1. Arthur Miller Society Official Web Site
  2. Arthur Miller Page
  3. Arthur Miller (1915-)
  4. Death of a Salesman, Opening Night
  5. Death of a Salesman, Study Guide (English Tutor)
  6. Death of a Salesman (Homework Online)

 

The Poetics of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

by Rafiya Hasan,

Written in 1949, Death of a Salesman tells the tragic story of an average man in the most poetic terms. The play presents a host of ideas and themes that engage audiences all over the world. At its simplest level it can be seen as a domestic drama exploring relationships in the background of changing times, chief of which is the one between an eccentric father and his no-good sons. Here, Miller’s earlier examination of father-son conflicts in All My Sons seems to anticipate the tension between Willy’s aggrandized vision of success and his son, Biff’s disillusionment with a phoney father. Willy’s illusions of materialistic success relate to the myth of the American dream. This idea elevates the play to another dimension where American culture and politics play pivotal roles in the lives of the characters. As a social commentary, it brings to the foreground the nihilistic features of a capitalist society. The play indicts a system that values machines more than men. In an effort to achieve that American dream, Willy Loman clings to past fables that elude him constantly. His meeting with his boss, Howard, is a classic example of the values that a market economy of the twentieth century focuses on. Howard’s line ‘I can’t take blood from a stone’ is explicit of a system where profits are the bottom line and ‘business is business’. Willy is a perfect example of someone who feels betrayed because he can’t achieve the financial goals society has set up for him: ‘ I put thirty-four years in this firm, … and now I can’t pay my insurance.’ He is unable to accept his failings and denies their existence till the very end. Even in death he holds on to that dream in securing for Biff insurance money to boost his future.

From the urgency and desperation of Willy’s situation, we are bound to see the play from another angle---one that looks into the working of his inner life. Undoubtedly Miller meant for his audience to look into this aspect as is obvious from the dream and memory sequences. In fact, The Inside of His Head was the first title conceived for the play because in Miller’s own words ‘the inside of his head was a mass of contradictions.’ We catch glimpses of Willy’s subconscious distraught with guilt, hope and regret. It is through these scenes that Miller allows us to see the internal turmoil of a mind that has not come out of adolescence and because of it, is unable to help his own sons to healthy maturity. His childishness is time and again released in his angry outbursts and his refusal to listen to anyone but himself. His impatience and stubborn nature is expressed in his vehement denial of financial constraints to Charley, his devoted friend and neighbour. He scorns and insults him because he is a docile and easy target but when faced with similar success in Howard, he succumbs to his position as the superior and ends up begging for his job. His character is riddled with such conflicts. He will not accept failure to any one but he admits it to his wife, Linda. There is therefore, recognition of his condition within Willy but at the same time there are so many contradictory forces working on his mind that he is continuously pulled back from reality. He falls into reveries and imaginings from his past that tell of his delusions of grandeur. He idolizes family history in Ben who is the epitome of success. These memories are Willy’s support in a society that is failing him. As he progresses more and more towards personal disappointments---Biff’s failure in life, loss of his job, and the realization of a low self-worth---he moves successively further into his dream world succumbing to it in a complete breakdown. It is a portrayal of this troubled ‘self’ that is the hallmark of Death of a Salesman.

It is Miller’s artistry that renders this aspect in so endearing a light. His subtle blend of realism and expressionism gives the play its particular dreamlike aura. The realism is fairly obvious as seen reflected in its influence from Henrik Ibsen who perfected the art of presenting a whole lifetime in the short Period of stage time. In both Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, the major action takes place in the past and the events are revealed in the course of the play. The dramatic action moves to create tension and rises to an exciting crescendo as it reveals the events that lead up to the catastrophe. Miller asserts the inter dependence of all time as a single unit that accumulates and grows till it impinges on the present. He brings to attention the importance of past decisions in how they effect the present. In Death of a Salesman, this is of course Willy’s adultery, the discovery of which alienates Biff from a doting father. This basic outline is filled out with various props and evocations of the modern, urban world of middle-class society. The refrigerator, the subways, saccharine, Chevrolet, B.F.Goodrich, Thomas Edison, General Electric, New York Giants, mortgages, insurance premiums are all documents of early twentieth century America. These cultural links are endless and provide the foundation for a realistic atmosphere. The language used is every day ordinary, cliché-ridden speech that the audience relates to immediately such as, ‘…life is a casting off’ , ‘The world is an oyster and you don’t crack it open on a mattress’ , ‘…personality always wins the day’ , ‘…a man has got to add up to something.’ The backdrop itself presents a house in Brooklyn that is dwarfed by towering apartment buildings that could be the setting for any modern city anywhere in the world. References to distinct and well-known locales solidify this identification. Most theatregoers are familiar with Yonkers, Sixth Avenue, Hackensack and the names of various states of the U.S.A mentioned in the play. They encourage a bond between the artist and the audience.

Within this realism is an Ibsen-like symbolism that enriches the meaning of the play. Much like the Christmas tree and Nora’s Capri dress in A Doll’s House or the hair and pistol motifs in Hedda Gabler, there are several images woven into the fabric of Death of a Salesman that enhance its significance. Willy refers time and again to open spaces and complains about being ‘boxed’ in a place where ‘there’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighbourhood.’ Similarly Biff finds life in the west far more meaningful. He feels it unnecessary ‘To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off.’ The appeal of the west is connected to Willy’s own past. His father, we are told was an inventor and a pioneer who roamed the far-off territories to earn his living. The implication here is the mystique that the outdoors life holds for Willy as well as Biff. It’s an intergenerational desire for the simpler, pioneer way of life---a symbol of Willy’s revolt against modern, urban lifestyle.

A similar notion lies behind various instances of Willy’s skill at manual work. Although he scoffs at professions such as carpentry and hard labour, he has an inherent talent for doing things himself---put up the ceiling, plant seeds in his backyard, build a front stoop and even show his sons how to simonise a car properly. His scorn for Charley and Bernard who ‘can’t hammer a nail’ tells of the pride he takes in his own handiwork. His son’s athleticism is an extension of this dexterity and contributes to their sense of manhood. It is an expression of the same adventurous spirit that trickles down Willy’s family tree and urged Willy’s father to ride his wagon, inventing and selling his flutes.

Nature imagery is another strong motif running through the play that symbolizes the disappearance of an old system as it collides with a new world order. While Willy recollects ‘warm air bathe over’ in his ride in the country and thinks of ‘lilac and wistaria’ , he also complains of the cityscapes that have encroached upon all open land and left behind a claustrophobic feeling: ‘There’s not a breadth of fresh air in the neighbourhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard.’ When Willy bought his house, we are told, there were woods all around and he could hunt rabbits and snakes and had elms growing in the yard. But now, in the present, the woods are all gone and nothing grows because of the menacing buildings that shadow his house. Willy faces the onslaught of a new, commercial age where time is money and life is moving too fast ahead of him. This motif runs through the play from the beginning with Willy’s road accident when he was looking out the window relishing the scenery. It continues in his brother Ben’s timber business and the ‘jungle’ out of which he walked out a rich man. It recurs in the passionate phrase that Willy uses every time he comes across some harsh reality, ‘the woods are burning’. And it is reinforced when Linda lays down some roses at Willy’s grave at the close of the play. The image of constricted nature reflects the noose that society puts around Willy’s neck. He is tragically unable to come to terms with the invalidity of his profession in modern times. As the noose tightens, the only choice left him is suicide.

It is at this juncture that Miller introduces expressionistic techniques. The skill with which he blends them with the play’s realism is what gives Death of a Salesman its special place in the history of modern drama. Imagery from trees is taken one step further in the introduction of a leafy pattern that surrounds the stage. Every time Willy remembers the past, the stage directions call for this green cover. It lends to the reverie a dreamy quality. Expressionism aims to present subjective feelings and emotions in their most compelling form. The artist is not concerned with reality as it appears but with its inner nature and with the emotions aroused by the subject. To achieve this end the subject is frequently distorted or altered in order to stress a felt experience. Miller achieves this result with a clever combination of an innovative set, music and lighting.

The opening stage directions tell us already that ‘an air of dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality’. The importance of his setting goes deeper than the contribution he made to new methods of stagecraft. He had painted Willy’s character so vividly that the portrayal of a man confounded by his illusions and daydreams were not possible within the conventional structure of a realistic set. To show the intensity of Willy’s mood swings, Miller needed to rely heavily on the dramatic Machinery at his disposal. He called for a skeletal set, one which was ‘partially transparent’ with a ‘one-dimensional’ roof. For all the scenes in the present, the characters observe the imaginary boundaries but in the memory scenes, they freely move through the wall limits. The props are minimal---again to enhance an aura of unreality. The fragility of the house contrasts with the ‘towering’ buildings that surround it. The forestage is used for multiple purposes--- it is the setting for all Willy’s imaginings, the city scenes as well as the backyard of his house.

Music plays a vital role in embellishing Death of a Salesman with the essential atmosphere. The play opens with Willy’s music---the flute--- playing in the background. All memories of early days are accompanied by flute music that relate to Willy’s pioneer father, the flute maker. It reflects the happier days and a life that Willy should have had. Different music accompanies various different scenes. Within the scene when Ben relates their family history, the music changes to ‘a high, rollicking tune’ to symbolize the exaggerations of self-important speech. In the opening scene of Act two, ‘music is heard, gay and bright’. It is delusively upbeat and indicates the mood. Biff is to see Bill Oliver for a loan and Willy typically has high hopes of him. In the scene with the woman, a ‘raw, sensuous music’ is played in the background increasing the promiscuity of the scene. In the final scene the music rises in intensity to an ‘unbearable scream’ till it crashes with a ‘frenzy’ that symbolizes Willy’s frenzied state of mind and his car crash. It then changes to a ‘soft pulsation of a single cello string’ that develops into a ‘dead march’ as the background to Willy’s funeral. Miller uses sound to its expressionistic best in the tape-recorder scene where Willy tries to convince Howard to give his job back to him. But the accidental playing of the mechanical voices only worsens his deluded condition. They remind him of the mechanization of a world he barely understands any more. The voices are like the voices of his mind that he has no control over. And as Willy breaks down, the entire scene also collapses into a Ben sequence.

Light and colour are artistically used to inform or enhance the various moods of the play. When the curtain rises in Act One, ‘Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house’ and the surrounding area is shown in an ‘angry orange.’ The contrast of the two kinds of tones symbolizes the conflict of the individual in society as presented by the play. A dimming of lights heralds Willy’s reveries into the past and the stage is drenched with green leaves. Expressionistic use of light is made at the end of Act One when Linda and Willy dream of the golden days as they turn in for the night. Biff takes a stroll outside in a golden pool of light. All three are lost in their thoughts and the entire scene is ironically highlighted by the glow of the gas heater ‘a blue flame beneath red coils.’ It is an ominous foreshadowing of the end of Willy’s dreams. The moonlight that Willy admires through his window at the end of this scene is gone by the end of Act Two when he tries to read instructions on the seed packets with the help of a flashlight. The light is going out of Willy’s life too and despair looms above him as he sees all doors closing in his face.

Miller uses all these expressionistic devices with aesthetic subtlety. Music and light are the essential parts of an orchestrated set that blend into a harmonious whole to create a unified stage picture. It increases the emotional impact of the play on the audience. Miller needed the repository of all these works behind him in order to portray a despairing mind. He uses the memory sequences not as flashbacks but distinctly as events in the past that have a very real value in the present for Willy. Remembered past is distorted by the mind and coexists in his mind. Miller uses Ben’s sequences to help him show this. Ben hardly seems real; he is stiff and speaks a less expressive language. He is more of an ‘embodiment of Willy’s desire for escape and success’ He is perhaps more of a self-created image of the real Ben that surfaces as and when it suits Willy. His creation is the most effective in Miller’s desire to present the subjective feelings of his protagonist on stage. Willy projects all his aspirations and ideals on him and uses him as his defence mechanism against the hostile forces of the real world

For all these reasons and more, the play remains most prominent in the mind for its emotional impact. When everything else has been discussed, the one thing that is felt most strongly is a plain and simple fondness for the play. Death of a Salesman transcends the limiting barriers of classification and claims universal appeal in this respect. In Miller’s own words audiences are attracted to ‘some of the most rudimentary elements in the civilizing process: family cohesion, death and dying, parricide, rebirth, and so on.’ Despite its modernity the play projects the most basic, primal instincts in man. For the ordinary theatre-goer it touches the core of their sensibilities---the adulterous father, the sidelined mother, the wayward children, the endless bills that must be paid, the threat of unemployment, the spite of a child, guilt and shame and the quest for an ideal life. Audiences see themselves, their parents and their children in the play. It lays bare what is so familiar to each and everyone regardless of geographical boundaries. The aesthetics of the play encompass all these aspects and project a whole idea in the most compelling style. It is what makes the play outstanding in the history of drama and leaves us with pity, fear and hope---pity for Willy, fear of being as self-deluding as he, and hope that we arrive at some knowledge that we can take control of our lives, if we so wish.

 

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