A Short Summary of Arthur Miller’s ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

As we mention in our collection of interesting facts about Arthur Miller (1915-2005), the noted US playwright’s family had been relatively prosperous, but during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as with many other families, their economic situation became very precarious.

This experience had a profound impact on Miller’s political standpoint, and this can be seen time and time again in his work for the theatre. He aligned himself with the leftist politics of the 1930s, namely socialism. His early successes as a playwright were in the genre of social drama. That is, a social problem or issue in contemporary society is explored on stage. More specifically, the dramatic conflict arises usually from a moral dilemma faced by the individual that is related to some kind of flaw or corruption in the social order.

Death of a Salesman (1949), his most famous play, bears some resemblance to Miller’s earlier social drama: that is, the play represents the commodification of people in modern capitalist society (people become things with a financial value – or, too often, no financial value). Willy Loman, the protagonist of the play (and ‘salesman’ of the title), and his sons must find the courage to resist the temptation to act immorally in order to achieve ‘the American Dream’ (an ideal where anyone could be a self-made man in the world of capitalism and commerce).

Miller becomes known in the post-war period not just as a dramatist but as a noted theorist of drama: witness his essay ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ (1949), which appeared in the New York Times shortly after the premiere of Death of a Salesman. Miller wrote ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ in order to defend Willy Loman against the critics, and to argue that Loman is a suitable subject for tragedy. It was published just two weeks after Death of a Salesman opened in the theatre.

Since that is the case, what’s interesting is that not once in his essay does Miller mention his own play, or Willy Loman the character. In other words, he’s trying to argue that this idea of the common man being a fitting subject for tragedy – that ordinary people can be just as ‘noble’ as kings – is universal, and not limited to his own plays.

Miller starts by pointing out that the modern world has grown increasingly sceptical, and is less inclined to believe in the idea of heroes. There are many reasons for this: the twentieth century had seen the two bloodiest conflicts in known history in the form of two World Wars, and Nazi Germany and fascism in Italy – in many ways informed by the idea of the hero or great leader, had shown that it was in many ways dangerous to believe in the idea of the great hero.

So, the modern view is that people no longer believe in the possibility of heroes. As a result, they don’t see how tragedy, with its tragic hero, can be relevant to the modern world. Miller argues, on the contrary, that the world is full of heroes. A hero is anybody who is willing to lay down his life in order to secure his ‘sense of personal dignity’. It doesn’t matter what your social status or background is.

The late novelist David Gemmell, author of popular heroic fantasy novels, was once asked what his definition of a hero was. He was known for creating brooding, charismatic figures who were troubled killers and yet capable of goodness. When asked what he thought a hero was, Gemmell replied: ‘Anyone who does something heroic.’ That’s it.

So the age-old perception of a ‘hero’ as being someone like Oedipus, or Odysseus, or Hercules, or Superman, is a narrowing of the idea of heroism. All you have to do to qualify as a hero, even in dramatic terms, is do something which can be deemed heroic – noble, brave, dignified, courageous, morally right.

But there’s still the problem of tragedy for a modern audience. Is tragedy still relevant, or even appropriate? After the massacre on a massive scale that the two World Wars had borne witness to, wasn’t it pointless, and even slightly perverse, to emphasise the death of one individual to such an extent? Miller said it was ‘simply presumptuous – this making so much out of one death when we know it is meaningless.’

So we have a problem here. Tragedy is, by its very nature, about the individual, the tragic hero. But isn’t this out of proportion with the mass real-life tragedies that the twentieth century had seen? Not just the Holocaust, but the millions of Russians who’d died as a result of Stalin’s actions. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Thus some commentators came to see tragedy as self-indulgent, and the happy plaything of the privileged few who could afford to sit around and feel pity for one man’s death on stage. It becomes the entertainment for a kind of new aristocracy.

Miller is aware of this danger, and so this is where it becomes of central importance that his tragic figures, such as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, are ordinary guys – just some American man trying to make a living, for instance – rather than something special. Tragedy becomes a critique on society, on some aspect of society that is perceived as evil or destructive, not just to this individual, but to thousands like him.

In many ways this is a peculiarly American invention. Because the United States is classless – or at least perceives itself to be such, which is really the key point – you can have an Average Joe as your hero, and virtually everyone will be able to relate to him as the quintessential American. He’s just ‘this guy’ or ‘some bloke’. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the dominant medium of the twentieth century, the cinema, and films.

This even transcends race: Samuel L. Jackson can play an ordinary guy, or Bruce Willis, or Tom Cruise. Such is the American system that you can have such a thing as a true ‘Average Joe’. In films of the 1950s – and ever since – you see actors like James Dean portraying just your ordinary guy, the common man that Miller had highlighted as the centre of modern tragedy.

For Miller, tragedy is driven by ‘Man’s total compunction to evaluate himself justly’. In the process of doing this, and attaining his dignity, the tragic hero often loses his life. Society destroys him.

But there is something affirmative about this for Miller, because the audience will be driven to evaluate what is wrong with society that it could destroy a man unjustly like that. Thus we as a society will gain a greater understanding of what is wrong with society, and will be able to improve society. Thus the hero’s death offers hope.

More than this, Miller sees tragedy as inherently optimistic. This is because it’s about what he calls man’s ‘thrust for freedom’. The hero will be destroyed at the end of the play, but there must always be the possibility that he could have succeeded and won out against society. If the hero is fighting a battle that cannot possibly be won, then that’s no good – that is not true tragedy, because the hero cuts a pathetic figure fighting an impossible battle.

But if there is a fine balance between what is possible and what is impossible, this is when you have a great tragedy, because tragedy can then teach us about what he calls the ‘perfectibility of man’.

For Miller, the tragic flaw, what Aristotle had called the hamartia, is redefined in modern terms as the hero’s inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity and rightful status in society. As you may have gathered by now, the flaw is not within the individual or hero, but within society itself. Miller shifts the hamartia onto society, and the individual is a victim of this flaw.

This is a liberal conception of the individual and his/her relation to the social order. The end or culmination of modern tragedy is that it ends with a man’s destruction that results from his challenge to the status quo. This is what demonstrates that the wrong or ‘evil’ resides not in the individual but in his society. The social wrong: conditions which suppress man, pervert his creative instinct, and stifle his freedom.

‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ is observational rather than prescriptive in its approach. It doesn’t lay down tenets of modern tragedy but merely note down a few elements which Miller believes make up much of modern tragedy in the theatre.

Miller’s argument is based not only on his own artistic perspective about what constitutes good tragedy, but also about what he notes other modern playwrights are making out of the classical form. It describes an emerging dramatic form. But it gives a new lease of life to the genre that must end with death: the theatrical tragedy.

Continue to explore the world of tragedy with our brief history of the genre and our discussion of Sophocles’ great tragedy about Oedipus.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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