Death of a Salesman - Context (historical, social, political and cultural)
Death of a Salesman is a play that consists of a historical background which is key to understanding the play. It was written in 1949, just a few years after the World War ll was over, meaning the United States, where the play occurs, was going through many changes. For example, the war caused an increase in industrial production markets and non-farming business. For the poorest Americans, however, the economic situation was not improved as America started having high inflation, causing problems for the poorest citizens to purchase the basics. Also, the government started to create policies which helped larger corporate farmers but not smaller farmers. Happy, a sales clerk and Biff, a farm worker, had the lowest-paid jobs in the country, leading them to some trouble in maintaining dignity in society. For Americans, dignity and pride were very important things.
Due to their victories during the war, Americans felt proud and had a feeling of superiority over the world. This lead to their need of proving that capitalism was better than communism. Because of this, Americans felt responsible for protecting their nation from any influences from communist Soviet Union. This period of time where Americans felt the obligation to achieve financial success in order to show gratitude for the liberty they had as a democratic society and also to defeat the Soviets is now called the Cold War era. During this period of time, people like Willy relied too much on long-term credit to show they were financially successful and ended up having trouble in giving their families the basics. In the play, this Cold War attitude is shown by Willy's preoccupation with his position in society and financial status. Willy's worry also represents some of...
Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Boston; Willy's Head; The Late 1940s
Most of the action is set in Willy Loman's home and yard in Brooklyn, NYC. Because of recent population growth, the Lomans' house is boxed in by apartment buildings. Throughout the play, the big encroaching buildings are shown to choke the more natural beauty that once surrounded the Lomans' home. Once there were trees and enough sunlight to grow a garden. The looming buildings, which have separated the characters from nature, add to their feelings of confinement and desire to escape.
There are a few scenes that don't take place at the Lomans' Brooklyn home. We see Willy get fired in an office in Manhattan, and he also meets his sons at a Manhattan restaurant. There's also the scene where Biff learns of Willy's affair, which happens in a hotel room in Boston. The Loman house, however, totally dominates the set, perhaps highlighting Willy's longing to provide for his family and showing that no matter how misguided he is, everything he does in some way revolves around his family.
We should also point out that the play, or at least a good portion of it, is set inside Willy's mind. The audience experiences many of the events through Willy's subjective viewpoint. All the flashbacks and blurred realities are from Willy's point of view.
The time period also has a big effect on the action of the play. It's the late 1940s, meaning that we've just come out of WWII. The country is all gung-ho about rebuilding itself and everyone achieving—yes, you've got it—the American Dream. Basically, the nation is just revving up for the economic boom of the 1950s. So, American commercialism as we know it is just about to take off in a really major way. This, of course, ties into many of the play's themes.
(Psst. For some more historical context, check out our US History learning guides on Postwar Suburbia and the 1950s.)