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UNPACKING THE LAYERS: ARTHUR MILLER'S INSIGHTS INTO "DEATH OF A SALESMAN"

In a newly discovered letter to a college student, written shortly after the premiere of his most famous work, the playwright describes his theory of tragedy.


Oct 5, 1949

Dear Miss Beattie;


If there is a formal genesis of Death of a Salesman it certainly is in the Elizabethan drama, particularly Shakespeare. From the point of view of form I have long felt that the spaciousness of his plays had been forfeited for a physical concentration which contradicts life itself. I have learned from him, if you will, that words themselves are the best scene setting; that it is not necessary to devise elaborate plot machinery in order to “set” a scene which itself can explain itself—in short, to proceed to the meat of a scene at once and to make it happen where and when it logically would happen, and not where a stationary setting forces it to happen. As well, my form is one which permits time for what in effect are soliloquies. As I see it, the force of the Elizabethan form lay in its ability to follow the mental processes of its protagonists wherever they might lead. The same may be said of mine. This cannot be said of the “realistic” form, called Ibsen’s, which itself imposes upon the story and the characters instead of following them, making way for them. In such plays incredible ingenuity, and much time, is wasted in the mere effort to justify the simple meeting of two characters. One may fairly say that in our day this form has come to be a word game in which the confrontation of characters is made to seem “natural” or “real”. Of course it is actually a severe form of stylization whose utter unreality and unnaturalness is shrouded by sets with windows that work, rugs on the floors, and so forth. Thus the means employed actually stand as an obstruction between the vision of the playwright and the emotional receptivity of the audience. For we do not dream or inwardly think in such terms but otherwise. We dream in scenes, don’t we. But the preparation for these scenes is direct, immediate, and contained in the scenes themselves. There is no maid who enters and talks to a butler who between them inform us that our father is about to return home after a year’s absence. We suddenly see our father, and in what he does and says lies all relevant information about his situation. Plays written in this fashion therefore proceed with true naturalness, from relevancy to relevancy, without sparring about.

The history of man is his blundering attempt to form a society in which it pays to be good. Concerning the idea of Elizabethan tragedy and my own, I could speak for many hours. Central to Shakespeare’s tragedy is the idea of the Fall, which implies social stature of a royal level. I too see the Fall as a critical aspect of tragedy, but our world has changed, and it is no longer possible to think of the Fall as that of a socially elevated person exclusively. But social status, to my mind, was and is only a superficial expression of a deeper Fall, so to speak, namely, the destruction of a man’s idea of what he is by forces opposing him. Any class is thereby given entrance to the precincts of the tragic, and so it is in a democratic society. Under Elizabethan feudalism this notion was unthinkable if only because none but the royal had the alternatives of seemingly absolute choice, the liberties of the masses being hedged about by all sorts of rigid proscriptions. Today we are all “free” to aspire to any height, we have the hero’s necessary alternatives. My moral object, therefore, is to attempt to direct the efforts of men toward the clear appreciation of reality, exposing the illusory in order that man may realize his creative potentialities. In another context, Shakespeare was attempting the same thing, as in the history plays where the catastrophe derives from the impossible ambitions of the monarch or those of the subjects against the monarch. A certain ideal order is therefore implied as having been violated in his work, and in mine. His ideal was feudal; it supposed that life would be good when men behaved in accordance with their social position and neither lapsed into a lower level, (Prince Hal), nor created havoc by attempting to crash into one above them, (The King in Hamlet). My ideal order is less easy to formulate if only because it does not yet exist, while he was writing within a society whose theory was sufficient for him. I see man’s happiness frustrated until the time arrives when he is judged, given social honor and respect, not by what he has accumulated but by what he has given to his society. This ideal is posited not for itself, but because I know that the frustration of the creative act is the cause of our hatred for each other, and hatred is the cause of our fears. We reward our dealers, our accumulators, our speculators; we penalize with anonymity and low pay our teachers, our scientists, our workers who make and do and build and create. And so the urge that is in all of us to give and to make is turned in upon itself, and we accept the upside-down idea that to take and to accumulate is the great good. And whether we succeed in that or not, we are sooner or later left with the awareness of our emptiness, our inner poverty, and our isolation from mankind. When a man reaches that knowledge and has the sensitivity to feel the loss of his true self deeply, he is a tragic figure; but not unless he tries to find himself despite the world can he raise up in us the actual feeling that something fine and great and precious has been discovered too late. The history of man is his blundering attempt to form a society in which it pays to be good. The tragic figure now, and always, is the man who insists, past even death, that the stultifying combinations of evil give way before the outpouring of humanity and love that is bursting from his heart. This is why tragedy endures, and this is why it has really never changed excepting in its superficial aspects of rank etc.

I hope some of this has been clear. I write at such length because there are not many who have taken the trouble to examine the matter at all.


Sincerely yours, Arthur Miller

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