David Schaafsma's Reviews > Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman by Arthur  Miller
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it was amazing
bookshelves: best-books-ever, plays
Read 5 times. Last read August 21, 2019 to August 23, 2019.

“I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

I have seen, read and taught Death of a Salesman many times, and loved re-reading it again as part of my tour this year through what I think are his best plays, including The Crucible, All my Sons, A View From the Bridge. (In college I tried out for the part of Biff, but was runner-up, curse you Bruce Mulder! I worked on the lighting for the production, which I loved). I tend to think of this play as one of the greatest plays in American theater, and a kind of dramatic pair with The Great Gatsby as a treatise on The American Dream/capitalism, featuring sad, misguided people (Jay Gatz/ Willy Loman) who use money/appearance/material goods as a means to their ideas of success, both of them involved in infidelity as a central flaw/part of their downfall.

Death is a dream play, very lyrical, moving from past and present, as Willy’s fraying sense of reality in the last 24 hours of his life leads to what the title of the play reveals will happen. So it’s not about plot, it’s a sociological/psychological study, which features father-sons and a strong woman, Linda, who tries to keep the family together.

Hap is the guy most like Willy, and they are never not deluded in their pursuit of the material dream:

“Happy: All right, boy. I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man.”

Both Hap and Willy are (mis)guided by the image of the materially successful Ben, Willy’s older brother who left Brooklyn for Africa and Alaska:

“When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich.”

Biff and Willy can point to one moment when he was in high school where everything began to unravel, but whereas Willy never sees what he is, Biff comes to a realization:

“I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw—the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!

“I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been.”

Such great language, terrific characters, great dialogue. I was saddened once again by this story of lost American values. Reminded me a bit, too, of a graphic novel by Seth, also about a salesman, Clyde Fans, though the (lost) American salesman is a staple of American literature and worth reading more deeply into: Glengarry Glen Ross (Mamet), John Updike’s Rabbit books, so much.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
1970 – Finished Reading
Started Reading
1974 – Finished Reading
Started Reading
1978 – Finished Reading
Started Reading
1984 – Finished Reading
August 26, 2012 – Shelved
September 18, 2012 – Shelved as: best-books-ever
September 18, 2012 – Shelved as: plays
August 21, 2019 – Started Reading
August 23, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Mike E. (new)

Mike E. Mancini You’re a reading/reviewing machine.


James It’s timeless. My favorite Miller play. And Lee Cobb and Mildred Dunnock at their best on stage. The 1965 Caedmon recording in which a young Dustin Hoffman plays Bernard is worth a listen and is available online.
‘The woods are burning.’


David Schaafsma Mike E. wrote: "You’re a reading/reviewing machine." It's a kind of illness, an obsession. I could have written a book in the last two years instead of all this time writing reviews. Yet, I love this intensive deep dive into reading and responding. I'll slow down at some point. Maybe.


David Schaafsma James wrote: "It’s timeless. My favorite Miller play. And Lee Cobb and Mildred Dunnock at their best on stage. The 1965 Caedmon recording in which a young Dustin Hoffman plays Bernard is worth a listen and is av..." Yeah, and then Hoffman plays Willy, with John Malkovitch as Biff! Powerful stuff. Malkovitch is not exactly what you would call a sentimental, vulnerable guy, but when he, in his, what, forties?! plays Biff as a teenager encountering his Dad's infidelity in that Boston hotel room, with snot literally pouring out of his nose, he's really crying that hard: Unforgettable, to have conveyed that grief. And Cobb is maybe the best Willy ever, but Hoffman is very good, too.


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