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The Extents to Which The Death of a Salesman is an Aristotelian Tragedy

In 350bc, Aristotle wrote Poetics, and in that discourse he defined the elements of a tragedy as compared to other plays like an Epic. According to Aristotle, “Every Tragedy…must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song.” When Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, is compared to Aristotle’s definitions for tragedy, we can indeed put it in the ranks of Aristotelian tragedy in more of a modern form. My senses tell me that a Greek tragedy played out in exacting 350BC Greek style would seem strange to the modern viewer. The choric song, for example, would not suit modern tastes any more than three actors changing full head masks. Therefore I submit that, short of the modifications necessary to make a play interesting to a modern audience, Death of a Salesman indeed fits the spirit of Aristotelian tragedy in a modern style.

According to Aristotle, the plot is “the soul of a tragedy.” The plot is “…the first and most important thing in tragedy.” Aristotle’s idea for the plot in tragedy is such that it has a beginning middle and end, that all parts follow each other in concise fashion, the parts should not be “…'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence.” Aristotle goes on to say that the events should not occur simultaneously like the “epic” play. “we must confine ourselves to the actions on the stage.” Miller’s play fits this entire criterion well. With the artistic development of the play stripped off (Miller’s version of Aristotle’s suggested arrangement “not on the simple but on the complex plan.”), we have, quite simply, a beginning where the hero becomes a successful salesman with family, a middle where our hero and his family go through the unsurprising and easily identifiable struggles and realities of being a salesman, and a classic tragic end wherein our hero dies. The sequence of Willy Loman’s life is indeed “probable” and all parts are necessary to the wholeness of the play. Lastly, no events occur simultaneously; in no case do we find simultaneous stage events.

According to Aristotle, “Character holds the second place” in importance to a tragedy. An ideal central character should be “that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” The reason for this is clearly to “imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation.” In Willy we have such a man. He is imperfect, for he has weaknesses that the audience can relate with, but it is not those weaknesses that bring him down. It is his error in judgment when he turns down the job at fifty dollars per week and goes in his downward spiral to a tragic end on the very day the mortgage is finally paid off. He began as a great and successful man of prosperity, and ends with tragedy through error of judgment followed by the revelation that he is worth more dead than alive. In part fifteen of Poetics, Aristotle suggests four aims to character. First, it must be good. Willy Loman is basically a good man with very good intentions. He wants happiness for his family. The second is propriety, or good behavior and adherence to that which is right as a general “aim.” While Willy does commit unsurprising human sins, in general, he never utters anything less than good advice and the sage wisdom befitting his status as the patriarch of the family. Aristotle’s third suggestion is that the character be “…true to life.” Willy’s aforementioned human sins are exactly what are necessary to make him fit the definition of true to life while at the same time possessing “propriety.” Aristotle’s last point is that the character be “consistent,” or even “consistently inconsistent.” Willy fits both definitions and the result is predictability. The audience can predict what will happen from scene to scene, and in general, Willy’s actions and the end result are those that we would expect from him. He is a salesman; we expect him to struggle. He is overbearing on his children; we expect them to grow up confused. His whole world crashes down on him when he loses his job, dignity, and income with no apparent recourse. We expect him to kill himself. This satisfies Aristotle’s suggestion that the character act in such a way as is “…necessary or probable.”

Aristotle ranks thought as his third element. He defines this as “the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances.” In general, what the speaker says should coincide with what he thinks. Aristotle lumps the element of thought together in his discourse on the fourth ranked element of a tragedy which is diction. He defines it as “the expression of the meaning in words.” He suggests that this “province of knowledge belongs to the art of Delivery and to the masters of that science.” In effect, he is saying that this is the actor’s job. Dustin Hoffman accomplishes this goal through his highly expressive and visual acting of Willy Loman.

Aristotle suggests “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” Spectacle is one of his criteria for a tragedy. In the play, lights become dim during sad scenes and bright during happy scenes. Miller puts an enormous amount of emphasis on the spectacular staging of the play to produce emotional effects in the audience.

Finally we come to the tragic element of song. Aristotle suggests the word song is “a term whose sense every one understands.” He suggests it to be the “chief embellishment.” While we do not have “choric song” in the classical Greek sense, it is befitting that we make the following amazing observation. Aristotle refers to the playing of the flute five times in Poetics. An electronic search of Arthur Miller’s script reveals the word flute eleven times, and, throughout the play, we find the song of the flute as the underlying musical theme.

As a result, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, while being written over two thousand years after Aristotle defined tragedy in his book Poetics, has sufficient parallels to the genre as to be easily considered a modern Aristotelian tragedy. It has a unified plot with fully interrelated events in a chain of causes and effects. The central character meets all of Aristotle’s criteria for a tragic hero. Within the plot, the central and generally good character meets demise through an error in judgment. The central character is of average moral character and effectively results in gaining the pity of the audience. The characters have unity of thought and diction along with great expression as Aristotle suggests being necessary. This coincides with Aristotle’s third and fourth element. The stage effects within the play comfortably conform to his “spectacle” element. Finally, while there is no great “choric song,” Miller chooses the flute as the melodic backdrop for the play, and the flute is a fundamental element of song in Aristotelian tragedy. A study of this genre would not be complete without a study of Aristotle’s Poetics, but at the same time, a study of Death of a Salesman can help us to understand what Aristotle was referring to when he wrote his discourse on the genre through a modern version of the style over two thousand years later.

~ Joel Perry

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 11, 2007 7:46 AM.

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