The Life of the American Dream and “Death of a Salesman”

Photo via Ethan on Flickr
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.

September, 1929

The Crash

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.

1931
1936

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.

1941
1944

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.

1946
1949

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.

Suburban Living

For the first time in American history, more citizens live in the suburbs than anywhere else.

1950
1953

The Crucible

The Crucible premieres on Broadway.

The HUAC

Miller testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political leanings.

1956
1963

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.

All-Black Salesman

Baltimore Center Stage produces Death of a Salesman with an all-Black cast, the first professional production of its kind.

1972
1980

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.

1983
1985

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.

1986
1996

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).

1998
2003

The ADDA

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

2004
2005

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%. 

2007
2009

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.

Broadway Revival

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in Death of a Salesman in a Broadway revival

2012
2019

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 Rises

Unemployment rates jump to 14.7%—the highest since the Great Depression, which hit 25.5% in August of 1932.

April, 2020
October, 2020

Online Streaming

The Showtime recording of Death of a Salesman is made available for streaming by Playbill and Goodman Theatre.

Timeline Photo Credits

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