willy has to admit that nothing in his world is true.
The reality/illusion concept is most interesting in how it is interpreted by the other members of the Loman family. Each of them is fully caught in the web of Willy's illusion:
• Linda can see the reality of the situation but refuses to burst Willy's bubble. She knows Willy has been trying to kill himself, she knows that he gets money from Charley and pretends it's his salary. She doesn't want to 'embarrass Willy.'
• Biff has seen reality when he walks in on Willy and his mistress. He has been so pumped up by Willy's illusion that when he learns 'the dream' is not real it devastates him. And yet, the shreds of the illusion have such a hold on Biff; he knows what will make him happy, but doesn't chase it.
• Happy so needs his father's approval he picks up right where Willy left off. He creates an illusion of happiness and success in his life when in fact he's terribly lonely. Right to the end of the play Happy defends Willy's illusion.
Structure and Language
'That's funny. For a second there you reminded me of my brother Ben.' — Willy
The structure of Death of a Salesman works hand in hand in showing Willy Loman's deterioration. It's highly theatrical and an excellent example of how theatre has to SHOW its story and not TELL its story.
This is most evident in the technical use of past and present in the play. So much of what determines Willy's downfall is the events of his past. Miller chose to show those events instead of telling us about them. These are more than just flashbacks; the past and present occur side by side on the stage, sometimes colliding. Willy hears the laugh of his mistress as his wife darns stockings. Willy speaks to his brother Ben in the past as he plays cards with his neighbour Charley in the present.
This weaving of text allows the audience to 'see' Willy falling apart – to the other characters he seems to be having intense conversations with himself. Through the magic of theatre the audience sees exactly who he's talking to. As a writer and a lover of using the stage to its greatest potential, this use of simultaneous past and present is wonderful.
'Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy.' Charley
The above quote is not a typo. Charley speaks this line in the Requiem as the family stands over Willy's grave. The language in Death of A Salesman is complex, fascinating and very purposeful. There is a combination of realism and symbolism, strange tense and word choices, bold sweeping images. Sometimes the things the characters say don't quite seem to fit. The first thing to remember is every line is a choice. It's not a mistake that Charley says:
'A Salesman is got to dream, boy,' rather than, 'A Salesman has got to dream, boy.'
The language a playwright uses can give many clues to who a character is and how to play that character.