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YMMV / Death of a Salesman

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  • Alternate Aesop Interpretation: Some argue that rather than being a deconstruction of The American Dream, the play comes off as more of a reconstruction of the American Dream the way Bernard's character is presented. He's portrayed as being diligent, studious, and hard-working to the point of criticizing Biff for blowing off school. Willy and his family on the other hand, while they dream big, don't seem willing to put in the effort needed to live the lives they want. In the end, Bernard's work ethic pays off and he grows up to be a wealthy lawyer and Willy is dependent on his money.
    • Bernard doesn't really feature in the story much, but his (successful) father, Charlie's line that: "My salvation is that I never took interest in anything" doesn't make him sound happy or self-actualized, but rather broken and demoralized. Perhaps to an even greater extent than Willie.
    • Another reading, though certainly not Miller's intent, is that The American Dream is ultimately played brutally straight in Willy's case. If the American Dream implies change above all else, mainly the change from poor to rich, then it certainly also implies that those seeking to achieve it may need to change what they're doing to achieve it. Rather than find a new career, develop new skills, or make himself useful in a different area of his current field that wasn't dying, Willy blundered ahead as a travelling salesman (though he did try to get a desk job), always believing that the Dream was in reach if he could only become sufficiently well-liked. According to this reading, the Dream didn't fail Willy, Willy failed the Dream.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation:
    • Most interpretations of Ben Loman see him as rather cruel and uncaring toward his kid-brother. On the other hand, one could say that Ben Loman cared more about his brother than Willy's own family, who did nothing to try and dissuade Willy from his own folly until it was far too late. One of the most pivotal scenes in the play is when Ben comes by and visits the family before they're to attend a football game Biff was playing in. He straight-up offers his brother a third of his mines in Africa (where Ben had found his riches) and the chance to escape from the vicious cycle Willy was caught in. It was Willy who refused and insisted he could make it big in New York. This was reinforced by Linda, who basically scolded Ben for the offer and insisted that Willy stay in New York.
    • Is Ben actually rich? He talks about lumber concerns in Ketchikan, but there were no lumber concerns in Ketchikan until well into the 50s (it's primarily a fishing village) and it was never on the scale of other parts of Alaska. And Ben never seems to use his wealth or talk about how he got it other than "Walking into the jungle." It's possible it's Willy's fallible memory and Arthur Miller not knowing too much about Alaska, but the fact that Linda seems suspicious of Ben makes you wonder if Ben is actually rich or just lying, like everyone in the family.
    • To what extent is Biff's failure in life caused by his disappointment in his father? Though he did chose not to retake the required math class and attend college shortly after discovering Willy's adulterous affair, it's also strongly implied that Biff's upbringing was setting him up for failure regardless. By his own admission, having Willy tell him repeatedly how he's destined for greatness gave Biff a sense of entitlement, to the point where he would become easily discouraged and quit the moment any job or task became at all difficult.
    • Linda is another character who gets a variety of interpretations: Is she a doormat? A nag? An enabler of Willy's worst qualities? Just trying to be a dutiful housewife? Did she crush Willy's chances for success by discouraging him from going to Alaska, or did she prevent disaster by holding Willy back from pursuing an ill-advised pipe-dream? Does she know about Willy's infidelities?
  • Award Snub:
    • Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich went from winning the precursor Drama Desk awards to getting completely snubbed at the Tonys. However, they wound up taking home Emmys when they reprised their roles on TV, with Hoffman additionally winning the Golden Globe.
    • Brian Dennehy did win the Tony, and when his production was captured for TV he also took home the Golden Globe and SAG Award, but didn't win the Emmy.
  • Diagnosed By Audience: Between his memory loss, hallucinations, random emotional outbursts and difficulty operating even relatively simple machinery, Willy appears to be suffering from some undiagnosed form of dementia, possibly the early stages of Alzheimer's.
  • Ensemble Dark Horse: Biff Miller himself even acknowledged it.
    • Also Charlie, mainly for being one of the only rationally thinking characters in the play and having a good sense of humor to boot.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: Chinese love this play about father-son relationships, which is why The Simpsons see it performed when they go to China in "Goo Goo Gai Pan".
  • Harsher in Hindsight: The play disturbingly turned out to be somewhat predictive, as a 2015 study revealed that many, many middle-aged men in the U.S. were basically going through a 21st century version of what Willy Loman went through, with tragic consequences. So many deaths of so many "salesmen"...
  • Hilarious in Hindsight: In 1999, Laurence Fishburne had presented Brian Dennehy (whom Fishburne referred to as "the big man") the Tony Award for his performance as Willy Loman, then cut to Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) where Fishburne and Dennehy both played the bitterest of enemies towards each other (which Dennehy's character refers Fishburne's character as a "piece of shit" and "dealer", an ironic way to call someone played by the actor who gave the former's actor the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play).
  • Jerkass Woobie: Willy is not an entirely sympathetic character: he often treats his wife like a doormat (and cheats on her) and is prone to childish temper tantrums. However, it's still impossible not to pity Willy when he's fired without so much as a thank you after 35 years of service to the company.
  • Misaimed Fandom: The play was initially scrutinized for its perceived anti-American message. So much so that Miller had his passport revoked when he was suspected of promoting socialist propaganda. This was clearly a case of poor reading comprehension, as 1) The play was meant to criticise people chasing a fruitless American Dream, not the American Dream itself, and 2) The play clearly portrays Charlie's son, Bernard, as an inversion of Hard Work Hardly Works.
  • My Real Daddy: Dustin Hoffman is considered by many to be the definitive Willy Loman. Though a decent number of people have acclaimed Brian Dennehy as the greatest Willy.
  • Nightmare Fuel: Willy's mental illness can get quite unnerving, and it just gets worse and worse as the show goes on.
  • Older Than They Think:
    • Willy Loman later starred in a popular American sitcom. They changed his name to Michael Scott.
    • George Costanza is sometimes teasingly referred to as 'Biff'.
    • Long before he was ever known as Michael Scott, Willy Loman was going by the alias Al Bundy.
  • Retroactive Recognition: The 1984 version starring Dustin Hoffman features John Malkovich and Stephen Lang as Biff and Happy.
  • Signature Line: "Attention must be paid".
  • Signature Scene: Biff challenging Willy's entire worldview by insisting that they're both "a dime a dozen".
  • The Woobie: The entire Loman family, but Biff and Linda stand out.


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