Miller achieved phenomenal early success in 1949 with “Death of a Salesman,” but his work fell out of favor by the 1960s. It was judged old-fashioned—out of touch with social trends, conventional in form and naive in its attempts to universalize identity. But time has a way of changing what audiences find important. Now that formal innovation in theater has itself become old hat, there seems to be a hunger for realism and the possibility of an everyman in the midst of identity politics. While my students noted stereotypical elements in Miller’s plays, particularly with regard to women’s roles, they found the general thrust of the works moving and insightful.
Playwright Arthur Miller in New York, May 1949. Photo: Martin Harris/Underwood Archives/Getty Images
Most of my students retain an unswerving belief in the American dream, an idea Miller critiques in his works. Contrary to general opinion, some students insisted that Willy Loman, the striving, suicidal protagonist in “Death of a Salesman,” had a good dream that he simply didn’t pursue strategically.
Others said his dream was skewed because he was living too much through his son and not paying attention to what truly satisfied him. A few students attributed Loman’s problems to the absence of his father. A role model or a mentor, they said, would have worked wonders in giving him stronger values and an improved sense of direction. All seemed to believe that success is possible if the will to pursue it is there and if circumstances are not entirely against the effort.
“The Crucible,” a play Miller wrote in 1953 to protest the investigation of suspected communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee, led our class to discuss the dangers of zealotry. We also read Miller’s…