By Neena Arndt and Jaclyn Jermyn
When it premiered in 1949, Death of a Salesman was a near immediate success, but its discussions about success were no new concept. What has changed since then is our broad understanding of—and reverence for—the American Dream. Take a look at the life of this term and how the enduring legacy of Arthur Miller’s masterwork fits right in. For a deeper dive into the production history of Death of a Salesman, check out this article by Neena Arndt and Tom Creamer.
Wall Street crashes and the Great Depression begins. Arthur Miller’s father loses his women’s clothing business and most of his assets. Arthur, age 14, delivers bread in the mornings before school to help the family.
The American Dream
James Truslow Adams popularizes the term “American Dream” in his book The Epic of America. His definition is less about material success and more about the ideals of individuals. “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” he says, “but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and recognized by others for what they are.”
Be a better salesman
Dale Carnagie’s best-selling self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People is published. It contains sections on increasing your popularity, winning new clients and being a better salesman.
World War II
World War II begins. Arthur Miller is exempted due to a high school football injury.
G. I. Bill
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (or, the G.I. Bill) is signed, offering benefits to veterans like low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans and unemployment compensation.
All My Sons
Miller writes All My Sons, in which an aeronautical corporation conspires with inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines for use in World War II. The play is his first success.
Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman premieres on Broadway. It earns the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
For the first time in American history, more citizens live in the suburbs than anywhere else.
The Crucible premieres on Broadway.
Miller testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political leanings.
I have a Dream
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He details a vision of disappearing prejudice and a rising community spirit. In Minneapolis, Death of a Salesman is revived as part of Guthrie Theatre’s inaugural season.
Baltimore Center Stage produces Death of a Salesman with an all-Black cast, the first professional production of its kind.
Suburban Living Part II
White picket fences once again surge in popularity in new building of suburban communities.
Miller in China
Miller travels to China to direct a production of Death of a Salesman at the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing.
Salesman on the Big Screen
Death of a Salesman is made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman.
Falls & Dennehy
Robert Falls is named Artistic Director of Goodman Theatre and taps actor Brian Dennehy for his first Goodman production: Galileo by Bertolt Brecht.
Adapting The Crucible
A film version of The Crucible is released, starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Miller’s own son in law), Paul Scofield, Bruce Davison and Winona Ryder. Miller adapts the script for the film.
Miller at the Goodman
Robert Falls’ production of Death of a Salesman premieres at the Goodman. It moves to Broadway in 1999, winning Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Brian Dennehy), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Elizabeth Franz) and Best Direction of a Play (Robert Falls).
President George W. Bush signs the American Dream Downpayment Act, which supported initiatives to subsidize home purchases, including down payment assistance.
Finishing the Picture
Miller’s final play, Finishing the Picture, premieres at the Goodman
A Legend Passes
Miller dies at age 89.
The Great Recession
The American housing bubble bursts, beginning the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession. The ratio of debt to disposable personal income rises to 127%.
Salesman in Schools
Common Core State Standards for Education are established. Death of a Salesman is noted as a “text exemplar” for Grades 11 and 12.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in Death of a Salesman in a Broadway revival
West End Revival
In a revival of Death of a Salesman in London’s West End, the entire Loman family is played by Black actors, including Wendell Pierce as Willy.
Unemployment rates jump to 14.7%—the highest since the Great Depression, which hit 25.5% in August of 1932.
The Showtime recording of Death of a Salesman is made available for streaming by Playbill and Goodman Theatre.
Timeline Photo Credits
- “Lovely” by Ethan via Flickr.
- “Men getting free coffee in a bread line” by Kheel Center, Cornell University Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- “YIP Day 305 – Dale Carnegie” by Auntie P is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
- “World War II Wellington bombers (2 of 2)” by whatsthatpicture is marked with CC PDM 1.0
- Front cover of the first edition dust jacket of All My Sons
- “Death-of-A-Salesman-cover” by The Central New York Playhouse is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- “Garlinghouse” by SportSuburban is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- The cover of the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller
- Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963.
- Dustin Hoffman production
- Goodman Theatre production photo of Galileo
- “The Crucible – Daniel Day Lewis” by vidalia_11 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Goodman Theatre production photo of Death of a Salesman
- “20070110 George W. Bush” by Image Editor is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Goodman Theatre production photo of Finishing the Picture
- “American Dream, after Grant Wood” by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- “Death of a Salesman, Barrymore Theatre NYC” by Mumu Matryoshka is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
- Closed sign Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash
- Promotional image for 2020 streaming production of Goodman’s Death of a Salesman