Arthur Miller is a great modern American dramatist who keenly observes the ambitions and ideals of an individual as well as the internal and external forces which are responsible for the tragic failure of these ideals. ‘Death of a Salesman’ is a beautiful example in this regard in which the protagonist of the play, Willy Loman, intensely desires an outstanding success for himself and for his sons but this desire is thwarted by powerful social and commercial forces which causes a tragic defeat of Willy Loman’s dreams.
“Death of a Salesman” is one of those great pieces of art which have been the subject of hotly debated controversy. Arthur Miller calls it a tragedy and there are several critics who see eye to eye with him but these are sources of highly learned critics who bring certain allegations to prove that it falls far short of having the status of tragedy. First of all they reject it on the basis of Aristotelian concept of tragedy and tragic hero and assert that, instead of being a king or prince, Willy Loman is a common man who remains unable to arise required tragic feelings. Therefore, it cannot be placed among great Sophoclean and Shakespearean tragedies.
There are certain critic like Eric Bentley and Eleaner Clark who regard Miller’s socio-political philosophy. They think that the play cannot attain the stature of a guanine tragedy because of its extreme awareness, not it can be a social drama because it is inflated by its tragic aspirations. They say that the theme of “Death of a Salesman” is the little, man as victim and protagonist is too passive and too little to play the tragic hero.
Now we consider the other side where Miller himself and certain other critics are clarifying all these charges. First of all, they scrutinize Aristotle’s concept of tragedy and tragic hero and says that in modern world royal system is finished and kings, queens and princes etc. are not present with ancient pomp and show. So their modern presentation with ancient glorification will make the plays unrealistic. Furthermore, a common man can also be the hero of a tragedy because common people also suffer like royal figures. So the concept that royal figures are necessary for tragedies should be changed according to the demands of time and age.
Bentley says this play evokes pity but not terror and if we watch it carefully we notice that it arises both pity and fear because the play shows individual against “the seemingly stable cosmos surrounding us”. From this total examination of the “unchangeable environment comes the error and fear that is classically associated with tragedy”. Miller shows the position of an ordinary man, his passions, feelings and dreams against machines and flat system where all relations have cost their meanings and importance.
Traditional subjects for tragedy were royal environment and war of achieving throne but now these subjects have no attraction for us. Now these subjects look to us alien however today we have fear to lose position in society and to cause our ownself in the ocean of machines. So, now with the course of time subjects of tragedy should be changed.
The play has a tragic end too. Willy dies and gives up his life but does not give up his dream, does not leave his values and his past. Some critics say that Willy’s sacrifice is useless and all his values, ideas and spirit dies within him but when we think that the same may happen with us we feel pity and fear. In our society anyone of us can become Willy Loman anytime. Miller says:
“Willy Loman has broken a law, without whose protection, life is insupportable and incomprehensible to him and to many it is the law which says that a failure in society and business has no right to live.”
To conclude we may says that arguments of both sides are strong. No doubt, “Death of a Salesman” is not a typically traditional tragic play like Shakespearean tragedies and Aristotelian Tragedies but it has tragic theme, tragic character and tragic end that arouse pity and fear. We can call it a modern tragic play or to be more exact, a modern social tragic play.