Arthur Miller’s award winning play, Death of a Salesman, was first featured on Broadway in 1949, sparking a stream of further performances by different companies around the world. It was soon immortalized by film in 1951 and again in 1985, the latter film being the focus of this article. Each time Salesman is performed, whether on stage or on film, the performance holds a new meaning to the audience. This is because Death of a Salesman is written for the Everyman, for a timeless society of average people battling with everyday issues that sometimes have tremendous consequences.
Salesman takes place in an old, decrepit house in Brooklyn. The paint is peeling, the fridge is always broken, and when the cameras move to a certain angle, you find that the walls were never really connected at all. The house serves as home to Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman), his wife Linda (Kate Reid), and his two sons, Biff (John Malkovich) and Happy (Stephen Lang). Willy is a salesman in his mid-60’s and has been working for the same company for 37 years. However, he has been taken off salary and forced onto commission, a financial blow as well as a prideful one, as salesman are meant to “ride off a smile and a shoeshine.” This only adds to the stress of his quickly deteriorating mind as Willy begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease. This is compounded by the return of Biff and Happy, at their mother’s request. Willy and Biff’s complicated relationship becomes the main point of tension in the show, the origins of those complications revealed through Willy’s frequent episodes where his mind reverts to the past, finding and escape in happy memories. Though Biff is deflated after living his entire life full of his own father’s hot air, he continually tries to reach out in love, but Willy refuses to forgive his failed son as well as himself, finally escaping his own failures through suicide.
Death of a Salesman has left an impact on society and continues to do so because each line of the play is brimming with metaphors, each one revealing new meanings when said in different ways for different purposes. Especially in this version, no line is spared, just as “you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away.” Salesman was made for the average person, for the people who are down on their luck, for those who aren’t rich or well liked, the only thing that matters to Willy. Ironically, it is Willy’s neighbor Charlie, who is “liked, but not well liked”, who lends Willy money in hard times. It is this kind of personal failure, of feeling that being well liked has only perpetuated a false dream, which captures the audience’s hearts and minds. Willy’s life and mind is falling apart, but he refuses to acknowledge this to his family. He can only find solace in anger and blame. Willy has always lived with hope for the future and for recognition for all that he has given of himself. Death of a Salesman teaches us that, no matter the person’s faults and misgivings and averageness, “attention must be paid.” Because of this play and film, attention is now given.