Theatre / Death of a Salesman

"He's liked... but not well-liked."
Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman

Once upon a time, playwright Arthur Miller set out to disprove one of the fundamental theories about the Tragic Hero — specifically, that the Tragic Hero must be royalty, nobility, or some other type of great man who has far to fall (which he does) and much to lose (which, again, he does). Miller intended to write a play with an Every Man as the Tragic Hero. He may instead have created an entirely different archetype, the "pathetic hero". Either way, in doing so, he wrote what is often considered the greatest American play.

Willy Loman is an aging, washed-up salesman obsessed with the concept of greatness and convinced that being liked is the most important thing. Biff is his younger but equally washed-up son, once a high school sports hero with a bright future, now a perennially unemployed loser. The play follows the family's attempts to make one last grab at the American Dream.

First produced on Broadway in 1949 with Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman is a very stagy play, since it's from Willy's dreamy, hallucination-and-flashback-ridden perspective. Nonetheless, several screen adaptations have been made, including a 1951 theatrical film starring Fredric March and made-for-TV versions on CBS (1966, with Lee J. Cobb; 1985, with Dustin Hoffman), The BBC (1966, with Rod Steiger; 1996, with Warren Mitchell), and Showtime (2000, with Brian Dennehy).

This play provides examples of the following tropes:

  • An Aesop: You don't have to follow The American Dream, just find something you want to do and be good at it.
  • The All-American Boy: Biff as a kid. As he grows up, not so much.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Willy's older brother Ben, who got rich by going to Africa and finding diamonds when he was trying to go to Alaska. He appears in flashbacks as a practically godlike figure in Willy's mind, and is always talking about how rich he is, once offering Willy to join him in Alaska.
  • Anachronic Order: The past and present get put in a blender, and set to puree. There aren't even any scene changes between them, just sepia-toned or other lighting switching on. This is probably because Willy is starting to go insane. The actors also stop caring about the walls in flashbacks.
  • Arc Words: "He's liked, but he's not well liked."
  • Blatant Lies: Happy says to one of the prostitutes he is with that Biff is the quarterback for the New York Giants. That year, the primary quarterback was Tuffy Leemans.
  • Broken Pedestal: Biff idolized his father, until he found out that he's cheating on his wife.
  • Bungled Suicide: Linda thinks this is the real reason that Willy crashed his car a few months before the play started.
  • Butt Monkey: Willy, and by extension, the average working man everywhere. See: This Loser Is You.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Biff has essentially been doing this non-stop, deliberately (if subconsciously) striving to disappoint his father.
  • The Casanova: Happy is an inveterate womanizer. He's certainly not above calling on call girls.
  • Catch Phrase: (several characters have them, in various permutations)
    Uncle Ben: When I walked into the jungle I was seventeen, and when I walked out I was twenty-one. (laughs) And by God, I was rich!
    Willy Loman: He's liked, but he's not well liked.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Biff reached this fourteen years ago when he discovered Willy's affair.
  • Downer Ending: Willy dies, the rest of the Loman family continues its proud tradition of sucking at life. Linda's words after the death are "I'm free". It's up for debate if she meant she is now free from anguish often caused by Willy, or free as in free of debt (the play was written during a time that if a spouse died, their debt did not transfer to the living). The only upside might be that Biff has rejected Willy's delusions. Maybe.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Happy, thinking he can just do better than his father at this career.
  • Driven to Suicide: Willy.
  • The Dutiful Son:
    • Happy tries to be, but as Willy, Linda, and Biff all note, he's far more interested in being a "philandering bum." Biff too, up until he catches Willy having an affair.
    • Played with in Bernard and Charlie. Charlie has a much more hands-off approach to parenting than Willy, but Bernard is much more successful and responsible despite (or because) of this.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Lomans (complete with ghost!); the only halfway reasonable people are Linda and Biff.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's about the events leading up to the death of a salesman.
  • Fatal Flaw: Willy is in love with a dream and never recognizes that it doesn't match up to reality. He obsesses over irrelevancies and his own (prominent, but ultimately meaningless) flaws rather than the false promises of society that lead him to where he is.
  • Flashback Effects: The stage instructions explain how Willy's imagination works on stage.
    Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken and characters enter or leave a room by stepping 'through' a wall onto the fore-stage.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Willy's a salesman. Guess what? He dies. Some readers, however, expect the title to be a metaphor, or otherwise consider it too obvious of a giveaway, so they will get mad if you ruin the surprise. It probably helps that there is a Title Drop in the middle of the play, in reference to a different salesman.
  • Future Loser: Young Biff.
  • Glory Days: Willy is always hearkening back to his. They were probably not as glorious as he remembers now, though.
  • The Hero Dies: Durrr...
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Young Biff has one when he catches Willy cheating on Linda.
  • Hollywood Nerd: Bernard. Subverted later in that he DOESN'T pull a Who's Laughing Now? on the Lomans when he's a successful adult and makes an honest attempt to help Willy and Biff.
  • Honorary Uncle: Willy and Charlie are this to each other's kids.
  • Hope Spot:
    • At the end of Act One, Willy is ready to ask for a job in New York, while Biff plans to meet with Bill Oliver. Then things go From Bad to Worse.
    • At the end of the play, Biff gets out like his Uncle Ben before him.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Willy is convinced that he could have been running the New York office if his old boss hadn't died.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Willy Loman falls prey to this trope, calling Biff a "lazy bum" and then later saying "There's one thing about Biff - he's not lazy." In a later scene he calls his car the best car in the world, only to yell about how awful it is when a bill for it comes in.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: After Linda tells Willy he has to control his temper with Biff.
    Willy: When the hell did I lose my temper? I simply asked him if he was making any money. Is that a criticism?
  • Jaded Washout: Willy Loman.
  • Jerk Jock: Young Biff. That phase abruptly ends when he catches Willy cheating on Linda, and promptly disowns his father and gives up on success.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Willy doesn't. He's really not cut out to be a salesman at all and would have had a far better life as a construction tradesman. On the other hand, this is the lesson that Biff learns by the end of the play.
  • Leitmotif: The stage directions specify a flute tune at the start of flashbacks as part of the Flashback Effects.
  • Like Father, Like Son: Willy and Happy both have a hard time staying faithful to one woman, though Happy more so than Willy.
  • Lonely Funeral: For Willy. He was liked... but not well-liked.
  • Meaningful Echo: "He was liked, but he was not well liked."
  • Meaningful Name:
    • People frequently interpret Loman as "low man", but actually Miller took the name from The Testament Of Dr Mabuse: "What the name really means to me is a terror-stricken man calling into the void for help that will never come."
    • Willy's "hero" is salesman "Dave Singleman" who devotes his whole life to selling, living and dying a single man.
    • Subverted with "Happy" who never does seem to be truly happy.
  • The Minnesota Fats: Uncle Ben is this to Willy; he seems to symbolize "greatness" that way.
  • The Mistress: Willy had one fourteen years ago. Biff found out and never forgave him.
  • No Name Given: Willy's mistress is only called "The Woman".
  • Notable Original Music: The stage directions specify musical cues (composed by Alex North) at certain points in the play (the most persistent of which is the Leitmotif played on the flute), which are woven into the play in a way so that the music and the characters interact with and react to the music and vice versa.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: Bernard, warning Biff that he needs to study and getting brushed off by Willy.
  • Only Sane Man: Female example. Linda is by far the most stable of the play's characters, although even she fails to realize a few important things about their situation, such as why Willy and Biff are at odds with each other. Biff is as well, but to a lesser extent as he's still Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life.
  • Parental Favoritism: Willy has a tendency to ignore Happy — Biff is the one his hopes are invested in. Played with in that Happy is far more like Willy than Biff is, and Biff is much more antagonistic to Willy.
  • Popular Is Dumb: Unpopular but studious Bernard becomes successful, but popularity-obsessed Willy and Biff fail in the real world. Though Played With in that it is frequently implied that Willy and Biff are only popular in their own minds and that not many actually respect them. Biff realizes this at the end.
  • Pride: Willy cannot accept the idea that he, and more importantly Biff, are not great men but just average Joes.
  • Proper Lady: Linda is Willy's House Wife and tries to be supportive. Deconstructed with everything else since this requires her to participate in Willy's lies and be miserable.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Played With. Willy plans for his death to obtain big insurance money for his family to compensate for all the grief he caused for them or/and so he can live his ideals through Biff. A defied trope since he really gains nothing out of it.
  • Retirony: Willy kills himself to give his family the insurance money. Their house was paid off without it.
  • Spoiler Title
  • Spiritual Successor:invokedIt was one of the most influential works in the American arts and especially popular in The '50s. Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life was described by its director and screenwriters as a Spiritual Adaptation even.
  • Stepford Smiler: Happy (hence the name).
  • Stocking Filler: The Woman.
    You promised me stockings, Willy!
  • Stupid Sacrifice: Willy is repeatedly offered a different job by his neighbor Charlie but always stubbornly refuses.
  • This Loser Is You
  • Title Drop: According to Willy, Dave Singleman "died the death of a salesman".
  • Tragic Dream: The whole point of the play.
  • Tragic Dropout: Biff became this when he gave up his chance to make up a failed exam after finding out his father was having an affair.
  • Tragic Hero: Unlike a Tragic Hero, Willy Loman is a "pathetic hero" because he learns nothing from his ordeal or mistakes, maintaining his belief in the power of popularity to the end, nor does his death somehow make life better for those he leaves behind (as his hallucination of his dead brother tells him, they won't honor his insurance policy in the case of a suicide). But because of the play's popularity, it took Miller years of defending his success in creating a Tragic Hero out of the common man to admit he failed with Willy Loman and that Biff really should have been the protagonist (especially since he does learn something).
  • Unconfessed Unemployment: Willy has a hard time admitting to his wife he's out of a job.
  • The Unfavorite: Happy Loman, who can never measure up in his dad's eyes to his older brother Biff.
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child: A very dark version with Willy and Biff.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Young Biff but he loses faith in his father, and in life, when he catches Willy in an affair.
  • Wham Line: "Pop, I'm a dime a dozen and so are you!"
  • Who's Laughing Now?: Bernard is, once he becomes a successful high-flying lawyer. Willy Loman, who once looked down on him, comes crawling to him for help. Subverted in that Bernard is not cruel or condescending, and actually gives Willy advice. Not to mention he doesn't seem to hold any bad feelings toward the Lomans for looking down on him and considers Biff a good friend.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: For just a moment, it looks like Biff is going to get a job and sort out his life. But no. This turns out for the best though, since it helps him realize what he wants in life and not be trapped in a delusion like Willy.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Willy's affair with "The Woman." It's the source of the animosity between Biff and his father, years after it happened.