Tragedy And The Common Man
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In Arthur Miller’s 1949 essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man," Miller began by saying, "In this age few tragedies are written." This particular essay was published in the New York Times, was also the preface that was prepared for "Death of a Salesman" in 1949. Before Miller’s "Death of a Salesman," there was only one type of tragedy—that which fit Aristotle’s definition. For Aristotle, plays of tragedy had to revolve around kings, gods, or people of high class. In these classic tragedies, the diction must be elevated and fitting of the characters.Arthur Miller challenged just about every belief and convention that had previously been accepted about tragic plays, as in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet"—which could be considered the paragon of tragedies. In claiming, "The tragic mode is archaic," Miller explains "that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." This very notion that regular people are just as fit to be main characters in a tragedy as royalty was also applied to the audience’s understanding of a tragic play. If the play was supposed to be about upper-class people, and was spoken in a vernacular that was only known to the high-bred, how were the common people who saw these plays supposed to comprehend their meaning?
The only way for this problem to be solved, according to Miller, was to present a character to whom the audience will readily relate. Miller did this by presenting Willy Loman, the main character of "Death of a Salesman," who was a common workingman with a wife and two kids.The reason that there is such an absence of tragedies in this day and age, is that "the turn which modern literature has taken toward the purely psychiatric view of life, or the purely sociological," has been one that creates skepticism. With so much thinking involved, and analyzing, no one can really enjoy a play for what it is—pure entertainment. By constantly trying to figure out a reason for why something happened, the audience can no longer accept tragic action, let alone heroic action. This, along with the societal belief that in order for a protagonist to be recognized as a character he must be faultless, has made tragedy nearly impossible.
Every person has his/her faults, even the great Hamlet had his downfall; his ambivalence and indecisiveness brought him down. Just as Willy Loman’s lack of self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy are what destroyed him.
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Miller’s ideal tragic hero is one who "is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality," and when approached with a struggle, "demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity." A tragic hero who is willing to take on challenges and who will fight a battle which "he could not possibly have won," is what makes the audience accept him as a hero who by his own virtue is worthy of their attention and perhaps even respect. Hamlet, for example, stood up for his father’s memory, by fighting his uncle, King Claudius. Miller’s common man, Willy fought the battle of life, by trying to make the best of what he was given in life and continues to support his family…even at the age of sixty.Without creating a bridge for the gap between the two parties involved (in this case, the audience and the play’s characters), there is no play. With a character that is equal to, or very near the average audience, the audience will pay more attention. In one sense, Arthur Miller is correct in saying that there are no tragedies out there.
That is, only if one defines tragedy by Aristotle’s description. As of today, there have been many movies, television shows, as well as plays and novels that portray a tragic hero—but not necessarily in the Aristotelian sense. Take for example, "Good Will Hunting," a movie about an almost regular guy who defies the pre-set mold of what a poor person with no formal education should become. Even though this guy was poor and did not come from an aristocratic family, the audience watched.
Many who saw the movie, recommended it to their friends and even paid to see it again! Why? It was interesting and held their attention; following Will Hunting as he dealt with his problems was an escape from their own, or perhaps a look back at their own.What was once thought of as tragedy is now only thought of as a type of tragedy. No longer does a person see tragedy as the horrible, pessimistic story.
According to Arthur Miller, "tragedy implies more optimism . . . the possibility of victory must be there," especially since "a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won." Miller is quite true in saying that "it is time . . . that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time – the heart and spirit of the average man." After looking for so long at those who are of higher class and of a supposed higher-breed or importance, the only natural thing to do is to look at the common man. By looking at the ordinary person, it is as if one is looking at himself, but with a more objective position.
Oedipus, Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Othello or Willy Loman. Must classic tragedy embrace just the Aristotelian "fall of princes," or may it also include the modern common man? Playwright Arthur Miller believes that the common man can be a center of dramatic interest, and he demonstrated this belief in Death of a Salesman, a tragedy about a very common common-man: a salesman from Brooklyn.
Winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for 1949, Death of a Salesman combines realism and surrealism in the story of a small man swallowed up in a world of sham and shoddy values. Willy Loman is bewildered, well-intentioned, and unsuccessful: "Suddenly I realize I'm going sixty miles an hour, and I don't remember the last five minutes."
His sons are upset by his peculiar behavior and his hallucinatory conversations with the figures from a happier past, and they worry about the effect on their compassionate mother, who loves her husband and recognizes that his actions stem from the brutal difference between fact and fancy.
This story of a common man, victimized by his own fake values and those of modern America, caught the imagination of theatre audiences immediately. Months prior to its premier Feb. 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway, the word was out and the public was storming the box office. This time the public was right. Critics acclaimed Death of a Salesman as "a great play of our day," and lavished upon it such accolades as "superb," "rich," and "memorable." John Chapman's review called it "a very fine work in the American Theatre, with script, staging, setting, and acting all in perfect combination." John Glassner proclaimed the play "one of the most powerful and moving plays of our time, representing a culmination of American playwrights' efforts to create a significant American drama." (Arthur Miller, incidentally, was barred from an after-opening-night supper held on the set. The waiters didn't recognize him.)
Death of a Salesman was forceful enough to warrant superlatives and the honors it received, but what a year on Broadway! The 1949 competition was fierce. Opening that season were The Madwoman of Challiot, Anne of a Thousand Days, Summer and Smoke, South Pacific, a revival of Private Lives, Light Up the Sky, and Kiss Me Kate. Lee J. Cobb was the original Willy Loman. Dustin Hoffman, long an admirer of the play, played the leading role in a greatly acclaimed production in 1984.
So, we must ask what is behind the honors. If this modern story is destined to challenge classic tragedy, or perhaps to take its place alongside, we must look behind the glitz and glitter to find a message.
If for instance, as Miller suggests in his autobiography, Timebends, the struggle in Death of a Salesman was simply between father and son for recognition and forgiveness, it would diminish in importance.
However, he continues, when the struggle extends itself out of the particular family circle and into the lives of each of us, it broaches the questions that trouble all of us: social status, social honor and recognition, success. When we are brought to feel what Willy Loman feels, the play expands its vision and moves from the specific toward the fate of man. We become Willy Loman, and his struggle becomes our struggle.
In an essay titled "The Family in Modern Drama," Miller expands this concept: "We are all part of one another, all responsible to one another. The responsibility originates on the simplest level, our immediate kin. But this vital attachment is germinal and with the maturing of the person extends beyond its initial source."
The family is pivotal, he suggests, but beyond the immediate family is the family of mankind. Connection with others, the need to feel others as a part of ourselves and ourselves as a part of them is an impulse native to all of us. We call people without this connectedness "sick." Yet we see this prime impulse constantly being impeded and crippled. Miller's work dramatizes and depicts the forces that induce these impediments.
"All plays we call great," he continues, "let alone all those we call serious, are ultimately involved with some aspect of a single problem: how may a man make of the outside world a home? How and in what ways must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome if he is to find safety, love, ease of soul, identity, and honor?"
Miller repeatedly searches in his writing for answers to these questions. In Situation Normal, Watson, a soldier training to be an officer is afraid his backwardness in mathematics may lead to his rejection for commission as an officer, which would seem to him like a betrayal of his company companions, to whom he has become deeply attached.
This expression of a bond among "brother" combatants in the army is echoed in All My Sons, the story of a manufacturer whose defective airplane parts cause the death of his son and other aviators in wartime. The "sinner" defends his malfeasance as being perpetrated on behalf of his family, and is brought to understand that to his son, Chris, there is indeed something bigger than the family: there is the family of mankind.
Proctor, in The Crucible, chooses to die rather than live and besmirch his "name," and in The Price, one son gives up opportunities which might have led to success equal to that of his brother, and the son has done this on behalf of a father who was hardly worth the sacrifice.
"What is the matter with you people?" asks a character in The Victor. "Nothing in the world you believe, nothing you respect. How can you live? You think that's the smart thing . . . that's so hard what you're doing. Let me give you a piece of advice. It's not that you can't believe nothing, that's not so hard, it's that you've still got to believe it. That's hard. And if you can't do that, my friend, you're a dead man."
Miller's work has variety but also an essential, overriding unity. Willy Loman speaks not of "success," so much as of being "well liked." He has given up a small inclination toward carpentry in order to become a salesman because it promises a brighter future of ease and affluence, and by turning away from himself he has become an utterly confused person. He dreams the American legend: the brother who walked into the jungle and came out of it rich. "William when I walked into the jungle I was 17. When I walked out I was 21. And . . . I was rich." Willy sees everything in this light: the good will of the boss, the business contact, glad-handing, being impressive. He can no longer recognize his own reality, or why he has failed. "Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it."
Thus he wreaks havoc on his own life and that of his family. Unaware of what warped his mind and behavior, he commits suicide in the conviction that a legacy of $20,000 is all that is needed to save his beloved but also damaged offspring all that is standing between them and success.
When Miller was asked in what way his plays were related to the events of his life, he replied that in a sense all his plays were autobiographical. He was born in Manhattan in 1915, middle class and Jewish. His grades were not high, and he apparently didn't read a serious book before he was seventeen. Finally gaining entrance to the University of Michigan, he wrote a play which won several small prizes, and he realized he could indeed become a playwright.
Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe from 1956 to 1961. He wrote about her in Timebends: "Comics on the whole are deeper, are somehow closer to the crud of life and suffer more than do the tragedians, who are at least accorded professional credit for seriousness as people.”
He also tells us in Timebends about Manny Newman, his uncle, who was a salesman. Manny greeted the Broadway opening of All My Sons with the information that "Buddy (Manny's son) is doing very well."
"I thought I knew what he was thinking," Miller writes, "that he had lost the contest in his mind between his sons and me. There in the lobby I still felt some of the boyhood need of his recognition. At the same time I knew that in reality he was not much more than a bragging and often vulgar little drummer. I had not the slightest idea of writing about a salesman then, but that was the genesis. I suppose, however, that if Willy Loman could be taken apart, five or six salesmen I have met would be found in him."
Miller has captured the tragedy of the American common man. He knows our lower middle class as few others do, and Willy Loman is his supreme character creation. Loman is a pathetic fool, but he is totally recognizable to laugh at, to commiserate with, or to deplore. At his funeral a friend points out, "Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."