Party Like It’s 1949… or maybe not.
by Brianna Arrighi
If you come to see Death of a Salesman, (read: when you come see Salesman) prepare to be transported back to 1949. Willy inevitably loses his mind over his incapability to provide for his family, but what external factors during that time pushed him over the edge? Let’s take a closer look at what was going on before the death of the America’s best-known salesman.
In terms of the entire globe, ‘49 was a very busy year…and not in a very good way. Mao Zedong declared China to be Communist (uh oh), South Africa implemented apartheid (not cool), and the Soviet Union successfully tested the atomic bomb (yikes). While those events are certainly a far cry from poodle skirts and soc hops, there was some peace activity, too. Twelve countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty following WWII, which promoted political, social, and economic cooperation amongst Atlantic nations. Britain finally recognized the independence of the Republic of Ireland and Truman started looking out for poor people with the Four Point program. That’s good, right?
Well, maybe not so much in the United States. In 1948, our economy fell back into a recession-one like we hadn’t seen since the Great Depression. We were still in the thick of financial turmoil in 1949, and Willy’s fears concerning his ability to provide for his family mirror those of many Americans at the time. Morale probably wasn’t so high in Brooklyn after the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series and George Orwell’s horrifying glimpse of the future in his dystopian novel, 1984 scared the socks off of people.
It was the year that American writer William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well, making it socially acceptable to use sentences that never end, and the mark of the first Emmy Awards show in history. Popular songs included “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” (no joke) and the ever-so-true jingle “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Ladies’ hemlines were longer after the fabric shortage during War ended, and waist lines were extremely cinched-in. Cary Grant was the Bradley Cooper heartthrob of the time, and any man in his right mind would have gladly crashed his Ford Lincoln for a date with Marilyn Monroe.
But let’s get back to Willy.
Divorce rates were coming down from a spike during war-time strife. Unemployment was around 3.8% and rising. Minimum wage was 40 cents per hour and the average salary was 3,600 dollars a year. Life expectancy was around 68 years on average, and suicide was the tenth leading cause of death, with over 38,000 known incidents in that year alone.
As you watch Willy’s struggle unfold, keep in mind all of the things that were going on at the time. Arthur Miller never wrote anything without purpose, and he was specific to set Salesman in the same year he wrote it. It is not a story about one man, but rather the story of many living and working and suffering through that time period. The year creates the extraordinary commentary on what it meant to achieve the American Dream back then, and still continues to do so today. History repeats itself. What parallels will you find?