Two playwrights, Arthur Miller and August Wilson, address tragic heroes in similar yet different ways in their plays, “Death of a Salesman” and “Fences,” both of which have been converted to film versions.
The writers examine several other aspects of American life as well — the part business or work plays in forming the characters, the role of children and family life, and the role of women.
THE MALE PROTAGONISTSFrom the outset of “Death of a Salesman,” we come to know Willy Loman’s vulnerability and awareness that he has ceased to fulfill his image of himself as a successful salesman. At 63, he can no longer withstand the rigors of travel his job demands. Troy Maxson, on the other hand, exudes confidence that he, in his appeal to drive the garbage truck (as the white men do) rather than always be lifting the garbage cans, will be successful. Miller published his play in 1949 and set it in that era while Wilson’s “Fences,” published in 1987, begins in 1957 and ends in 1965. “Death of a Salesman” takes place in a New England state, and Wilson’s “Fences” occurs in Pittsburgh, part of a 10-play cycle.
Both men suffer from the inequities of the workplace — Willy from ageism and Troy from racism. Willy appeals to Howard, his boss, for a position that doesn’t require travel; in return, because Willy is increasingly agitated, Howard asks Willy to take a few days off and to turn in his sample case, requests that Willy interprets as being fired after 36 years with the company.
Bono, Troy’s friend and fellow garbage collector, warns Troy that questioning why it is always the white men who are the truck drivers and the black men who are the “lifters” might get him fired. Troy succeeds, however, in becoming a driver despite his not having a driver’s license.
FATHER-AND-SON RELATIONSHIPSAt age 53, Troy has two sons, Lyons from a first marriage, and Cory, a high school student, from his present wife Rose. Lyons, like Willy’s older son Biff, is 34 years old. A musician whose means vary with the number of gigs he can get, Lyons shows up on Troy’s pay days to ask for a loan. Lyons seems more directed than Biff in that music is his love while Biff is torn between his love of outdoor work with his hands and his father’s desire for him to be a success in the sales world. All Biff’s athletic trophies from high school are no help to him in the real world of work. His plan of owning a sporting goods store with his brother Happy is thwarted when his old boss Bill Oliver will not even meet him for an interview.
Cory, Troy’s younger son, and Happy, Willy’s younger son, have in common an interest in sports, a motif in both plays because Troy learned to play baseball while he was incarcerated for 15 years for killing a man he intended to rob. Troy had the potential to play in the minor or major leagues. Sports players, events and jargon create many of the metaphors in the play. The difference in the two fathers is that Willy basks in the reflected glory of Biff’s football prowess on the football and baseball field. Troy sees Cory’s skills that could have him recruited for college play as impractical, not worthy of pursuit for a future. A major split occurs between Troy and Cory when Troy quashes all of Cory’s hopes to be recruited for college football.
THE WOMENLinda in “Death of a Salesman” supports Willy in all he does while still recognizing his faults. Miller in a stage direction paints this portrait of her: “... she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to Willy’s behavior — she more than loves him, she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him ... .”
Today we would call Linda an “enabler” because she knows Willy is trying to end his life by having a car accident or by inhaling carbon monoxide through a rubber tube he has attached to the furnace in the cellar. She never confronts him about these attempts. Even at the cemetery, Linda does not understand why her husband has committed suicide. Her older son Biff has protected her to the end from knowledge of Will’s infidelity, an act that destroyed Biff’s respect and love for his father.
Rose directly contrasts with Linda in being more assertive in her relationship with Troy. When Troy confesses to Rose that he has had an affair with Alberta that has resulted in her pregnancy, Rose tosses away his excuses that Alberta “gives me a different idea ... a different understanding about myself.” She says, “I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes?” Rose has always wanted more children, so later, when Troy brings the baby Raynell home to ask Rose to care for the child after Alberta’s death in childbirth, Rose agrees: “From right now ... this child got a mother. But you a womanless man.”
THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ INTENTIONSArthur Miller in a 1949 essay defended the common man like Willy Loman just as suitable a tragic hero as kings and nobles of the past. Likewise, Wilson said in a 1989 interview: “I wanted to examine Troy’s life layer by layer and find out why he made the choices he made.” Wilson said of Troy’s redemption: “This may be nothing more than his willingness to wrestle with his life, his willingness to engage no matter what the circumstances of his life. He hasn’t given up despite the twists and turns it’s given him. I find that both noble and heroic.”
Both plays are social dramas which examine people’s place in a sometimes-harsh world that tests every moral fiber. Both have lessons for us.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.