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.
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 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.
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