March 8, 2012 | Updated Since its first stage production in 1949, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” continues to find audiences. On Monday, a new Broadway production, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, began its run of preview performances.
In 1975, critics suggested the play had gained, not lost, resonance in the 25 years since its premiere. And some believe the story of a man realizing that the success he had chased had eluded him has only become more relevant recently, amid the discontent of the Occupy movement.
Indeed, in 2011, the Times theater critic Ben Brantley speculated about the 2012 Broadway production: “Willy Loman may emerge as even more a man of our time than he seemed to be of his when the play first opened in 1949.”
Perhaps “Salesman” also endures because the characters continue to remind audiences of themselves, of people they know and of their own fractured relationships. In his review of a 1990 production of “Death of a Salesman,” Alvin Klein quoted Miller as saying, “The play is really about mortality and leaving something behind. Willy Loman is trying to write his name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.”
Here are resources for teaching “Death of a Salesman.” How do you teach it? As always, we’d love to hear from you.
New York Times Resources
Overview: ‘Death of a Salesman’
Arts Feature: Life of a ‘Salesman’
Theater: Searching for the Life of a Salesman
Theater: ‘Salesman’ Comes Calling, Right on Time
Times Topics: Arthur Miller
Times Topics: Theater
Times Topics: Books and Literature
Times Topics: Income Inequality
On the 2012 Broadway Production:
ArtsBeat: ‘Death of a Salesman’ Coming to Broadway With Philip Seymour Hoffman
ArtsBeat: Son of a ‘Salesman': Andrew Garfield Will Play Biff Loman in Broadway Revival
On the American Dream:
Op-Ed: Death of A Salesman’s Dream
Economix: Fatalism and the American Dream
Economix: New York Metro Area Has Highest Inequality in Country
Editorial: The State of the Union in 2012
National: Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs
Op-Ed Column: The White Underclass
Op-Ed Column: Can the Working Class Be Saved?
Room for Debate: Is the U.S. Still a ‘Land of Opportunity’?
On Parents and Adult Children:
Opinionator: Growing Up, Then Going Home
Motherlode: Do ALL Parents Love One Child More?
On Popularity, Status and Success:
Shortcuts: Peeking at the Negative Side of High School Popularity
Book Review: Why Nerds Succeed
Style: A Former Geek Offers Hope
Resources From the Times Archives
Theater: Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
Op-Ed: Attention Must Be Paid
Theater: A Salesman Who Transcends Time
Sunday Magazine: Arthur Miller: A Retrospective
Theater: Miller Recalled as Last of Giants
On Various Versions of the Play:
Surprise of a Salesman: Christopher Lloyd (2010)
Willy Loman Is Lost, Still Looking for a Stimulus Plan and Some Dignity (2009)
Attention Must Be Paid, Again (1999)
Hoffman in ‘Death of a Salesman’ (1985)
Miller’s ‘Salesman,’ Created in 1949, May Mean More to 1975 (1975)
Television: ‘Death of a Salesman’ (1966)
Transferring ‘Death of a Salesman’ to Film (1951)
‘Death of a Salesman’ to Make 112 Stops on Tour, Beginning Next Year (1951)
‘Death of a Salesman’: Arthur Miller’s Tragedy of an Ordinary Man (1949)
Slide Show: ‘Death of a Salesman’
Interactive Feature: How Class Works
Interactive Feature: What Percent Are You?
Learning Network Resources
Category: Great Lit
Collections of teaching materials on other canonical works of literature, including “The Crucible.”
Lesson: Casting Doubt
Considering “color-blind” and nontraditional casting decisions, based on a revival of “Death of a Salesman” with an all-black cast.
Lesson: Life of a Stage Man
Analyzing Miller’s views about his works, characterizations as played out on the stage and the role of theater in today’s society.
Lesson: Acting Up
Researching, watching and comparing live, film and written versions of a Tony Award-winning production.
Lesson: On the Scene: Analyzing Scenes in Film and Literature
Storyboarding events from real life, then examining the feature “Anatomy of a Scene” and developing analyses of scenes from film and literature.
Lesson: The Show Must Go On
Creating real or mock-up Web sites commemorating works of literature or theater.
Lesson: It’s All in the Delivery
Adapting any text being studied in class into script formats.
Lesson: That’s the Spirit
Exploring the commercial roots of the American dream and analyze a historical or literary text that supports this philosophy.
Lesson: The Wage War
Exploring the implications of America’s declining hourly wage trend.
Lesson: A Personal Journey
Students create timelines that chronicle life milestones, then write personal essays about their class status and aspirations for the future.
Lesson: Social Motion
Considering the difficulties associated with social mobility and interviewing adults about personal experiences with the topic.
Lesson: Class Actions
Defining the term “class” and exploring some of the ways that it plays into life in American society.
Lesson: I Dreamed a Dream in Time Gone By
Researching how the American dream has been experienced throughout history.
Student Opinion: Are You a Brand?
Writing and discussion prompt about the experience of always “selling yourself.”
Student Opinion: What’s Your Role in Your Family? and How Do You Define ‘Family’?
Two questions to answer about family dynamics.
See our full collection of resources for teaching classic literature and authors.
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
Summary of the Play
Death of a Salesman is subtitled “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem” and, accordingly, the acts are divided into conversations – in the present and from the past – that flow in and out of each other. The play encompasses an evening and the following day, but the action is interrupted by or mixed with flashbacks or memories of a period approximately 17 years earlier.
Act I opens in Willy Loman’s house in Brooklyn. Willy, a traveling salesman of 63, is exhausted after years of making his trips. (Even by the end of the play, we do not know what product he sells.) He has yet to reach a level of success that would allow him to stop traveling and afford the household bills that always seem to swallow his diminishing wages. We learn that Willy’s grown son, Biff, has returned to visit. And we come to know Willy’s character as he complains to his wife Linda about his disappointment in Biff’s failure to find a steady, serious job. Willy is tired, confused, and argumentative, a man who loves his son and has tried to infuse him with a salesman’s enthusiastic optimism and self-confidence.
In the rest of Act I, through various flashbacks that might also be Willy’s memories, we become familiar with the salesman’s philosophy of success that has guided Willy to his current less-than-successful state. Compared with his neighbor Charley and Charley’s son Bernard, Willy and his sons Biff and Hap are athletic, rather than studious; in Willy’s mind, a likable personality is more important for success than academic grades. Willy endorses Biff’s cheating at school; and, we learn, Willy himself cheated on his wife by having an extramarital affair with a woman in Boston. Linda informs Biff and Hap she has discovered that Willy has secretly started to contemplate suicide. The evening of Act I winds down as Biff and Hap attempt to cheer up Willy by promising to go into business together.
In Act II, which encompasses the day following the evening of Act I, Willy asks his boss for a new, non-traveling job. Instead of being rewarded for years of service, Willy is fired because he has not been able to sell enough. Bewildered, he asks his friend Charley for another of many loans and, while doing so, meets Bernard, now a successful lawyer. In the evening, Willy joins Biff and Hap at a restaurant and eventually tells them his bad news; unable to depress a father who wants good news at the end of a terrible day, Biff fails to tell Willy that he did not get the loan that would have made it possible for Hap and him to start a business together. The scene then changes to years earlier, when Biff comes to Boston just after flunking math, which has endangered his chances for college by preventing him from graduating high school. Biff there discovers Willy is having an affair.
In the present, when Biff and Hap return to the house, their mother reproaches them for abandoning Willy in the restaurant. Delusional, Willy is planting a garden in the dark and having an imaginary conversation with his elder brother Ben, who made a fortune in diamonds as a young man. Biff tries to explain the ungranted loan to Willy, as well as his decision to leave so as not to disappoint Willy ever again. Willy believes Biff has been unsuccessful out of spite for him, but when Biff begins to cry, Willy sees Biff’s love for him. Inspired by this realization, but obviously disoriented, Willy sneaks away that night and kills himself in a car accident, thinking his life insurance money will give Biff a new start and that a well-attended funeral will prove his own popularity. In a very short third act that Miller calls a “Requiem,” we see that almost no one has attended the funeral. Although Hap defends Willy’s “good dream,” Biff is subdued and Linda weeps as she asks Willy’s grave why he did such a thing.
Estimated Reading Time
The entire play is about 130 pages, but because of the spaces between characters’ lines it will read faster than a novel. An average student, reading about 25-30 pages an hour, will need 4-5 hours to read the play. If you do not have enough time to read it all at once, the best plan might be two sittings – Act I, then Act II and the short “Requiem” – of about two hours each. Arthur Miller did not divide his play into scenes within each act. Instead, the action is continuous, even when flashbacks occur. Therefore, for the purposes of this study guide, the acts have been divided into parts, each covering about 15 pages of the play.