This Day In History: May 2

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On May 2, 1949, New York playwright Arthur Miller wins a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for “Death of a Salesman,” the most famous work of his career. Miller describes the story as “the tragedy of a man who gave his life, or sold it” while pursuing the elusive American Dream. The play, which premiered on Broadway just three months earlier, also won six Tony awards.

Half a century later, "Death of a Salesman" had sold more than 11 million copies and The New Yorker drama critic John Lahr deemed it “the most successful modern play ever published.”

In his autobiography, Miller describes how the first act of “Death of a Salesman” spilled out of him in a single day in the spring of 1948: “It sort of unveiled itself. I was the stenographer. I could hear them [the characters]. I could hear them, literally.” The play’s main character, traveling salesman Willy Loman, sinks ever-deeper into depression and delusion as his failures—including frequent absences, financial insolvency and infidelity—filter down to afflict his sons Biff and Happy. In a society where, his neighbor reminds him, “the only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell,” Loman contemplates suicide as a way to give his family an insurance windfall.

Miller’s family background inspired him to tell the stories of vulnerable, everyday people struggling make a living—and the family conflicts that arise from those struggles. His father lost his clothing business during the Great Depression, and he described his uncle Manny, a salesman who took his own life, as "the ultimate climber up the ladder who was constantly being stepped on by those climbing past him." Miller's plays, including “All My Sons,” “The Crucible,” “A View from the Bridge,” and “After the Fall,” all share a strong focus on morality, compassion and family strife. Miller once said that “writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do” because plays could ask difficult moral questions and challenge people to make changes.

“The mission of the theater is…to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities,” said Miller, who died in 2005 at age 89.

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