Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman stems from both Arthur Miller's personal experiences and the theatrical traditions in which the playwright was schooled. The play recalls the traditions of Yiddish theater that focus on family as the crucial element, reducing most plot to the confines of the nuclear family. Death of a Salesman focuses on two sons who are estranged from their father, paralleling one of Miller's other major works, All My Sons, which premiered two years before Death of a Salesman.
Although the play premiered in 1949, Miller began writing Death of a Salesman at the age of seventeen when he was working for his father's company. In short story form, it treated an aging salesman unable to sell anything. He is berated by company bosses and must borrow subway change from the young narrator. The end of the manuscript contains a postscript, noting that the salesman on which the story is based had thrown himself under a subway train.
Arthur Miller reworked the play in 1947 upon a meeting with his uncle, Manny Newman. Miller's uncle, a salesman, was a competitor at all times and even competed with his sons, Buddy and Abby. Miller described the Newman household as one in which one could not lose hope, and based the Loman household and structure on his uncle and cousins. There are numerous parallels between Abby and Buddy Newman and their fictional counterparts, Happy and Biff Loman: Buddy, like Biff, was a renowned high school athlete who ended up flunking out. Miller's relationship to his cousins parallels that of the Lomans to their neighbor, Bernard.
While constructing the play, Miller was intent on creating continuous action that could span different time periods smoothly. The major innovation of the play was the fluid continuity between its segments. Flashbacks do not occur separate from the action but rather as an integral part of it. The play moves between fifteen years back and the present, and from Brooklyn to Boston without any interruptions in the plot.
Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in 1949, starring Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman and directed by Elia Kazan (who would later inform on Arthur Miller in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee). The play was a resounding success, winning the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Tony Award for Best Play. The New Yorker called the play a mixture of "compassion, imagination, and hard technical competence not often found in our theater." Since then, the play has been revived numerous times on Broadway and reinterpreted in stage and television versions. As an archetypal character representing the failed American dream, Willy Loman has been interpreted by diverse actors such as Fredric March (the 1951 film version), Dustin Hoffman (the 1984 Broadway revival and television movie), and, in a Tony Award-winning revival, Brian Dennehy.