A classic, tragic play by Arthur Miller in 1949 vastly different from The Crucible yet showing the same amazing genius. (SPOILERS) It is about a salesman who is in the process of going mad. Its central character, Willy Loman, is a salesman who had embodied the American Dream. Piece by piece, in his introspective flashbacks, the pathetic character of his work, his life, his family, and his own character is revealed. In the end, he drives to his death. The play is very powerful and poignant in its characterization and its development.

The script of Death of a Salesman appears to be flawed. During the course of the play a fat, philandering, and dishonest creature, Willy Loman, stumbles through life. In doing so he cheats on his caring wife, prioritizes the life of his eldest son, is disillusioned about the world around him, works harder then most of us will ever have to, and stops making enough money to support his family.

Time and time again Broadway, the theatre that will only produce a play if is almost sure to make money, has revisited the script and usually to wonderful reviews. Broadway has produced the play on four different accounts. During 1949 Lee J. Cobb starred as Willy Loman. In 1975 George C. Scott and Harvey Keitel starred as Willy Loman and Biff Loman respectively. In 1984 Dustin Hoffman and a young John Malkovich played the parts of Willy Loman and Biff Loman respectively. With the 1984 version a movie was produced which adapted the style of the theater rather well. Finally in 1998 Brian Dennehy starred as Willy Loman, and once again receieved wonderful reviews.

The reason, I believe, that Death of a Salesman receives so much acclaim is that it is about a sympathetic character who represents an often misconstrued concept. Willy Loman is the essence of the American Dream. He represents the hopes and dreams that we all strive for everyday. He is a tragic hero designed to show Americans, in particular, how people are flawed. Even though we may all be flawed we must not constantly strive for false hopes, ones that are away from true happiness. It is something that Americans can truly relate to, as could most capatalist cultures. The problem with the script today is that it is outdated. Some references to particular brands or ideas people would not recognize.

Scripts cannot be entirely interpreted by being read. A script by definition is meant to be preformed, it is written for the stage. Furthermore, each time a play is performed it is done so differently. A well done version of Death of a Salesman will make the audience feel bad about Willy dying. Likewise a poorly done rendition of the play will make the audience feel that Willy deserved to die. Though, the idea that one of these versions is "good" and the other is "bad" is an opinion. I imagine that Arthur Miller wished Willy Loman to be a sympathetic character, for it gives the play more meaning.


"The fat, philandering, dishonest creature that is Willy Loman." -christ

Back in the days when my weekends were rife with acts of ontological terror, I derived great pleasure from storming public places in a cloud of chaos, costume and confusion. From midnight grocery shopping dressed as a priest (with shopping list tucked into a Bible) to begging for spare change in a three-piece suit, I got a buzz from my own special blend of adrenaline and absurdity.

One night I convinced my friends to dress up with me, and we headed into the suburbs to have fun with it. If I remember correctly, I was wearing my standard goth uniform but had sprayed my hair grey and done a quick "old man" makeup job. After rearranging the signs in the frozen foods aisle at the local grocery and standing outside the mall distributing blank slips of paper as if they were religious tracts, we ended up in line at a Taco Bell.

The unsettled patrons were stealing furtive stares at us. Finally, an ill-humored man ahead of us in line turned to face us. "Are you guys in a play or something?" he asked.

I smiled. "Yes, we are. It's called Death of a Salesman. You wouldn't happen to be a salesman, would you?"

I was a real ass when I was young.

(Spoiler warning: I'm going to analyze the shiz outta this play, so if you haven't read it or care much about me cutting a work of beauty into teeny-tiny parts and studying how they writhe—well, in the tradition of porn sites, please stop viewing this and instead click here.)

With images of sparkling mansions soaring upward as high as the hopes of those who yearn for them, the American Dream certainly seems the reward of capitalism. The gate barring one from success is malleable, to be hammered away with hard work and a bit of luck. To Willy Loman—father, salesman, materialist—in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman", this deceptively-easy-to-achieve goal of prosperity championed by an equally materialistic society defines his motivation. Though having slaved away at his job for thirty-four years, Willy has little to show for decades of hard work. However, he stubbornly clings onto his get-rich-quick fantasy, holding as his life's credo the words of his dead brother, Ben: "When I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!" Willy has tried to raise "perfect" sons who will succeed where he has failed, but he continually quarrels with his older son, Biff, whom he views as "a lazy bum". Willy's tendency to see Biff as a money vessel coupled with his literal adultery shows that his true fidelity lies only with his stunted version of the American Dream. Willy grows progressively more deranged throughout the story, until his failure to succeed manifests itself as a tragic suicide in an attempt to let Biff live the Dream through insurance settlements. Ironically, as the conflict between Biff and Willy climaxes into Willy's final act of altruism, Biff has realized that he cannot reconcile his own personality and desires with blind adherence to the American Dream.

Feelings of betrayal form the source of the conflict. Biff used to be a high school football star, his self-confidence stoked by his father, who remarks how thankful he is that Biff and his brother, Happy, are "built like Adonises" and constantly predicts how Biff will be "impressive..., well-liked." In Willy's materialistic mindset, "the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead", and so he inflates his sons with the importance of superficial trivialities, ego-inflating lies that Biff later remarks "blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody".

In following his own ineffectual advice, Willy unsurprisingly fails to succeed. Consequently, he must inflate himself, boosting his paltry earnings of two hundred dollars into an impressive $1200 when asked about the success of his latest business trip. Despite his braggadocio, he actually is estranged from his fantasy of success and finds himself alone on the road more often than at home—"lonely..., terribly lonely". He has an affair with another woman, who gives him the self-worth he needs by distinguishing him from the other salesmen "because he's so sweet. And such a kidder....She'll put him right through to the buyers." However, when Biff learns about the affair, he is stung by his father's betrayal of the marriage and of his trust. He for the first time loses his absolute confidence in Willy, and as he sees the real image of his father—a lonely, unsuccessful liar—his faith in the American Dream starts to crumble. Years later an adult Biff, pressured insistently by Willy, attends an interview with his former boss, trying to borrow money to fund a homemade business scheme. In a fit of kleptomania that masks his aversion to following the Dream, Biff steals a pen and runs out of the office—but stops abruptly, in epiphany. "And I looked at the pen," he relates, "and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be?" As his faith in the Dream dissolves totally, Biff finally concentrates on himself and on whom he wants to be. He can unabashedly call himself "a dime a dozen" because he realizes that money does not determine worth. With Willy still refusing to release his desperate hold on his son and success, Biff understands that the Dream—both Willy's obsession with it and Biff's own pursuit of it—obscures his true identity. He implores, "Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?"

In Willy's eyes, though, Biff has betrayed Willy's expectations of him. Biff is unable to hold a steady job since his high school days; Willy thinks he's "no good..., no good for anything." The conflict represents Willy the salesman's failure to sell his son on the American Dream. Obsessed literally to death with the supposed fulfillment offered by financial success, Willy listens eagerly to the promises of his alter ego, Ben: "The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds, Willy." He, through Ben's words, transforms his suicide into the resolution of a skewed moral struggle, where he sacrifices himself for Biff's sake after realizing that "after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive". However, Willy's suicide helps no one and fails to fulfill his dreams or convince Biff to embrace the American Dream. His wife, Linda, says that "it seems to [her] that [he's] just on another trip", indeed that Willy's death has only perpetuated the same vicious cycle of material striving that initiated his suicide.

The real tragedy of the story ultimately is Willy's failure to see or appreciate his family's anguished but real love for him. Blinded instead by fantasies of wealth and grandeur, he never sees the meaning behind his friend Charley's statement that "no man only needs a little salary"—that to be fulfilled one must also live a spiritual, emotional, family life. The play closes to a flute melody that symbolizes Willy's delusional, blind faith in the American Dream. With a stage empty except for the image of overwhelming buildings that had so distressed him, in his fruitless death Willy ends up as he had been: alone.

more analyzing of Death of a Salesman. The shiz hath hitteth the fan.

A healthy father-son relationship is one key to family harmony. In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, this relationship has become strained and has begun to disintegrate. Willy Loman is nearing death, whereas his older son Biff is stuck on deciding what he wants from life. Willy has his own ideas of what Biff should be and should strive to achieve. His aspirations for Biff closely mirror what Willy himself accomplished or wished to accomplish in life, but Biff’s own hopes differ from those of his father. He wants the freedom to do whatever he wishes and to search out his place in the world. Willy’s view of his own life and goals, especially near his death, conflicts with his son’s ideas and aspirations, leading to a chaotic family and a criticism of the success ideal.

The causes of Willy and Biff’s problems are apparent throughout their lives, with contradiction and delusion dominating early on. Willy denies Biff’s kleptomania, an act which exposes Biff’s tendency to go against America’s standards and expectations. Willy claims that he thinks “the mind is what counts”, yet he doesn’t care that Biff is flunking math, which starts Biff’s slide into obscurity. Willy is instead focusing on Biff’s athletics, a motif representing a sensationalized idea of success that very few athletes obtain. Willy’s father “left when he was such a baby”, and he makes sure that the same doesn’t happen to Biff by trying to control his son’s life. He wants to “get Biff a job selling”, following his own career choice, yet Biff still wants and needs to “find himself” in the world. Linda knows that Biff is “lost”, and Happy also sides with Biff, wanting to go off and start a farm together. This exposes the two different stages in life where the men are at, which contributes to their misunderstandings. Whereas Willy believes that “not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace”, Biff is a different man, and realizes that “all he wants is out there, waiting for him the minute he realizes who he really is.

Neither Biff nor Willy never knew what he wanted from life. Willy thought he knew (success and money), but this ideal was unattainable in his situation. “A salesman is got to dream”, but Biff knows that “the man didn’t know who he was.” This ultimately destroyed Willy and all that he worked for. Biff doesn’t want to end up this way. He wishes to search for himself and then decide what he wants from life, and for the time being that means just “working out in the open.” Both men have different ideas of success and happiness, exposing the ambiguity of what “success” is. Willy thinks everyone has a chance to work their way up to the top, exmplified in Ben’s “walking out” with riches, but he has gotten nowhere. Biff merely wants to be happy doing what he wishes, not necessarily committing to working towards success and materialism.

Willy and Biff’s differing ideals cause their conflicts and expose an ambiguity within the idea of success. How they wish to achieve success conflicts, due in part to the different stages of life they are living. Biff and Willy had contrasting ideals, but wIlly did not recognize this and naively wanted to mold his son’s ideas after his own. Willy has reached his end, and his view of life clashes with and contradicts his son’s ideas and aspirations, showing their opposing dreams and leading to a chaotic family unit.

Stage Directions in Death of a Salesman

The Nature of Stage Directions

Arthur Miller uses staging and special effects in Death of a Salesman to create atmosphere and tone, and to express ideas nonverbally to his audience. Through effects of lighting and sound, Miller creates characterisation, irony, images, metaphors, tone, and transitions. Special effects are a grey area in terms of literary analysis, as the stage directions in a script are open to a certain degree of reinterpretation by directors. Individual productions of Death of a Salesman may or may not incorporate individual elements of Miller's stage directions. For example, Dustin Hoffman's movie version of the play excludes the opening scene's orange and blue lighted landscape. The optional nature of the special effects in Death of a Salesman mean that each stage direction may lead to several different effects in productions. The leaves mentioned in the stage directions could take the form of physical leaves strewn across the stage, or they could be represented through lighting effects, creating an entirely different impression.

It is the director's job both to provide his or her own interpretation of a script, and to convey the playwright's original concepts. Arthur Miller's stage directions are intriguingly conducive to the latter. On the second page, for example, in his description of Linda, Miller says "... she more than loves him, she admires him, as through his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and littler cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him, longings which she shares but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to their end." This passage transcends the usual purpose of stage directions. It is strongly effective as characterisation, and indeed has literary merit in and of itself.

Many of Miller's stage directions are concise, clearly interpreted, and easily translated into physical effects. However, some of them are more metaphorical and open to interpretation, allowing considerable directorial leeway. "...the house, which holds the air of night and a dream." is powerfully suggestive, but not specifically descriptive of how the author wishes to create this effect. These vague lines in Miller's stage directions may be intended primarily to convey they author's meaning and themes to the director and actors who would be reading the script in its complete state. However, they may alternately be intended to bring out the director's interpretation of "the air of night and a dream", making the play uniquely personal every time it is performed.

Sound

From the beginning of the play, music is used to set atmosphere and tone. While it may be thought of as pastoral, one can also see that the haunting flute which both opens and closes the production might be imagined as sounding forlorn and gently tragic, in the beginning setting the stage for the Loman family's tragedy, and in the end mourning for Willy Loman. Sound is a central part of the scenes set in the Lomans' past; here it suggests happier times by its cheerfulness, and Ben's theme music reinforces both his position as Willy's idol and the aura of success that surrounds him.

Sound is also used to enhance the audience's understanding of the characters. For example, in the Dustin Hoffman version, sound is used in the restaurant scene to create an impression of what Willy is thinking. The audience hears scrambled pieces of sound, often voices calling Willy's name. The effect is unsettling and creates pathos.

A similar effect is achieved through tone of voice in Lee J. Cobb's version of the play. Cobb creates the atmosphere of the memories with an enthusiastic tone of voice, and later in the play illustrates Willy's position through a desperate tone. While such elements as tone of voice and acting techniques are not technically "special effects", they are nevertheless used to create an effect on the audience and thus are related.

Sound in Death of a Salesman is used to promote understanding of the characters and events in the play, to set atmosphere and tone of scenes (particularly of memories), to characterise -- especially in the case of Ben -- and to create pathos.

Lighting

Lighting in Death of a Salesman often illustrates atmosphere and mood. In most of Willy's memories, leaves (presumably lighting, as mentioned on page 109) cover the stage, creating a pastoral and seemingly happy atmosphere. In stark contrast, the scenes in the restaurant and the hotel room are characterised by a red glow. (If one wished to pun, one might suggest this is reminiscent of the "red light district"), red symbolising passion and anger. Throughout the play, lighting is used in this way, defining the atmosphere in which the characters exist, in the absence of settings and props to do so.

Lighting is also used to indicate the location on the stage in which relevant action is occurring. When Willy moves into his memories, a different type of light or location of light indicates the difference between his location on the space-time continuum as different from that of those around him. For example, light is used to express Willy's memories about the woman while Linda remains sitting in the kitchen of the house. We are not confused about Linda's involvement or lack thereof in the scene, because light indicates that the action occurs where she is not.

Characterisation is also brought about to a certain extent through lighting, though in a subtle manner that serves more to accentuate certain character traits that are expressed elsewhere. In the film version, the character Happy is nearly always half-lit, implying that his life revolves about the half of his life that is splendour of his past success, instead of the stagnation and discontent that is his present.

Sound and Light Used Together

Miller often uses sound and light to indicate transitions between Willy's mind and reality, as in the case of the woman's laugh becoming Linda's, the truth becoming lies, as Willy travels from daydream to reality. Other transitions, between times and places, are indicated similarly. Atmospheric music, presence and absence of light, and incidental sounds create movement between past and present. For example, as Willy is lost in remembering Biff's visit to Boston, persistent knocking pulls him entirely into the memory and away from the current physical scene, the restaurant. Slightly later "the light follows him" from the hotel room to the hallway, making clear to the audience his movement from one surrounding to another without change of set elements.

Staging As Metaphor

Please see the writeup below.


Half of a group presentation for IB English. Node your homework.

The Cheese of a Salesman

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of those theatrical plays in which every object seen and referenced can, and often should, be construed as a symbol.
The stage directions and much of the dialogue make this clear, as there is repeated reference to plants, the sky and various other typical topics of symbology that congrue with the base content of the plot and the plights of the characters.
My IB English teacher, before assigning a group presentation on the aforementioned symbolism, claimed that "No word in this play is wasted."

In that spirit, here is a quasi-analytical poem from said presentation. Edutainment!
Please note that it won't make a lick of sense without seeing, at least, the first half of the play.

An Ode to the Cheese of a Salesman

Willy is flustered. So to put him at ease,
Linda suggests he eat delicious Cheese
Now, Willy’d be happy with Cheese, you would guess.
But Willy is angry: It’s from the U.S.!
When Willy wants Cheese that is called “Swiss” by name
It’s much like his wish that his life stay the same.
His affront to the fancy new Cheese in the place
Reminds us of how Willy can’t keep up pace
With a world that is changing, and sales are not found.
And Willy is old, and cannot drive around.

When he balks that The Cheese is whipped, and not flat,
It’s once again Miller reminding us that
Willy is lost in this updated state.
His old-timey stance is too little, too late.
So, Willy is asking us: “Why switch The Cheese?
If it’s not broke, why fix it whenever you please?”

The Cheese here’s a symbol of progress, it’s clear.
It’s a common such symbol, but not around here.
But for people who analyse dreams all their life
The symbolic change found within Cheese is quite rife.
Cheese, after all, requires much change to wield
Since it’s made up of Milk that has erstwhile congealed.

Now that fact brings us to the topic of Milk
Which fits the motif, as it’s of dairy ilk.
The question of why Willy thinks Milk is better
When urged to consume some American Cheddar
Ties into the baser events of the play:
His hopeless success is just too far away.

Willy’s world has been updated, we’ve seen.
But Willy still seeks The American Dream.
The Milk, like his dream, has intangible nature.
His desire to escape from his low social stature
Is not solid like Cheese, but is still what is sought
Expressed through the symbol of milk he has bought.

The Milk, unlike Cheese, contains no solid base
Like how Willy aspires to transcend the rat race.
Now life offers Will change but, still, he won’t tread
Through the strange new unknown, staying passive instead.
So The Cheese symbolises a world full of change
Which Willy avoids ‘cause he finds it too strange.

And if you thought Cheese symbols were beyond belief,
Their repeated occurrence makes Cheese a motif.
And when Linda says Cheese is on the middle shelf,
It could be Cheese import centralizing itself.

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