In the tradition of Henrik Ibsen and Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller sought to be a voice of conscience as well as a consummate dramatist. Death of a Salesman, Miller’s masterpiece, links free-market capitalism to the devaluing of the American worker and, ultimately, the disintegration of the American family. A culture which values the acquisition of boundless wealth over all things will become, the playwright implies, a culture at odds with honesty, integrity, and even love.
Five actors have memorably played leading role Willy Loman on Broadway: Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. With the exception of Dustin Hoffman, all these actors are large, broad-shouldered men, men whose sheer size, when they stooped their massive shoulders, called to mind a certain kind of stooped and sullied grandeur. Cobb and Dennehy in particular played Willy as a fallen monarch, a man who, in his advanced age, could no longer sustain the heady, hard-fought victories of his youth. Dustin Hoffman’s Loman, in contrast, seemed doomed from the start; his brittle boisterousness, appealing as it clearly was to his callow sons, was never any match for the harsh world he inhabited.