Death of a Salesman (Cliffs Notes) Audio CD – Audiobook, 16 Mar 2011
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From the Back Cover
Miller′s most famous play, it is the story of the American Dream gone awry when a small man is destroyed by society′s false values. Death of a Salesman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and continues to shine on stages throughout the world even today. This concise supplement to Arthur Miller′s Death of a Salesman helps students understand the overall structure of the play, actions and motivations of the characters, and the social and cultural perspectives of the author. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Jennifer L. Scheidt received her M.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is a full–time instructor at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, where she teaches various writing and literature courses. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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I've been thinking a lot lately about Willy Loman, as though he was a real person I once met and could never get out of my mind. I first met Willy when I was a young man studying acting with the Strasbergs in New York. Biff Loman was one of my favorite roles in class. I felt that he was me. Lacking the life experience to fully appreciate Willy, I identified more with Biff. One of the admirable qualities of Salesman is that it is possible to regard Linda or Biff or Happy as the main character depending upon who you are and where you are in life. Actually, Salesman takes place in Willy's mind so they are all manifestations of the salesman.
One of the quirky aspects of Death of a Salesman is that so many people think it is a play about a salesman. Miller uses the salesman's role as a metaphor for the struggle to find the meaning of life. Willy could just as well be a butcher or a proctologist, but Miller understood that we are all salesmen in a way. We spend so much effort selling - to ourselves and others - the entity that we take to be "me." Willy desperately tries to sell himself on the notion that his life has meaning, but his virulent hypocrisy makes that impossible. He is a hypocrite because his behavior violates the core values he pretends to embrace. When confronted with the question "Have I succeeded as a human being?" Willy is compelled to answer in the negative. This is a staggering realization, one that most of us would lack the moral courage to face honestly or directly. No wonder he kills himself.
The beauty of Salesman is that we love Willy in spite of his hypocrisy because, with all his imperfections, he is so human. As Miller later wrote, "The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his sense of personal dignity." So not only do we love Willy, we admire him for desperately striving to attain some vestige of integrity even though he is unable to do so.
I am perhaps oversimplifying this complex play because it operates on so many different levels. Willy's suffering and its effect on those he loves defy simple analysis. Miller treats his characters with a depth of understanding that justifies a lifetime of contemplation. Salesman succeeds more than any other theatrical work in dealing with the issues of "Who am I?" and "What the hell am I doing here?"
Salesman also goes one step further as it expresses a chilling reality. Willy has devoted his life to a job for which in the end he is declared useless. In Miller's words, Willy has broken the law of success and therefore "has no right to live." We are valueless, Miller wrote, when we fail to fit the needs of efficient production. "We have finally come to serve the machine," he concluded. It raises the hair on the back of my neck.
I mentioned that Salesman takes place in Willy's mind. This explains why it has been so difficult to film a satisfying version of this play. Movies are a linear art form. Salesman is more stream of consciousness, which works better in the theater where, with the imaginative use of lighting and staging, you can shift from thought to thought and back again. If I could go back in time, one of my first priorities would be to attend the original Broadway production of Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb as Willy. Arthur Miller said that Cobb was the finest dramatic actor he'd ever seen. Cobb was still in his thirties when he played 60-year-old Willy, yet by all accounts his performance was brilliant. Most of the Willys I've seen were unremarkable, notably Dustin Hoffman's one-dimensional caricature. My favorite Willy remains Philip Baker Hall, who captured the salesman's desperation, vulnerability, and sadness in a 1980s Los Angeles production.
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