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Theatre / Death of a Salesman

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This guy's a salesman. He dies.

"He's liked... but not well-liked."

Once upon a time, playwright Arthur Miller set out to disprove one of the fundamental theories about the Tragic Hero — specifically, that they must be royalty, nobility, or some other type of great man who has far to fall and much to lose. Miller intended to write a play with said hero's shoes filled by an Every Man. 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 and its various performances provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In one of the film adaptations, Dustin Hoffman plays the character of Willy Loman, who in the play's original script was described as fat and unattractive. The film edits out references to Loman's weight and replaces them with jabs at his intellect and height. Apparently Arthur Miller told Dustin Hoffman his original vision of Willy Loman was a small man, despite how casting for the first play turned out.
  • 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 was a high-school athlete who carried his football time, caught the eye of every girl, and loved his dad more than anything else in his life. He was everything Willy hoped he would be, which is why Willy is now so angry that his son has no job or family despite being thirty-four years old.
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  • 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.
  • Always Someone Better: Uncle Ben is this to Willy, who seems to symbolize "greatness" the way that Uncle Ben was successful: becoming a Self-Made Man and rich, now sitting at the top of the proverbial food chain.
  • The American Dream: The source of all of Willy's misery, and it's deconstructed. Willy believes that his dream of becoming a great salesman and being well-liked is always within his grasp, and that if he works hard enough, he can achieve it. The trouble is, Willy is working hard, and has been for a while. The reason he isn't successful is because he's just not a good salesman, and would have been better off with other pursuits. But Willy so stubbornly refuses to give up chasing the American Dream that he causes himself and his family no end of misery. The aesop of the play thus becomes "passion is great, but talent needs to go with it".
  • 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 ignore the walls in flashbacks, reinforcing the dream-like state of the flashbacks.
  • Arc Words: Willy demeans a neighbor he dislikes by saying "he's liked, but he's not well liked," a phrase which indicates the great value Willy places on appearances and networking over work and study. The same phrase is repeated several times over to express the same principle, until eventually it is used to describe the hollowness of such a value system.
  • Blatant Lies: Happy says to one of the prostitutes he sleeps 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 Willy was cheating on his wife/Biff's mother with another woman.
  • Bungled Suicide: Linda thinks the real reason that Willy crashed his car a few months before the play started is that he was attempting to kill himself. Her suspicions are only furthered when she finds out Willy was fiddling with the gas hose, as if he was planning to suffocate himself with it.
  • Butt-Monkey: Willy Loman can never seem to catch a break. Deconstructed in that the play places most of the blame on Willy himself for his complete and utter refusal to give up chasing his dream, even despite evidence that it's only going to lead to more heartache.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Biff has essentially been doing this non-stop, deliberately (if subconsciously) striving to disappoint his father. Eventually, it culminates with Biff saying "Pop, I am a dime a dozen, and so are you!"
  • The Casanova: Happy is an inveterate womanizer. He's certainly not above calling on call girls. He must get it from his old man, who's been cheating on his wife.
  • Catchphrase: (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.
  • Central Theme: The American Dream, and how it affects the average working Joe's attitude towards their job and money. Other themes include betrayal of trust, and perception of reality.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Several times whenever Linda is seen mending her stockings, Willie yells at her to put them away. Late in the play, its revealed that when Biff traveled to Boston to ask him to talk to his math teacher, the woman Willie was having an affair with demanded that he give her the new stockings he promised her if he wanted her to leave his room.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: As with so much else about the American Dream, this is deconstructed. The Lomans tend to make flashy but ill-advised purchases based on such things as what has "the biggest advert" to give the illusion of success and wealth. This just leaves them with expensive duds that constantly need to be repaired and act as a drain on their financials, such as a refrigerator that constantly needs the fan belt replaced and a car that's always breaking down.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Biff reached this sixteen years ago when he discovered Willy's affair.
  • Determinator: Deconstructed. Willy Loman will never give up his dream of being a successful salesman. But that also leaves his family perpetually sad and broke, and causes Willy no small amount of undue stress. Several times, it's commented that Willy should see that he needs to quit, but he won't.
  • Downer Ending: Willy dies, and 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). Happy intends to continue his father's "legacy", almost getting into a fist fight with Biff when he tries to disuade him. The only upside might be that Biff has rejected Willy's delusions. Maybe.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Happy thinks he can just do better than his father at this career if he tries hard enough. The point is that Willy was trying hard; it's just that he wasn't cut out for the line of work and ignored all evidence to the contrary. At one point, Biff practically grabs Willy and screams in his face that neither Willy nor Biff are going to be massive successes, that they don't have what it takes to be massive successes, and that's okay, they don't need to be massive successes. Willy takes the exact opposite interpretation to what Biff is trying to tell him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Willy convinces himself crashing his car with him in it will let his family pay off their insurance, making his suicide a Heroic Suicide. His brother, the possibly illusive Ben, points out that suicide would invalidate his life insurance and that his suicide is nothing but selfish, but Willy blocks him out and walks to his car as if in a trance.
  • 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 are lead by a mentally ill patriarch who values financial success over work, compliance with the law, and intelligence, a wife who refuses to stand up to her husband no matter the scenario, a son who has had every pressure to succeed put on him by his father, and a younger son who has adopted every single one of his father's flaws in his attempts to get any sort of attention. The most down-to-earth of all of Lomans is Ben, who's a hallucination of the father.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The play is 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. It helps that there's a Title Drop in the middle of the play, in reference to a different salesman.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Happy (sanguine), Willy (choleric), Biff (melancholic) and Linda (phlegmatic).
  • Future Loser: Young Biff is a college football star, a Chick Magnet, and gets excellent grades. Too bad his future self turns out to be a "lazy bum," as Willy calls him. Though it's not entirely Biff's fault; he was disillusioned with everything his father taught him after catching Willy cheating on his mom. As with many things regarding Willy and Biff's past successes, however, it's deconstructed; among other things, it's heavily implied that Biff was a bully who only managed to get any kind of good grades by getting Bernard, who was smarter and more studious, to give him the answers, so despite the surface trappings of success Biff was probably being set up for failure anyway.
  • Glory Days: Willy is always hearkening back to his. They were probably not as glorious as he remembers now, though.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Reality can crush one's dreams.
    • In addition to their obsession with popularity, Willy and Biff do not realize the amount of effort needed to achieve their dreams. To illustrate, Charlie's son Bernard works hard to become a successful lawyer and Uncle Ben goes into the jungle for four years to find diamonds and come out rich. On the other hand, Willy and Biff are always looking for an easy way out and that's why they ultimately fail in life.
    • Sometimes it's okay to stop pursuing a dream when it's obvious your talents and passions lie elsewhere.
    • If you set your sights too high, you're liable to end up disappointed.
  • The Hero Dies: Played With. The title of the play seems to allude to the death of the elderly protagonist, Willy Loman, but halfway through the play, Willy makes a point about his philosophy in life by describing the death of a different salesman while referencing the play's title. Still, Willy kills himself at the end of the play.
  • Heroic BSoD: 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.
  • Humans Are Flawed: The Lomans are attempting to overcome their own vices so they can succeed. Willy learns the wrong lesson and obsesses over those flaws. Biff, however, eventually recognizes how their attempts simply aren't working.
  • 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.
  • Ignored Aesop: Happy, in a big way. While Biff understands the fallacy that killed his father, Happy ends the play insisting that his father was right.
    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. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.
  • 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 Reject Your Reality: All the characters are living in denial, fantasy and illusion, but Willy has it worst of all, as his fantasies and illusions are gradually driving him insane. Biff's Character Development is essentially him coming to terms with the fact that he's ultimately not going to amount to much, and that it's okay if he doesn't.
  • 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?
  • Irony: Willy consistently rejects Charlie's offers of a job because, in Willy's mind, construction is not a suitable form of success. In pretty much every way, however, Charlie's life is much more successful than Willy's; he runs his own successful business, has more money, and has a much better relationship with his son. Essentially, Charlie has more successfully achieved the American Dream than Willy has.
  • It's All About Me: Played with; Willy is convinced that Biff's failure to make anything of himself is out of simple spite towards Willy himself. While this may have been partially Biff's motives when he was younger, by the time the play begins it's actually because deep down Biff has no real interest in achieving the vision of success that Willy has based his entire life and worldview around, and just wants to figure out what he wants to do with his life for himself.
  • Jaded Washout: Willy Loman used to have a better life in his younger years (though probably not as great as he thinks it was). Now, he's a bitter old man, desperately trying to cling on to his goal, in spite of all evidence that it's just not going to happen.
  • 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-Nothing Know-It-All: Willy Loman criticizes Charlie's poor eating habits as the cause of his heart pain. Charlie tries to ask how he knows this, but Willy only vaguely mentions vitamins affecting bones and the word "chemistry" before getting frustrated and trying to move on.
  • 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: Averted Trope. The titular salesman is described as having a funeral where hundreds of his clients from all over the country come and mourn him. For months after, the mood was much sadder on the country's trains. This is in contrast to Willy's funeral, which is attended by three of his family members, two of his colleagues, and none of his clients.
  • 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 Mistress: Willy had one sixteen years in the past. Biff found out and never forgave him.
  • No Antagonist: The closest the play gets to an antagonist is Willy himself, but he's not so much a Villain Protagonist as he's His Own Worst Enemy. All of Willy's problems are either his own fault or the result of forces beyond any one man's control. Even Willy's boss who cuts his pay and fires him isn't out to get Willy, he's just doing what any business owner would do and getting rid of an underperforming employee.note 
  • No Name Given: Willy's mistress is only called "The Woman".
  • Nostalgia Filter: Willy constantly hearkens back to his Glory Days. Trouble is, they weren't all that glorious; they're just better than what was going on now.
  • 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.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Willy's new boss fails to acknowledge the numerous years of hard work that Willy put in during his period and won't allow him to work in New York City, insisting he stay on the road. Unlike his father, who served more as A Father to His Men, the new boss only thinks about business and actually comes off as condescending to Willy, referring to him as "kid," despite the fact the Willy was working here before he was born.
  • 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 primarily because they focus on popularity to the exclusion of anything else, and fail to consider things like enthusiasm and hard work. It is also 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.
  • Posthumous Character: Uncle Ben is mentioned to have died sometime before the events of the play. However he keeps appearing in flashbacks, and his Arc Words keep repeating themselves in Willy's head. Willy, in holding Ben in high esteem, listens to his words most of the time. Sadly, he outright ignores "Ben"'s warnings when he leaves to commit suicide.
  • Pride: Willy cannot accept the idea that he, and more importantly Biff, are not great men but just average Joes. Biff even says "Pop, I am a dime a dozen, and so are you!" to Willy at one point, which Willy harshly rebukes.
  • 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, and/or 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.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: On the cynical side. The play is a deconstruction of the American Dream, showing how flawed it can be if someone won't stop pursuing it at the expense of all else.
  • Spoiler Title: There's a salesman in the play. He dies.
  • 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's suicide. He convinces himself that it's a meaningful sacrifice, that by killing himself, his life insurance will fix his family's problems. Because his death is suicide, the insurance is not paid; Willy was warned of this and ignored it. Even if it were, money would not solve his family's woes. His death accomplishes nothing.
  • This Loser Is You: Willy is meant to represent the Average Joe who's still clinging onto the idea that "I Coulda Been a Contender!" if this one thing hadn't happened.
  • Title Drop: According to Willy, Dave Singleman "died the death of a salesman" and as such, was grieved by hundreds of his clients around the country.
  • Tragic Dream: The whole point of the play is that Willy's desire to rise to financial greatness through his job in sales, despite his lack of talent for the business, is ultimately self-destructive.
  • Tragic Dropout: Biff never graduated after failing his regents exam. He also refused to go to summer school 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: After the play has been spent with the Loman talking about how great they'll become, Biff gets the gall to tell his father, "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.


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