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About this Lecture
In this module, we provide a broad introduction to the historical, literary and cultural context to Death of a Salesman, focusing in particular on: (i) the kind of plays that were being produced in America in the years following the end of the Second World War – including Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), and Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1947); (ii) the concept of the American Dream, especially the importance of money and wealth; (iii) race politics in post-war, pre-Civil Rights America; (iv) the interrelationship between ‘All My Sons’ (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and ‘Death of a Salesman’ (1949), all of which were directed by the same person – Elia Kazan; (v) the extent to which the fragmented set design in ‘Death of a Salesman’ echoes some of the central concerns of the play; (vi) the importance of family to the genre of tragedy; (vii) the extent to which ‘Death of a Salesman’ is fragmented temporally (i.e. with flashbacks to various points in time) as well as spatially; (viii) the character of Willy Loman, including the implication of his name ‘Loman’ and his status (announced in the play’s title) as a ‘Salesman’; (ix) the history of the ‘ordinary’ person on the American stage, page and screen – Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Tramp’ (1915), Eugene O’Neill’s ‘The Hairy Ape’ (1922), Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ (1942) and ‘The Skin of our Teeth’ (1942), Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (1884) and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ (1876); (x) the history of the ‘ordinary’ hero in Western literature more generally – the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and Albert Camus (1913-60), and the modernism of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), James Joyce (1882-1942), D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924); (xi) the Loman family – Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy; (xii) the extent to which the members of the Loman family know themselves and each other; (xiii) the importance of nature and the natural world in the play, especially the theme of the loss of nature; and (xiv) the importance of money in the play, and the extent the play stands as a critique of untrammelled capitalism.
In this nineteen-part course, Professor John McRae (University of Nottingham) explores Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We begin with a broad introduction to the historical, literary and cultural context, before going through the play scene-by-scene, providing close reading and detailed analysis, with commentary on character, plot, themes and motifs, language, symbolism, and more.
Note: Page numbers are based on the Penguin edition of the play (1998, ed. Christopher Bigsby). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both text and page numbers.
John McRae is Special Professor of Language in Literature Studies and Teaching Associate in the School of English at Nottingham University, and holds Visiting Professorships in China, Malaysia, Spain and the USA. He is co-author of The Routledge History of Literature in English with Ron Carter, and also wrote The Language of Poetry, Literature with a Small 'l' and the first critical edition of Teleny by Oscar Wilde and others.
Cite this Lecture
McRae, J. (2021, January 22). Miller: Death of a Salesman - Introduction [Video]. MASSOLIT. https://www.massolit.io/courses/miller-death-of-a-salesman-mcrae/introduction-fa559ade-bb31-4f79-b429-30b45c801952
McRae, John. "Miller: Death of a Salesman – Introduction." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 22 Jan 2021, https://www.massolit.io/courses/miller-death-of-a-salesman-mcrae/introduction-fa559ade-bb31-4f79-b429-30b45c801952