What is Tragedy?

  The New York Times, June 3, 1984

I hold Death of a Salesman to be a great play. The transformation of the sordid Willy Loman in the first half into a character that makes you an empathetic partner in his vertiginous fall in the second half is quite the coup de théâtre. I was, however, surprised to hear that he is regarded as tragic figure – and astonished to learn his creator, Arthur Miller, believes he is every inch that – and more: a true and truly tragic hero! In a democratic society, the workaday man has the right to be a tragic figure too.

Aristotle decreed that tragedy evokes a sense of pity and awe. Willy indeed inspires pity – and awwh – which is not quite the same thing. On the occasion of the revival of the play starring Dustin Hoffman in the spring of 1984, the debate over Willy’s dramatic status was renewed in an article in The New York Times of March 25. I joined the fray with the following letter to the editor.

The revival of “Death of a Salesman” inevitably revives the conflict between “elitists” and “egalitarians.” The desire for “modern tragedy” has existed in every generation since the Restoration but, whether embodied in mythic figures and princes or in a salesman, the formula has been elusive. Of the earlier efforts George Steiner wrote: “Barren of invention, poets start pouring old sauces over new meats.” More recently, the focus has been an attack on the strictures of Aristotle’s “Poetics” – an assault never more effectively pressed than in the tragedies of Shakespeare.

In “King Lear” we may find parallels with “Death of a Salesman”: A self-  deluded man, a loyal, mistreated wife, thankless children and a reality that suddenly closes in on the protagonist. However, when Lear’s world is shattered he challenges the gods and the elements; in his madness comes the revelation of his knowledge of injustice and suffering. By contrast, Willy Loman’s thoughts are only for himself; the suffering he feels is his alone.

Again, even so self-obsessed a character as Hamlet finds an identification with all suffering men: In the absence of first person references in the “To be or not be” soliloquy, we hear counterpoised the common condition of those who “grunt and sweat under a weary life” rather than “fly to [the ills] we know not of” in death. Willy Loman seeks death to redeem his life, rather than confront his misguided dreams.

The true rank and stature of a tragic hero is in the greatness of his soul – something not fully measured by either Aristotle or Arthur Miller. To reach the “height of tragedy” is a challenge to the artist, not to the political standards of a society. The question is why a height so desirable to so many generations has been so much above their reach.

© 1984, 2004  Irvin Leigh Matus