In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller uses common objects as symbols of the evolving relationship between the main characters in his play. Women’s stockings and their holes symbolize the failing relationship between Willy Loman and his wife, Linda. Seeds in a garden symbolize Willy’s declining sense of self-worth and his need to leave something significant behind after his death. Finally, the fountain pen is a symbol of the burden Willy’s son Biff carries as he tries to live up to his father’s image despite never truly wishing to inhabit that role.First, Linda is always darning her old stockings to fix their holes. The holes resemble the things in her life that are broken. Willy gets frustrated with Linda when she tries to fix the old stockings; he feels she should throw them out. He says: “Will you stop mending stockings? At least while I am in the house. It gets me nervous. I can’t tell you. Please” (75). Willy’s reaction to the darning suggests the guilt he feels for having an affair – he gave a pair of Linda’s stockings to his mistress. To Biff, who witnessed that transaction, stockings represent betrayal and deep hurt. With “You-you gave her mama’s stockings” (121), Biff becomes aware that he and his mother have a relationship with Willy that is based on lies – full of holes. While Willy is out buying new stockings and giving them away to his materialistic mistress, Linda is home trying to fix the holes in her stockings and in their relationship.Second, Willy consistently mentions his interest in buying seeds for his garden. Because surrounding buildings block the sun, nothing has grown there for a long time. Willy laments about “the way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks. The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in this neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard” (17). The dead, boxed-in garden represents Willy’s state of mind as well – he feels he has no way out. After his fight with Biff in the restaurant, Willy has a deep desire to find a hardware store and purchases some seeds. He says to the waiter: “I have got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing is planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground” (122). He wants to bring life into a place he feels is dead, to leave a legacy for his sons before he kills himself. Through planting, Willy would express his desire for his sons to grow big and strong and live the life Willy wanted but never had.Finally, Biff steals a fountain pen in an act that represents his feelings of frustration and entrapment. From an early age, he has felt compelled to steal to fill a void in his life; he even spent some time in jail for it. When he is rejected by someone he thought would give him a loan, Biff steals a fountain pen off the desk and runs down the stairwell. He has no need for this pen. It represents all the times he stole in the past and the lifelong entrapment he has felt from his father. The theft prompts Biff to realize that he is no longer going to follow his father’s lead or follow someone else’s standards, nor does he have any more interest in taking things from others. At the end of the play, Biff is able to tell his father that the life of a salesman is not for him. The pen is what gave Biff the wisdom to change.Arthur Miller uses symbolism throughout his play to help show the Loman family’s dysfunction and the individual and shared problems its members face. His skillful use of common objects as important symbols demonstrates his talent as a playwright and contributes to the timelessness of this play.Work CitedMiller, A. (1949) Death of a salesman, Penguin Books, New York, USA.
Two plays by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, both contend that society is the indifferent, sometimes brutal, force that crushes an individual. Although the plays take place in different time periods, they each convey the force of society through setting and conflict. They particularly show this theme through the formation of masses or of opposing sides, as with the girls and townsfolk of The Crucible and the company values in Death of a Salesman. The use of scapegoats like Tituba and Willy further develop the theme. Finally, the sacrifices of Proctor and Willy show the pressure that society places on men to be honorable. Society contributes a great amount to the plight of a protagonist, and Miller portrays this theme through his characters and their interaction with one another. The two plays exhibit the theme of society’s power by showing a development of opposing sides, or enemies. For example, in The Crucible, the townspeople and the young girls take sides against the older women of the town. The Putnams are the primary adult offenders in the town. They fear what they do not understand, so they fear the supernatural connection between witchcraft and the deaths of their newborn children. Their position in society causes them to fear, so they oppose the sages of the group who do not have fear. Likewise, the children form sides against the older women of the group, but for different reasons. The children are completely restricted in their actions, particularly by the elderly, who represent their authorities. Thus, they react by unleashing their imaginations on the older townspeople. Similarly, Death of a Salesman is plagued with the formation of sides. This time, however, the conflict arises between Willy and the ethics of the new salesman. According to Richard J. Foster, “The values that seem to be represented in Willy, the ‘good’ values that function in the play as implicit criticisms of society’s ‘bad’ values, are the familiar romantic ones: nature, freedom, and the body; free self-expression and self-realization; individualism and the simple life…” (Foster 3). Willy’s nostalgic, almost quixotic ethics contrast with those of society, Howard, and modern business. It is evident in Willy’s scene with Howard, in which he is fired, that the sides are clearly defined, and Willy’s morals are no longer valuable to the company. As Miller writes, WILLY. In those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance of bringing friendship to bear—or personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me anymore. HOWARD. That’s just the thing, Willy. Thus, the forces of society crush Willy as an individual by making everything he has ever known obsolete. Furthermore, both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman portray the enormous power of society through the use of scapegoats. The difference, however, is that Death of a Salesman has a single person as a scapegoat, whereas the people of Salem blame an idea before individuals. The people of Salem blame witchcraft for all of their problems, whether Sarah Good and the death of a neighbor’s pig, or Rebecca Nurse and the Putnam babies. Because the people fear what they do not understand, anything out of the ordinary is automatically supernatural in their eyes. Thus, Tituba, the slave from Barbados, is blamed for her “conjuring” and is hanged, along with many others. The people of Salem blame their problems on the “witches”. Scapegoats are used quite differently in Death of a Salesman. Biff blames his father, Willy, for not leading him correctly and trying to shield him from the real world. Willy’s overprotectiveness only puts off Biff’s coming of age, which occurs during his discovery of his father’s licentiousness with the anonymous woman. According to P.P. Sharma, “In the traumatic experience in the hotel room, however, [Biff] achieves an insight. With the realization that his father is a fraud comes his deliverance…By trying to make a hero out of [Willy] Biff realizes Willy was only obscuring his identity and to that extent not exactly helping. He lays the blame squarely on Willy for filling his mind with exaggerated self-conceit…” (Sharma 370). Thus, through the masses and their use of scapegoats, society has the brutal power to crush the individual. Finally, the societal pressure placed on honor is strong enough to break a man, as shown by John Proctor and Willy Loman. Using the definition of tragedy of Richard J. Foster, both men were tragic heroes, because both were willing to give their life up for their honor. John Proctor, the hero of The Crucible, is forced to sacrifice his honor by admitting to lechery in order to save his wife, who, ironically, lies to save him, destroying them both. His puritan beliefs hold honor to oneself in very high esteem, and this causes the his death. He chooses death over the stain of the family name by not signing the document, as portrayed in the following lines: PROCTOR. I have three children- how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?… Beguile me not! I blacken all of them when this is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence. DANFORTH. Then explain to me, Mr. Proctor, why you will not let [allow me to post your confession]- PROCTOR. …How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name! Thus, Proctor rejects the societal pressure and does not give in. Willy, however, succumbs to honor and hides his cowardice behind suicide, which gives his family insurance money. He commits suicide, but by Foster’s definition, which states that the tragic hero must be willing to give up his life, he is still a tragic hero. Thus, the plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, each exhibit the theme of society as the indifferent, sometimes brutal, force that crushes an individual through the formation of sides, the assignment of scapegoats, and the value of honor. In each case the individuals were crushed, either physically or mentally. Society contributes a great amount to the plight of a protagonist, and Miller portrays this theme through his characters and their interaction with one another.
A thorough analysis of the linguistic features of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) will illustrate how, for a conscientious reader, all we need to know about performance is supplied within the written text. Focusing on the dramatist’s use of preference structure, silence and the turn-taking mechanism, will reveal that all the vital characteristics of live theatre are available in the written words. To facilitate an evaluation of the legitimacy of linguistic methodology and its outcomes, it is first necessary to consider what may be discerned from the text and performance of Death of a Salesman from a non-linguistic perspective. The play originated from the presumption that “the distinction we make between our past and our present is unreal: it all exists simultaneously in our minds. ” Death of a Salesman exhibits the mind of Willy Lowman as it deteriorates through repeated disappointments and unattained aspirations. Many factors contribute to this process: obstinate faith in the American Dream and a need to prove oneself as a hero of the American way of life breeds deception of family members and himself. The entire Lowman family are central characters – with perhaps the exception of Happy – and the audience/reader is afforded insight into the themes, plot and the protagonist through their interactions. Willy’s wife Linda is a multifaceted character. She has the pretence of a stereotypical housewife in post-war America. The perpetual presence of a wash basket in her hands , stage directions such as ‘Linda is filling his cup when she can.’ … Linda holds his jacket for him’ (p.55) all highlight her perceived roll in the family. Linda speaks gently and plainly, when speaking to her husband, simple lines like ‘Just rest. Should I sing to you?’ (p.54) emphasise her calming, protective nature in the delicate handling of his mental state. However, her willingness to ban Biff from the house if he does not comply with her wishes regarding Willy, in conjunction with her proficient handling of the family finances expose Linda as a strong woman whose depth of perception far exceeds what her demeanour implies. This is evident when she tells her son’s that Willy ‘has to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to me that it’s his pay’ (p.45). Linda’s extensive awareness of the reality of the family’s situation is apparent when she tells her boys in Act One about ‘the little rubber pipe’ (p.47) she discovered. This bare truth is juxtaposed with vast deception Every day I go down and take away that little rubber pipe. But, when he comes home, I put it back where it was. How can I insult him that way? (p.47) This antithesis epitomises the conflict in Death of a Salesman. Those who allow themselves to see and confront the truth are in dispute with those who live in a cloud of delusions – be it by choice or consequence. While Linda conceals the truth to protect her loved ones, Happy chooses to deceive himself and others. He exaggerates like his father: when he meets Miss Forsythe in the restaurant scene he lies about he and his brother’s occupations. Very much the marginalized member of the family, Happy’s sporadic one-line contributions to discussions are incongruous and do little more than provide comic relief: ‘I’m gonna get married, Mom. I wanted to tell you.’ (p.53) Echoes his adolescent mantra ‘ I’m losing weight, you notice, pop?’ (P.26) These self – centred ploys for attention illuminate his peacekeeping efforts. When Biff insists on telling Willy an unpleasant truth about his moral character, Happy instructs him to ‘tell him something nice’ (p.83) and follows this by suggesting a nice lie that would suffice. When the tension gets to the point of embarrassment, Happy disowns Willy publicly rather than take action: ‘No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy.’ (P.91) Biff’s character contrasts his brothers in its complexity. He shows sensitivity towards nature when describing the ‘inspiring…sight of a mare and a new colt’ (p.16) in his first appearance on stage. Biff also admits in this scene that he is ‘mixed up’ and ‘like a boy’ (p.16); this sets the tone for Biff’s positive development towards self-awareness – the only character in the play that achieves this. Young Biff’s confidence is based on a false, inflated self image and perception of the world supplied by his father. Miller collides the moment when Biff first looses all certainty of self with the moment he first glimpses the truth of who his father is. The years of disillusion that followed cease when Biff comes to a clear understanding of himself and the danger of lying to oneself:How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a sales man there? I even believed it myself…he gave me one look and – I realised what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk. (P.82) Miller’s use of the word ‘dream’ in that speech of Biff’s draws a parallel between the trivial daily lies and the “greatest lie of all, that the world is composed of individuals to whom society is answerable, if one works hard enough success is inevitable.” Belief in this maxim contributes largely to Willy’s disappointments in himself and in Biff. His journey towards suicide is punctuated with morsels of hope hinging on falsification. At the end of Act One optimism surrounds the impending trip to Willy’s boss Howard, of which he states ‘Everything’ll be alright.’ (p.54) The following morning is also the day of Biff’s visit to Oliver for an unrealistic business proposal. Willy tells Linda that Biff is ‘heading for a change…He could be a – anything in that suit!'(p.55). When all ventures fail, Willy’s difficulty distinguishing appearance from reality and past from present degenerate: Biff: so I’m washed up with Oliver, you understand? Are you listening to me?Willy: Yeah, sure. If you hadn’t flunked- (p.87)Guilt from past misconduct can be seen here interfering with present judgement. Willy’s older brother Ben – who only appears in flashback sequences of Willy’s memories- symbolises the glorious past and the accomplishments of his father (as is indicated by the flute music which accompanies him) and thus also the importance of family ties. Ben also embodies the American dream. It is significant then, that it is he who lures Willy to the final decision of suicide. Desmond Wilcox states “Miller has denied that the play is either an indictment of American Capitalism or an analysis of family relationships gone wrong, though any reader or spectator is bound to feel that these are elements in it” It is appropriate that Wilcox includes the reader and the spectator as equals in his statement on the understanding of Death of a Salesman. Linguistic analysis of Arthur Miller’s manipulation of turn taking mechanisms – based on V. Herman’s modification of Sacks et al.’s formulation as described by Levinson (1983) – in an excerpt from the end of Act One (see appendix), supports many of the before mentioned deductions of character and theme. The sequence entails Linda, Biff and Happy discussing Willy’s condition. Of the 37 turns in total Linda owns 19, Biff 13 and Happy only 5. Immediately the reader understands that in the co-text of Linda’s usual infrequent, short calming turns, this indicates an unexpected depth to her character. Linda is the dominant character in this sequence, she self selects 8 times maintaining the topic and orientation on Willy’s misfortune despite Biff’s attempts to close the conversation at turns 10 and16, and his turn skips whenever Linda pry’s him for a truthful answer; 10, 16 and18. At turn 7 Linda takes a long turn of 16 lines without any pre-emptory bid for the floor . Her speech is full of challenging rhetorical questions which indicate to the reader much of the history of Willy’s circumstances and deterioration, ‘no one knows him any more, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man’s mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent?’ The repetition of ‘no one’ emphasises the atmosphere of isolation that plagues Willy and permeates the play: the same isolation that filled the Lyric Theatre during the performance I attended . The ambience was aided by Miller’s set design notes calling for ‘towering angular shapes…surrounding all sides’ (p.7), which imposed on the audience as well as the actors. The loneliness evoked that evening is equally present in the texture of Linda’s speech at turn 7. Miller uses naturalistic language with poetic syntax to convey atmosphere and tone in the speech. Repetition of ‘old’, ‘why’ and ‘how long’ resonate with disillusionment and weariness. The description of his fruitless efforts epitomise how the American Dream is mythical and Willy’s dedication to it detrimental to his well-being. Happy’s superficial nature is evident in Linda’s pointed remarks in turn 3 and her insult which prompts him to end turn 7 by interrupting her with his characteristic brevity. She responds with a term of endearment in turn 9 to soften the dispreferred accusation, then she turns her attention to Biff, Miller indicates in the stage directions that he is selected as next speaker. She poses a direct question, but the adjacency pair is left open, Biff turn skips at turn 10 and simultaneously attempts a closing of the conversation. Linda who will clearly disprefer both aspects of her son’s response, self selects and denies him the power to close the conversation whilst ensuring that the current topic is maintained. In turns 11 – 14, mother and son alternate turns equally and speak honestly. Turns 13 and 14 are a (QA) adjacency pair that expose a truth about the past and allude to the secret affair of Willy’s that Biff dare not mention to his mother. The guilt, sensitivity and protective nature of Biff become apparent in Miller’s turn management here. When Linda reproaches Biff with metalanguage to explain further in turn 15, he responds with a multi-clause turn skip with further attempts to close the conversation abruptly ‘I’m going to bed.’ And follows this with an attempt to leave the room. Linda again self selects at line 17 with a dramatic truthful comment that angers Biff, but does not prompt to question her – illustrating the avoidance of truth which characterises this family. He instead counter reproaches her with the question ‘Now what do you want?’ Linda resists his counter-reproach opting instead at turn 19 to force the truth about Willy out into the conversation. She selects Biff in the turn, which indicates the inequity among the three characters, Happy ‘turns quickly to her, shocked’ but does not turn grab despite Biff’s attributable silence at turn 20. Biff’s silence may be due to a gap between his ability to consider the news and then formulate a respectful, relevant response. This would be supported by other indication of Biff’s sensitive character in spite of all his spite. What follows in turns 21 and 22 is another (QA) adjacency pair, honest and direct on both parts. In turn 22 Biff asks his mother ‘How’ is his father trying to kill himself and because the topic has now orientated to a matter which involves Linda’s secretive behaviour the dominance shifts slightly. Linda turn skips for the first time at turn 23 and this segues to a short side sequence . Biff reproaches her at turn 24 and prompts her at turn 26. At turn 27 Linda begins her full explanation, but it is punctuated with full stops and hesitations. Happy self selects at turn 28 with an exclamatory remark, one line long, denying the truth of the situation. The remark is not acknowledged by anyone (which occurs throughout the play) and Linda resumes her explanation at turn 29. The trailing dots and stage directions imply a pause at the end of Linda’s first line, she is likely to be bracing herself for the divulgence of more unpleasant information but Biff misinterprets the TRP and begins to speak ‘simultaneously’ as Linda continues causing an overlap of turns 30 and 31. The reader may infer that Biff’s contribution to the overlap was provoked by an over-attentiveness deriving from guilt of secrecy and his desire to shield his mother that manifests itself repeatedly in the play, e.g. Biff [furiously]: ‘stop yelling at her!’ (p.51). Another side sequence results, initiated by Linda’s ‘what?’ at turn 32. Biff chooses the preferred option and drops out politely. Linda however does not accept this and reproaches him to tell her what he said. Metalanguage dominates the clarification of this sequence as turns 35 and 36 form a final (QA) adjacency pair resulting in Biff repeating his words honestly. Happy self selects at turn 36 with a mild prompt to move the conversation away from conflict and Linda responds by at last elaborating to answer the question she was asked at turn 22, thus closing the Question/Answer pair. It is clear that Biff and Linda afford each other a full hearing (apart from one misunderstanding). Smooth turn change between them occurs with each responding when selected and no turn grabs occurring. This illustrates the mutual respect and affection they share. On the contrary, Linda only selects Happy once and that is the only time he is selected, his shallow duplicity is not only evident in the turn management of the sequence, it is also stated within Linda’s 3rd and 7th turns. It is significant that the two boys facilitate Linda’s dominance of this sequence, as they give her full hearing bar the occasional interruption and select her most. It is apparent in this sequence that the themes of the play involve the danger of deluding oneself and loved ones, in addition to the detrimental effect wholehearted belief in a national fallacy. Linguistic analysis also demonstrated all features of character that one needs to know to understand the play and experience its tension, pathos and tragedy. NOTES: Wilcox, Americans. P.45 Ibid. p.49 Banks. Drama and Theatre Arts. P.257 Wilcox. Americans. P.45 Herman. Dramatic Discourse. P.81 Ibid. p.118 Grant. Director of: Death of a Salesman. Oct. 1999. Herman. Dramatic Discourse. P.131 Ibid. p.84 Ibid. p.87 Simpson. Odd Talk. P.39 Herman. Dramatic Discourse. P.83 Ibid. P.85 Ibid. P.111 Ibid. P.113BibliographyPrimary Sources1. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. England: Penguin Books Ltd. 1961 reprint. 2. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Director, David Grant; Lyric Theatre, October 1999.Secondary Sources 1. Banks, R.A. Drama and Theatre Arts. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. 1985.2. Herman, Vimala. Dramatic Discourse. London: Routledge. 19953. Simpson, Paul. Odd Talk in Exploring the Language of Drama from Text to Context. eds: Culpeper, J., Short, M. and Verdonk, P. London: Routledge. 19984. Wilcox, Desmond. Americans. Hutchinson, 1978.
Arthur Miller’s American masterpiece Death of a Salesman, first presented on the stage in New York City in 1949, represents a successful literary attempt at blending the themes of social and personal tragedy within the same dramatic framework. Yet the story of Willy Loman is also one of false values sustained by almost every publicity agency in the national life of the United States. Thus, Willy Loman accepts at face value the over-publicized ideals of material success and blatant optimism, and therein lies his own personal tragedy. His downfall and final defeat illustrate not only the failure of a man but also the failure of a way of life, being a door-to-door salesman. Miller’s ability to project this story of his tragic, lower middle-class hero into the common experience of so many Americans, who sustain themselves and their families with illusions and ignore realities, makes Death of a Salesman one of the most significant plays in American theater within the last fifty years.The character of Willy Loman, the themes of social and personal tragedy, and the overall commonality found within Miller’s play are prime territories for further exploration through the use of psychological criticism and literary deconstruction. In the realm of psychology, Willy Loman’s accomplishments and sources of pleasure appear to be simple and straight-forward, yet they do provide an excellent psychological foundation on his life, due to his leading a very average existence as a traveling salesman which he believes will enable him and his family to attain wealth and comfort. For twenty-five years, Willy has been working to pay off the mortgage on his modest home, and once that is accomplished, he will attain a sense of freedom, or the “American Dream”. This goal, in light of the economic/social conditions that existed at the time in which the play is set, presents a perfect picture of his ultimate aim in life, clearly outlined by dollar signs and a sense of ownership, two key points to personal success as far as Willy is concerned.Psychologically, the key aspect which leads to Willy’s depression is his inability to face reality in the present. His life, it seems, is lived in the past and the future, and his declaration “You wait, kid, before it’s all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country” (Miller 57) symbolizes his constant dwelling on some rather impractical dreams. As a salesman, Willy travels from state to state, staying in cheap motels while on the road peddling his goods. This increases the importance of his house because it is not only a place of habitation but a representation of fleeting stability, a concrete necessity that cannot be taken away once the last payment has been made. While discussing his sons with his wife, Willy boasts “And they’ll get married, and come for a weekend…” (Miller 62) which symbolizes his pride in his ownership of the house. Through all this, Willy has remained constant and vigilant, maintaining his unwavering belief that he is truly living the “American Dream.”In addition, the competition that Willy encounters in his day-to-day selling activities is too tough for his modest talents, and the path he has chosen denies his true being at every step. He idolizes the “dream” beyond the truth in himself and becomes a romantic, a shadowy non-entity whose only happiness lies in looking forward to miracles, since reality constantly mocks him. His real ability for manual work outside of being a salesman seems trivial to him, for he tells his son Biff in Act II “Even your grandfather was more than a carpenter” (Miller 36). From this self-denial, Willy loses the sense of his own thought; he is a stranger to his own soul; he no longer knows what he thinks either of his sons or his automobile; he cannot tell who are his true friends; he is forever in a state of enthusiastic or depressed bewilderment.As far as deconstruction is concerned, Death of a Salesman is a wide open expanse that can be dissected from many viewpoints. First of all, as Miller excavates the various layers of Willy Loman’s life, the reader becomes aware of the hollowness of his dreams and the extent to which his illusions protect him from being overwhelmed with guilt and regret. From this perspective, Willy’s innermost feelings and emotions related to his job as a salesman and his position as a family man could be deconstructed in order to reveal his true motivations. Secondly, Willy continues to profess his faith in the honor of his profession. This raises a pertinent question concerning Ben, Willy’s brother – is his life a credible alternative to the one Willy lives, or does Willy view it as only another version of the “American dream”?Just as Willy refuses to acknowledge the consequences of not going to Alaska with Ben, so he refuses to accept the consequences of his affair with the unidentified woman in Boston. If Willy views his son Biff as he truly is, then Willy will have to admit to himself that Biff’s discovery of the affair might have undermined the inflated self-image Willy encouraged in Biff. Willy tells Biff that “I won’t take the rap for this, you hear? (Miller, 103), even as Biff insists that he does not blame his father for his own failures. As an area for deconstruction, this scenario raises many other questions associated with the true character of Willy Loman and how it relates to those around him.Of course, the deepest insight into Willy Loman occurs when Charley asks “Willy, when are you going to grow up?” (Miller, 68), but this can also be applied to Charlie himself, for he states that “My salvation is that I never took any interest in anything” (Miller, 74), which shows that both characters are children at heart, for without desire, there is no reason to fear disappointment.BibliographyMiller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 50th Anniversary Edition. Preface by Arthur Miller. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
From its very infancy, the American continent was often equated with boundless opportunity. In A Description of New England John Smith characterized the early colonies of 1616 as a land of economic potential, declaring that “If a man work but three days in seven, he may get more than he can spend. (51)” In America, it was possible for a man from even the most modest of origins to ascend to great wealth through diligence and the sweat of his brow, unrestrained by any social hierarchy or intellectual qualifications. As the nation grew, however, the composition of the American Dream began to shift accordingly. By 1949, when Death of a Salesman debuted, the United States had endured the Civil War, two World Wars, the prosperity of the roaring twenties and ensuing collapse of the Great Depression, and was again in the midst of an economic boom. The economic and social change transformed forever the very definition of the American Dream. Once a philosophical ideal, the concept had essentially come under the brand ownership of corporate America. Rather than inspiring men to greatness, the American Dream instead was used as a marketing tool, urging a nation’s eager consumers to partake of tract housing, new cars, and processed food. Bundled up and sold along with the dream was a pervasive conformity, guarding against the threat of economic instability which had afflicted previous decades (Schwartz 111). Suddenly, the greatness promised by the dream was the greatnesses of middle class suburbia embodied in the sprawling acreage of Levittown, the ideal of unlimited wealth gained through hard work having been gradually relegated to the rapidly vanishing frontiers. As the definition of the dream changed, however, it left as casualties in its passing the lifeless bodies of those unable to adapt with it—people who bought wholeheartedly into one dream only to see that dream evaporate and be replaced by a new dream they perceived as the intangible compromise of those afraid to aspire for something more. One of those bodies scattered along the abandoned highway of the American Dream was that of Willy Loman.In many ways, Willy represented the last of the agrarian frontiersman, forced into the uncomfortable fit of a corporate world. For Willy, success was something you attained by how hard you worked and how well liked you were. This doctrine of how to achieve success consumed Willy’s life and sealed his fate. No matter what he achieved, Willy was constantly forced, by the conflict with his own aspirations, to view himself as a failure. For Willy success meant achieving the sudden wealth of the frontier. That frontier, however, was gone. Consequently, all Willy could do was suffer, comparing himself with an ideal which never really was attainable for him and, in his waning years, desperately trying to live the same unattainable dream vicariously through his sons in whom he’d instilled the same antiquated idealism which afflicted him. In Biff and Happy’s inability to live their father’s dream, however, they too were viewed as failures. The only real success depicted in Death of a Salesman is represented by three characters, one representing the extinct agrarian definition of the American Dream, another the acceptance of the corporate ideal which replaced it, and finally, one representing the intellectual potential capable of transcending that corporate ideal and its accompanying conformity—thus affirming that along with its vast capacity for failure, America still holds the potential for achieving greatness. It is through the analysis of Arthur Miller’s treatment of the characters of Ben, Charley, and Bernard that the transformation of the American Dream can be comprehensively evaluated.Ben is the only member of the Loman family to ever achieve any actual success. Consequently, and despite being somewhat of an enigma, he is virtually mythologized in the mind of Willy. Few details are known as to what real success he ever achieved but for Willy it is what Ben represents that is important. The very personification of the American Dream for the Loman family, Ben went off to make his fortune early in life and did exactly that. Not incidentally, however, he achieved that American Dream not in America but rather, in Africa. Suggesting that perhaps Willy’s concept of success in America had already been supplanted by the corporate ideal, Ben attained his fortune not in the nearby fields and byways of Willy’s world but rather, thousands of miles from the culture that imprisoned Willy. Nevertheless, the memory of Ben serves to provide Willy with a blueprint, albeit a vague one at best, of what it takes to achieve extraordinary success. Ben was a man’s man—rugged and optimistic. Even his description of his own success is stripped down to its barest essentials, summed up by declaring, “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich.”( What exactly Ben did in the jungle is a mystery. The only certainties relative to him are his role as the manifestation of all that Willy aspires to and, as such, his validation of Willy’s unattainable dreams. Had Willy gone with Ben to Alaska, when afforded the opportunity, would he too have achieved extraordinary wealth? The answer is unknown but in Willy’s mind, there is little doubt. Also of note is that Ben is the only character in the entire play that refers to Willy as William, perhaps suggesting a higher level of respect afforded to a successful man. Willy is the common man, relegated to the confines of economic weakness, whereas William was in many ways the potential for greatness that went unfulfilled2E It’s a large part of Willy’s dream to attain the respect and admiration of his peers, to be revered; yet he is ultimately only a pathetic remnant of his failed dreams, unable to rise above the juvenile moniker of Willy.Just as Ben represents the American Dream of Willy’s consciousness, Charley represents the realization of the dream as formulated in the boardrooms of corporate America. Willy’s foil, Charley lives his life devoid of lofty aspirations. All he wants is a happy, stable life free of debt and that is exactly what he attains. Though by no means a rich man, Charley is nevertheless several rungs up the economic ladder from the bottom step Willy occupies. For Charley, there is no equivalent to Ben, no dreams of achieving wealth in the frontier of the past, no archetype to be compared to. Instead, Charley is a willing participant in the corporate culture and the suburban life it entails. Unlike Willy, Charley is content with his Chevrolet, his whipped cheese, and all the other trappings that lead Willy to view himself as a failure. Most importantly, Charley recognizes the shifting taking place, realizing that being well liked and athletic is no longer sufficient to achieve success in the modern America. Instead of encouraging his son to be a man’s man—like Willy does—Charley sees the importance of education. In the reformulated America, a man is able to set himself apart not by the strength of his muscles or appeal of his smile but rather, by the capacity of his mind and breadth of knowledge. Late in the play, when Willy refuses Charley’s offers of help and employment, the sharp philosophical differences of the two characters are underscored. Willy cannot accept the help, not as a by-product of his eroding sanity but rather, on principle. Acceptance would be tantamount to acknowledging Charley’s unambitious philosophy to be the correct one, best suited for the era the two men occupy, and that is an admission Willy’s pride would never allow him to make.Having failed to achieve his own dreams, Willy turns to Biff and Happy in the desperate hope that they can attain that which he could not. Unfortunately, Willy was so adamant in his beliefs that he indoctrinated his sons in the same idealistic, agrarian attitudes that condemned him. Consequently, Willy cannot achieve success even vicariously, the destructive idealism self-perpetuating across generations. In contrast, Charley’s son Bernard—long the subject of Willy and Biff’s ridicule—represents the intellectual qualities required by the new America to attain success. Despite being physically weak and not “well liked,” Bernard, through the persistent application of his intelligence, becomes an eminent lawyer who, the very day Biff and Willy are forced to confront the falsehood of their lives, embarks for Washington to plead a case before the Supreme Court. The single most significant feat of the entire play, Bernard’s great success serves to demonstrate that America does indeed still hold the potential of attaining greatness. However, that greatness is based upon markedly different terms than the success that preceded it in the annals of American history.Ultimately, the America that serves as the canvas for Death of a Salesman is a vastly different America from the land of boundless opportunity described by John Smith. Though the prospect of greatness still exists, the previous definition of the American Dream—personified by rustic settlers and courageous frontiersmen—was supplanted by the corporate dream of millions of Americans eating the same food, driving the same cars, and living in the same, identical tract homes. That new definition of the American Dream is a conformist one; interspersed only occasional by a small minority who through superior intellect are able to transcend the mediocrity for which most happily aspire. It is when the American Dream of the past collides violently with the American Dream of post-WWII America that tragedy occurs. In the words of Arthur Miller in his essay On Biff and Willy Loman, “It is the tragedy of a man who did believe that he alone was not meeting the qualifications laid down for mankind by those clean-shaven frontiersmen who inhabit the peaks of broadcasting and advertising offices…he heard the thundering command to succeed as it ricocheted down the newspaper-lined canyons of his city, heard not a human voice, but a wind of a voice to which no human can reply in kind, except to stare into the mirror at a failure. (Miller 1892)”WORKS CITEDMiller, Arthur. “On Biff and Willy Loman.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins 2002. 1892.Schwartz, Frederic D. “Levittown.” American Heritage 6 (1997): 111-113.Smith, John. “A Description of New England.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company 1999. 51.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a deceptively simple play. The simplicity of the play, however, quickly dissolves into a respectful ambiguity through Miller’s ingenious stage directions, nonverbal expressions and, most importantly, his musical design. From the opening notes to their final reprise, the audience is enormously attracted by what Tennessee Williams called the “plastic theatre” (Williams 213). The use of musical expression complements the textual version of the play creating a more lucid production. This willingness that Miller has to open up his theatre to more than merely a language-embedded performance allowed him to create a lyric drama, a more poetic theatre through the melodic themes. The musical motifs assume important roles in the production, roles accentuating the conflicts that the Lomans articulate to the audience through language. They foreground, through metaphor, many of the play’s deeper ambiguities and discords.Miller’s musical themes express the competing influences in Willy Loman’s mind. Once established, the themes need only to be sounded to evoke certain time frames, emotions, and values. The first sounds of the drama, the flute notes “small and fine,” represent the grass, trees and horizon. These are objects of Willy’s and Biff’s longing that are tellingly absent from the overshadowed home on which the curtain rises. This melody plays on as Willy makes his initial appearance, although, as Miller tells us, “he hears but is not aware of it” (1165). Through this melodious music we are thus given our first sense of Willy’s estrangement not only from the nature itself but also from his own deep nature that confuses happiness with success.The flute music also holds important past references for Willy. Ben informs Willy that their father made flutes and sold them during the family’s early wanderings (1185). As Ben enters into their father’s biography a new music is heard, introducing an additional musical theme as the father is characterized by “a high, rollicking tune” (1184). The tune is differentiated from the small and fine melody of the natural landscape (1165). This distinction is fitting, for the father is a salesman as well as an explorer. The rollicking musical theme that is heard in reference to his name collides with the tender music that he is remembered for. This represents the conflicting values that he possessed and passed on to those around him, thus giving evidence to Willy’s adverse correlation between happiness and success.The father’s tune shares a familiar likeness to Ben’s “idyllic” (1182) music. This theme presents itself falsely, as it is associated in depressing and discouraging contexts. Ben’s theme is first sounded after Willy expresses his exhaustion from his pursuit to succeed (1182). Then it is perceived again after Willy is fired in Act II. This time the music precedes Ben’s entrance. It is heard in the distance, then closer, just as Willy’s thoughts of suicide, once repressed, now come closer at the loss of his job. When Ben’s idyllic melody plays for the third and final time it is in “accents of dread” (1228), for Ben reinforces Willy’s wrongheaded thought of suicide to help finance and support Biff and the family. This idea of selling out relates to the abandonment that Willy’s father portrayed since Willy can not remember much about him. The father’s and Ben’s themes contribute greatly to Willy’s disillusionment about life. They are thus in opposition to the small and fine theme of nature that begins and ends the play. The whistling motif elaborates this essential conflict. Most people envision whistling to be an outdoor activity that accompanies work. A whistler in an office would be a distraction. Biff Loman is fond of whistling, thus reinforcing his ties to nature rather than the business environment. Happy seeks to stifle Biff’s true voice:Happy: …Bob Harrison said you were tops, and then you go and do some damn fool thing like whistling whole sounds in the elevator like a comedian.Biff (against Happy): So what? I like to whistle sometimes.Happy: You don’t raise a guy to a responsible job who whistles in elevators! (60)Happy holds many of the similar values that his father does, as he believes that success and acceptance are the roots to happiness. He attempts to explain to Biff that to succeed, and thus gain happiness, he must not forfeit his desires. This corresponds to Willy’s estrangement from nature to gain successfulness.Later in Act 2 the whistling theme reverberates again as Howard Wagner plays Willy a recording of himself whistling “Roll out the Barrel” just before Willy asks for an advance and a New York job (1198). Willy’s uneasiness with the recorder that plays the whistling reiterates the concept of Willy’s estrangement and more importantly his blindness to the truth. Being that Howard is a very prosperous man and is the person whistling on the recorder, disproves Willy and Happy’s idea that whistling is disapproved by business authorities. In a sense, Howard is showing Willy that happiness does not lie in one’s success but rather with his connection with nature and finding himself.Willy’s conflicting desires to work in sales and to do outdoor, independent work are complicated by another longing, that of sexual desire, which is expressed through the “raw, sensuous music” that accompanies The Woman’s appearances on stage (1179, 1215). It is this music of sexual desire that insinuates itself in Act 2. It is also heard just before Willy, reliving a past conversation, offers this ironic warning to Biff, “Just wanna be careful with those girls, Biff, that’s all. Don’t make any promises. No promises of any kind” (1174).This raw theme of sexual desire contrasts with Linda Loman’s musical motif. She is characterized by a maternal hum of a soft lullaby. This comforting music becomes a “desperate but monotonous hum” at the end of Act I (1195). Linda’s monotonous drone, in turn, contrasts with the “gray and bright” music, the boys’ theme, which opens Act II. This theme is associated with the “great times” (1195) that Willy remembers with his sons before his adultery is discovered. Like the high, rollicking theme of Willy’s father and like Ben’s idyllic melody, this gay and bright music is ultimately associated with the false dream of materialistic success. The boys theme is first heard when Willy tells Ben that he and the boys will get rich in Brooklyn (1185). It sounds again when Willy implores Ben, “How do we get back to all the great times?” (1218).In his final moments of life, Willy Loman is shown struggling with his furies, “sounds, faces, voices, seem to be swarming in upon him” (1229). Suddenly, however, the “faint and high” music enters, representing the false dreams of all the “low” men. This false tune ends Willy’s struggle with his competing voices. It drowns out the other voices, rising in intensity “almost to an unbearable scream” as Willy rushes off in his car. As the car rushes off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound. The clamorous music softens as it becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello representing death and the end of Willy Loman’s struggle for success. The play ends in the form of the flute’s small and fine refrain. It persists despite the tragedy we have witnessed insinuating that nature and following one’s true self is the foundation of happiness.From page to stage, Arthur Miller meticulously structures Death of a Salesman upon a cluster of regressive musical images, images that correspond directly to Willy Loman’s fall. Without paying much attention the music in the play help the audience experience the mood that each character adds. Upon further examination, the sounds contribute to the musical motifs that underlie and support the overall theme that Miller is addressing. From the conflicting nature of the flute to the controversy of whistling, Miller magically addresses the disillusionment of the American dream through Willy Loman.Barnet, Berman, Burto, and William E. Cain. “Death of a Salesman.” An Introduction to Literature. New York: 1997.Williams, Tennessee. “Production Notes of Plays, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, vol. I. New York: New Directions, 1971.
In Arthur Miller’s Play Death of a Salesman, the dreams of the major characters are the central focus of the plot. The Lomans, particularly Willy, struggle to realize their dreams while fearing that these goals are unreachable. Yet this fear is necessary to the hope; Willy would much rather dream than succeed. It is the destruction of his dream that destroys him, not merely its failure.Willy Loman, the central character of the play, dreams of success in business. He wants to be well-liked, the quality which he believes is the key to success. He also wants his sons to follow in his footsteps and be popular. During the actual time of the play, however, Willy’s dreams have obviously failed. He is a sixty-year-old salesman whose friends have all died and who gets fired halfway through the play. One of his sons is a farmhand, the other is in the business world as assistant to an assistant. Willy spends the play thinking back on his better days and often believing that they are reality. His obsession with dreams prevents him from seeing the wreck of his life.Willy does not want to acknowledge the state of his life, and uses his daydreams to escape the knowledge. He even acts on them, refusing to salvage the present if it means breaking from his goal. He desperately entreats Howard, his boss, to give him a job, and is willing to accept absurdly low wages to continue being a salesman, even a salesman who does not sell anything. After Howard refuses, the unemployed Willy will not accept a gift of fifty dollars a week from his pragmatic friend Charley. To take this salary would be to concede defeat, even though it would save his family. Charley repeatedly asks Willy, “When are you going to grow up?” and Charley’s son Bernard, a practical, studious teenager who becomes a high-placed lawyer, advises Willy that sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away from failure. Yet Willy will not walk away from his dreams.Yet sometimes he wonders if he was right to dream in the first place. His doubts take the form of his dead brother Ben, who made a fortune in African diamonds and Alaskan lumber. Ben urges Willy to seek the real, the practical, that which can be felt, inviting him to go to Alaska to work with real lumber. Still, Ben is nothing more than a phantasm, a shape who is himself unreal. He is the only one of Willy’s imaginings who addresses him in the present world, noticing his surroundings and having conversations that are clearly not memories. He may be a symbol of Willy’s distress, but he is no more substantial than that: he is Willy’s model for an imaginary success and his very presence emphasizes the impossibility of Willy’s goal. Men who walk into the jungle at seventeen and come out rich at twenty-one do not exist; the only truly successful people in the play are the solidly pragmatic Howard, Charley, and Bernard.This does not keep Willy from trying to foist his hopes onto his family, and to wreck it by doing so. His wife Linda, while she does not appear to have any sights of her own, is constantly trying to protect Willy from reality, encouraging her sons to lie about their own fortunes to him. Happy does so gladly, too gladly; he follows his father’s dream even though he recognizes that he does not enjoy the fruits of his labor, suggesting that the reason is his “competitive nature.” This early realization hints at why Willy pursues the dream: because it is a dream, and because he needs something to pursue. After Willy’s death, Charley verifies this, saying, “A salesman…[has] got to dream,” because what a salesman does is so insubstantial. The supreme salesmanly virtue of being “well-liked” is vague and transitory, suitable only to the glimmering world of fantasy.Biff, Willy’s other son, also realizes this, although somewhat less eloquently than Charley does. Biff announces that his father hates him because he knows Willy “is a fake.” Biff wants to concentrate on farming and physical labor, things that are real and perceptible. He only agrees to Happy and Linda’s scheme when he is convinced that it is the only way to save his father’s life. Even then he keeps trying to intrude with the truth, attempting to tell Willy that their impractical plan to open a sporting-goods chain failed, in part because Biff stole a pen from Bill Oliver, his prospective backer. Biff’s gradually-revealed history of theft shows his need for real items, and that this need destroyed Willy’s hopes; it is the invasion of reality upon Willy’s future. Biff refuses to dream because he has seen the truth behind his dad’s fantasies. When Biff was young, he was a football star who dreamt more than Happy did and was the focus of Willy’s hopes. He wanted to get an athletic scholarship, but would not take a remedial math class that he needed in order to graduate from high school. He made this decision because he accidentally caught Willy’s mistress in a hotel room. Biff saw that even when Willy’s dreams seemed at their height, falsehood stood behind them.Biff’s presence is the catalyst for Willy’s suicide, the visible sign that his ambitions destroyed his family. Willy’s guilt over betraying his family is clear; he worries that it is his fault that Biff did not go to summer school, and he rages at Linda for darning stockings in his presence, because they remind him of his mistress. But where Linda tries to comfort him, Biff insists on telling Willy that his ambitions are failed. Willy not only desires to earn something real, the twenty thousand dollar life insurance policy, but also to earn it for Biff.In Willy’s suicide is the final destruction of the dream. He thinks that he will have a salesman’s funeral that everyone will attend, and that the insurance money will put Biff ahead of Bernard. He kills himself by driving the car that was the subject of his nostalgia, or, more appropriately, by crashing it. In the moment when he does get something real, he kills his dream and himself. He had always lived on expectancy and hope; actually having what he works for kills him, as it may well have Ben.The insurance money never appears in the play, nor is Biff’s future ever resolved. Willy is dead, and this comes as a surprise neither to the audience, who know the play’s title before ever walking into the theater, nor to the major characters, who have all known about Willy’s designs since at least halfway through the play. Once Willy and his dreams, which controlled the entire play, are dead, the powerful reality of their deaths is all that remains.
America has long prided itself on being a land of opportunity. Since the fifteenth century, pilgrims have flocked to American shores, urged onward by the thought of making money, off the rich lands and resources available here. As time has gone on, this image of America as an enormous money pot has not changed or diminished. One can find mentions of jobs and the economy spackling every newspaper, most casual conversations, and all throughout the media. And because, throughout much of history, men were the primary breadwinners and job holders, masculine identity and occupation have become joined at the hip. To quote Shelley Levene from Glengarry Glen Ross, “A man’s his job,” (Mamet 75). In a sense, he’s right; the world today puts a lot of stock in how men make their money, and doesn’t seem interested in much else. This interplay between male identity and capitalist economy has been explored quite frequently and effectively in American drama, particularly in dramatic plays of the last 100 years. The mix of money and gender dynamics serves as the foundation for many of theatre’s greatest plays, including Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross. What each of these dramas explores regarding this theme is largely different, but all highlight what occurs when capitalism and masculine identity intersect, and how this affects the characters, as well as the world they live in. In this essay, I will argue that by linking their manhood to their business success, the men in these plays have created a volatile and ultimately emasculating world, which works to the long-term benefit of no one.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller perhaps most famously tackled this issue, in its portrayal of Willy Loman, a once-successful businessman now falling on hard times in his old age. Willy holds strongly to the idea of working hard and applying yourself to be successful. Through a series of monologues by other characters and illuminating flashbacks, however, we see his own life does not follow this contour at all. His brother Ben became significantly richer than Willy simply by stumbling upon gold during one of his adventures. And despite years of working hard and allegedly making the company money, Willy is still canned by his new boss because he can’t make sales like he used to. In short, the company doesn’t care about Willy as a person, an associate or a friend– just a means to make money. In postwar America, when sales were sky-rocketing and it looked as though the money would never run out, this harsh portrayal of a business oriented system was much needed. As the war ended and America’s new high tech factory system began putting hundreds of thousands of returning GI’s to work, many workers who’d survived the depression and the war faced unemployment —a thought not far from the minds of audiences when the play was first performed (Grant 54). Death of a Salesman served as a reminder that what we did when we were up inevitably still hurt us when we came crashing down again. When Willy was making sales, he cheated on his wife, was caught by his son, and was, by and large, an aggressive and seldom-present father. But when factors beyond his control end up putting him out on the street, he has to pay for that. He has to live in a house with the son whom he failed, the wife he betrayed, and the other child he perpetually neglects. The trappings of success can occupy him no longer.
This story mirrors that of America early in the 20th century. During the 1920s the country’s economy reached celestial heights, as stock speculation and the rise of on-credit buying put the nation deeply in debt. Then came the crash, and crime and poverty ran amok. During the lucrative 1940’s and 50’s, the play and Miller’s characters all seem to urge us to be cautious of the fickleness of economic wealth. Charley sums this up nicely in a quote in the final scene: “You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake… Biff: Charley, the man didn’t know who he was,” (Miller 138). Most people create their identity by what they leave behind: children, marriages, things they built or made, or memorable feats or achievements. This notion ties into what the Greek thinker Epicurus referred to these as “Natural desires.” The idea is that certain things you can only desire to do for a set amount of time before you are satisfied. If, say, one eats a great amount of food, one will grow full and become tired of eating. But Willy doesn’t grow tired. He sells smiles and shoe shine, dreams and ideas, things which he may not use, the image of a person that he may not be. Epicurus calls these “Vain desires,” things made up entirely by humans. “Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, fame, and the like. They are difficult to satisfy, in part because they have no natural limit. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one wants,” (Cassier, 3). Willy Loman spent his entire existence questing after these things, and as he was slowly deprived of the ability to sell by the changing business climate, began to suffer the symptoms of withdrawal, which ultimately ended in his demise. Money, it seems, bought him only small quantities of happiness, and even those were largely exaggerated by his mind. But it certainly did buy him a sizeable share of misery.
Yet despite this, Willy puts a significant amount of stake in the idea and image of the working man. Throughout the story he still looks back with reverence on his older brother Ben, treating him with a love and respect he doesn’t show to anyone else in the play. Never will he suffer an attack or even a doubt about Ben, and his empire and his wealth. “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” Willy says at one point (Miller 41). Stick-to-it-edness and ambition, then—two traditionally masculine virtues—are all it takes to succeed professionally. And yet he himself, despite years of dedication, is now being slowly cast aside, having never achieved the economic status of his relations. His manhood, his professional reputation, are worth nothing to those around him, and so he must try to express his masculinity in other ways. Much in the same way Swaino attempts to compensate for his lack of money and success with lurid sexual encounters in Small Engine Repair, Willy attempts to recapture some of his virility through anger, toughness, and a sexual tryst of his own. Ultimately, this just pushes him farther down into a hole of misery. Willy has always been dazzled by these striking images– of Ben the adventurer, of Dave Singleman and his green slippers. Real life never quite measured up. Linda and Charley discuss this at the play’s end, after Willy’s funeral. “Linda: I can’t understand it. At this time especially. First time in thirty-five years we were just about free and clear. He only needed a little salary. He was even finished with the dentist. Charley: No man needs only a little salary,” (Miller 137). Willy has worked his entire life towards some ideal of salesmanship, which he got when he met a stranger in a hotel room, and which convinced him to pass up an opportunity to travel the world with Ben. When he pays off his debts but loses the job that occupied him, he is forced to come to terms with the emptiness of his life. This drives him ultimately to kill himself– to end his life in exchange for some measure of control and dignity. Willy labored long and hard under the delusion that his trade was what defined him as a man, but in the end it was what destroyed him.
This same principle is on display, albeit in a different manner, in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a play about small-time real-estate agents in Chicago. The plot centers around two of the characters—later revealed to be Moss and Levene—robbing the business of leads, which would allow them, in theory, to make more sales. It seems almost comical for two people to commit a federal crime in order to benefit professionally—after all, it’s just a job. But for the men in this play, it’s not just a job. It’s everything. We never see them do anything not directly related to work: They don’t see their families, play games, hang out with old friends, nothing. Even when they engage in friendly banter or go out to eat, it is all for the purpose of getting ahead at work. Take, for example, the restaurant scene involving Ricky Roma and James Lingk. In this exchange, Roma seems to be sharing his life philosophy with someone he just met: “Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. Now: What are they? (Pause.) An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To “indulge” and to “learn” about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn’t? They’re an opportunity. That’s all. They’re an event,” (Mamet 49.) Roma seems to be selling an almost existential point of view here to his newly acquired companion: Don’t let events and things in life define you, because they themselves do not have meaning. It is up to the individual to decide what they mean. And yet, after sharing this freeing and liberating viewpoint with Lingk, Roma then launches into the following: “I want to show you something. (Pause.) It might mean nothing to you… and it might not. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. (Pause. He takes out a small map and spreads it on a table.) What is that? Florida. Glengarry Highlands. Florida,” (Mamet 50). All of this rambling speech has led up to a sales pitch. Roma, despite advocating freedom from labels and high concepts that keep us anxious and worried, is himself slaving away for the capitalist business institution. In a way, this is the ultimate horror. Roma’s identity as a free spirit—if it is his real identity and not an affectation—has been twisted and perverted to serve the needs of the company. Roma can preach about viewing all things as mere opportunities, but at the end of the day, he can only do so as long as he’s high up on the board. Those are his two options: staying on the board or starving. He is a slave to the sales figures, and even his free-bird persona has become an instrument of accruing capital.
Even these characters’ most basic relationships, the ones we see, anyway, are there solely for the purpose of getting ahead. Almost every line of dialogue the various salesmen utter is for some self-centered end. What seems like a relatable series of interactions between Moss and Aronow where they complain about their boss and their job is actually an attempt by the former to strong-arm the latter into helping him case the joint and make off with quality marketing leads. Roma’s monologue to Shelley where he tells Levene he admires him and that they should be partners turns out to be a ploy by Ricky to steal money from the senior salesman. Living in this cutthroat business world for so long has corrupted their ability to empathize and befriend one another. By the end of this play, even these characters–whose careers, lives, and self-worth have been annihilated–still come off destroyed in their own way. For these characters, the very act of speech is just a means to a financial end. They are wholly consumed by their occupations. Every experience they’ve had, everything they’ve done, every friendship they’ve made, are just a way to cash in, win a car. If you can’t monetize it, in this world Mamet makes for us, does it really matter? Perhaps this is why, in act two, Roma gets so outraged when Moss values his own dignity over Levene’s accomplishments. Money is really all these characters have, their making of it and losing it. One of the salesmen is literally called ’The Machine’ in a seemingly positive way. When Moss starts behaving as though there’s something more important than money—say, his rights—Roma gets angry, because if money isn’t paramount, what do their lives mean?
More evidence of this can be seen in the disparity in how Shelley and Williamson treat each other. In the first scene, Levene is completely and utterly humiliated by Williamson over and over again, and is forced to go through various stages of obsequious behavior to try and get the leads he needs to keep his job. In order to even gain access to the decent leads, he has to offer a huge portion to Williamson, who keeps raising the price just to watch Levene squirm. And Levene, as he’s low on the board, is forced to take this indignity: “John. (Pause.) Listen. I want to talk to you. Permit me to do this a second. I’m older than you. A man acquires a reputation. On the street. What he does when he’s up, what he does otherwise…. I said ‘ten’ you said ‘no.’ You said ‘twenty.’ I said ‘fine,’ I’m not gonna fuck with you, how can I beat that, you tell me?…Okay. Okay. We’ll… Alright, twenty percent, and fifty bucks a lead. That’s fine. For now. That’s fine,” (Mamet 24). When Shelley can’t sell he has to bend over and do whatever Williamson wants. Contrast that to his attitude right after he closes what he believes to be a large deal: “Why should the sale not stick? Hey, fuck you. That’s what I’m saying. You have no idea of your job. A man’s his job and you’re fucked at yours,” (Mamet 75). The thing is, though, as Levene eventually points out, Williamson cannot fire him, not on, as he calls it “an $80,000 day.” These characters, who they are, how people view them, and what they can do, are entirely defined by their ability to make money. And, as Mamet tries to show us, it’s a fickle, rigged system. One where skills and good business practices are not half so important as arbitrary figures, and where, in the end, both salesman and customer suffer.
And with their identities as men continually either denied them or under attack, these characters must re-enforce this image through hostility, insulting one another, and attempting to humiliate co-workers. In her essay “Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet’s Drama,” Carla J. McDonough examines this ferocity’s roots. “More than anything else, characters such as Teach, Edmond, and Levene are concerned with their identities as men. They are driven by a sense of powerlessness, for which they seek to over compensate, and they labor under a need to establish their identities in the face of real or imagined challenges to their manhood,” (McDonough 196). Levene and the other salesmen in the office are so hostile because their lives could be utterly destroyed by receiving a bad lead, or by having a client pull out at the last second. They have no control over their work or livelihoods, which they consider, and which we the audience are led to believe, constitutes an enormous portion of their lives and sense of self. But they can conceal this apoplexy and insecurity if they act vicious, tear one another down with lies and insults and jabs, which make them feel just a little bit powerful. Much like how Willy concealed his own self-loathing and sense of failure by his excessive faith and devotion to a misremembered past, the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross hide under an aggression without anchors and with an endless number of targets, which, just as in the Loman household, only makes their situation less tolerable and more difficult. As a result of these two colliding forces, masculinity and business, we end up with a gray area, a turbid concoction half testosterone and half tender, which governs more and more of American society.
Capitalism and financial success are a means of self-identification that the men in these plays use, primarily, as a surrogate for what they cannot have: love, happiness, friendships, or a lasting legacy throughout time. But the market is a fickle master. Success runs in streaks, and more often than not, when the good luck runs out, it leaves a nasty scar behind. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to characters in plays. After all, don’t businesses, armies, countries today still exploit the world for all it’ll give them, get massively in debt trying to monopolize markets, and in short, exert themselves far beyond their reach? Doesn’t America court destruction with every new war, new bailout? Perhaps what these playwrights mean for us to take away from their work is not so much the awareness of all the tiny tragedies that hide on every street corner, but rather a larger view of the impending tragedy we still have time to avert. What happens when the world starts acting like Willy Loman? What happens when it gets as desperate as Shelley Levene? Will it, too, do something morally dubious just to stay above water? Or, like Mr. Loman, will it end itself with a bang?
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1949. Print.
Williams, Grant. “Death of a Salesman and Postwar Masculine Malaise” Arthur Miller Journal (8:1) Spring 2013, 53-68,109.
Cassirer, Ernst. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
Mamet, David. Glengarry Glen Ross: A Play. New York: Grove, 1984. Print.
McDonough, Carla J.. “Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet’s Drama”. Theatre Journal 44.2 (1992): 195–205. Web…
Playwrights, unlike the authors of novels and other forms of literature, employ the use of production elements and stage designs in the development of their works. These additional aspects present within the creation of theatre grant playwrights with the opportunity to support and develop the various themes and ideas of a work through supplemental stimuli, be it visual or auditory. Props are an aspect of set design that are used by actors during performances to replicate and materialize certain elements of reality on stage. As a result, the effectiveness of the play and the subsequent impact on the audience is defined through the use and value given to a character’s props. Both Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman incorporate the use of various theatrical properties to enrich and enhance the development of characters and create tension, emotion, and atmosphere in a performance.In Master Harold and the Boys, Fugard includes meaningful props such as: comic books and a bottle of whiskey to define characters and establish their developments throughout the play. Due to the fact that this play takes place within one setting for the entirety of the performance, many of the props incorporated into the script remain in use by the characters, or in full view of the audience, at all times, such as the comic books. Fugard’s use of the comic books within the play symbolizes the nature of Hally’s father, thus giving the audience clear insight into his personality and characteristics. The implications of the comic books in this case indicate that Hally’s father is quite simple-minded and is amused by childish entities, further suggesting that feeble-minded men, similar to Hally’s father, are the one’s in power. Thus, through the incorporation of the comics books to define a secondary character in play, Fugard in turn illustrates his contempt for the proponents of apartheid. The significance of the comic books as a prop is arguably one of the most effective in the play, as it serves to establish the characterization of a character who never even appears on stage. The whiskey bottle, similar to the comic books in that it is affiliated with Hally’s father as well, is another example of a prop that establishes the development of character, but in this case within Hally himself. Unlike the comic books, this prop is only utilized within one specific scene on stage, which makes its significance critical to the relationship between Hally and his father because it appears after Hally is notified of his father’s return home. The eventual smashing of this bottle, as well as the bottle itself, becomes a symbol of Hally’s dislike towards his father. However, the anger expressed in this case is more symbolic of Hally’s inability to deal with his situation, rather than a hatred for his father. This expression of anger also introduces the theme of displacement, one that is observed within Hally’s character development in numerous other instances throughout the play. In Death of a Salesman, Miller’s inclusion of both the football and the gas tubing define the characters associated with them on stage and define the meaning behind these characters’ developments. The football is a prop regularly used within scenes of the past and is associated not only with Biff, but with his relationship with his father Willy as well. The football characterizes Biff as the physically sound and athletic child that he once was in the past, which serves as a contrast to the harsh reality of his current unsuccessful situation in the present. The football has been the one aspect of Biff’s life that gave him power and prowess, further enforcing the distorted view of reality and the American dream that Willy so strongly encourages. Thus, by incorporating the use of an American football on stage, Miller physically simulates the aspect of Biff’s life that has defined him as an individual and the development of his character. Likewise, the use of the rubber hose, or gas tubing, is this play serves to establish character definitions, this time in regards to Willy. The rubber hose symbolizes Willy’s attempts at suicide, all of which are as a result of his inability to provide for his family. The paradoxical aspect of this situation is the fact that the gas tubing is a component of an element of basic necessity integral to the Loman family’s survival: warmth. Thus, Willy’s inability to provide the money to pay for such essential aspects of a home are the driving forces behind his attempted suicide in the first place. As a result, the gas hose acts as a constant reminder to the spectator of Willy’s desperation and agony as a character. Miller’s use of props within Death of a Salesman add to character definition and illustrate their developments throughout, and at certain points, in the play.In Master Harold and the Boys, Fugard once again uses theatrical properties to enhance the effectiveness of the play, this time through the creation of tension, emotion, and atmosphere. All four of these components are essential elements involved in determining a play’s effective impact on audience. These moments are highly influenced by aspects of stage design, especially props. Tension within this play is created through the use of the telephone, through which Hally only ever speaks to his mother. By incorporating the use of this prop, Fugard is allowing the audience to hear only Hally’s reactions to what his mother is saying, rather than her actual words. All of the audience’s ideas about what she says are entirely speculative and based upon Hally’s side of the conversation, thus, an element of tension and the unknown is created within each of the scenes in which the telephone is used. Furthermore, like the comic books on the counter, the telephone remains in full view of the audience throughout the entire play. This once again generates an elements of tension and apprehension within the audience, who can see the phone in full view, but are completely unaware of when it will ring next. Emotion in the play is created not only through what the characters on stage are feeling, but through the feelings evoked in the audience as well. Fugard exhibits both of these instances in the play with the inclusion of the kite. Although there is discrepancy as to whether or not an actual kite is used as a prop within the physical performing of this play, its existence as an important symbol in the play is as effective regardless of the director’s choice to incorporate it into a memory scene or not. The kite symbolizes hope, hope for a better future, specifically a future in which exists racial equality and togetherness. When it is revealed to Hally the true reason Sam left him alone on the bench during the kite flying scene of Hally’s childhood an emotional shift occurs in Hally, as well as the evocation of empathetic and saddened emotions directed towards Sam in the audience. Lastly, atmosphere in this play is created through the inclusion of Hally’s textbooks or school books. Like the comic books and telephone, these props are present on stage throughout the entire play. They represent the formal education received by Hally and the fact that Sam cannot decipher them symbolizes the government’s attempt to keep black South African’s out of the informed population. This prop thus contributes greatly to the theme of apartheid ever present throughout the novel, further effectively expressing the negative and disapproving tone of the playwright. Hence, Fugard’s negative political opinions towards this system of institutionalized racial segregation are illustrated.In Death of a Salesman, Miller utilizes props to create tension, emotion, and atmosphere as well. The use of stockings in the play creates both tension and emotion, however these separate moments happen at different instances in the play. Firstly, the stockings create tension when Willy is so quick to snap at his wife Linda for attempting to mend them as they serve as a reminder of his guilt and infidelity in the past. The tension is created in the fact that the audience are not revealed this until later in the play in a scene which is equally as responsible for the creation of emotion in the work. When Biff arrives at Willy’s hotel in a scene of the past, he is shocked by the fact that his father has been sleeping with a woman and cheating on Linda. During this scene the woman asks of Willy for the stocking he promised her, thus enforcing the already established symbol of guilt. The emotion in this case is felt both by Biff and the audience, where Biff breaks down and sobs, further evoking feelings of pity and sympathy for the young boy. This marks an incredible turning point in Biff and Willy’s character relationship, specifically in the way in which Biff views his father. The inclusion of the stockings as a prop are essential to enhancing the motifs and ideas present with this scene and others in which they’re addressed or included. Lastly, atmosphere is created in this play as a result of Miller’s prop choices as well. Moods of hope and positivity are generated at every mention and inclusion of diamonds in the script, most commonly present in the scenes in which Willy’s brother Ben appears. The diamonds as props symbolize tangible fortune and therefore success in Willy’s eyes. However, at the same time, these precious jewels represent Willy’s failure as a salesman due to his inability to have ever acquired any. Furthermore, they also represent the ability to pass one’s earnings or possessions on to their child, another component of success Willy has failed to achieve. Thus, during their presence on stage Willy speaks of promise and hope that good things and success are to come, but the harsh reality is that they serve as a constant reminder of his failures in the past. Hence, an atmosphere of false hope, on stage and within the audience, is created at their every mention.In both Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boy’s and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the playwrights utilize specific and purposeful incorporation of props on stage in order to define certain characters and establish elements of tension, emotion, and atmosphere. In Master Harold and the Boys this is achieved through the use of a plethora of props, including: the comic books, the telephone, the whiskey bottle, and Hally’s school books. Furthermore, a similar effect is achieved through Miller’s incorporation of the football, the rubber gas hose, the stockings, and diamonds in Death of a Salesman. All of these props served to enhance and improve upon the development of symbols, themes, and important concepts in both plays, ultimately enhancing their effectiveness as works of meaning.
A wise and possibly very cynical man once said “Nothing fails like success.” Even if one is not familiar with Gerald Nachman, or the other rebel comedians of his time, we can all appreciate the clever irony in this quotation. In the complex and often very materialistic world we live in the question of how to measure success, prominence, and self worth is certainly a relevant one. This is the very question Authur Miller addresses in his 1949 play, Death of a Salesman. In the process of relating the events of Willy Loman’s tragic life, Miller uses motifs such as space and location to give his readers insight into his characters, their successes or failures, and their ideas of self worth. Willy Loman’s Brooklyn home, Africa, Alaska, and the American West all help explain why Willy Loman fails while others prosper and can help reveal what characters such as Biff, Willy, and Ben value and how they determine success.Act one of the play opens in Willy Loman’s Brooklyn home. The stage direction notes, “We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind [the house], surrounding it on all sides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; the surrounding area shows an angry flow of orange. As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home. An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality” (Miller, 2111). Willy and Linda first purchased the house years ago and when there was room to spread out and even a nice garden to grow vegetables. Since then, however, the house has been encased in a “solid vault of apartment houses” and Willy’s grand aspirations of wealth, prosperity, and popularity have been locked up, blocked off, and cast in an angry orange light by the surrounding buildings (Miller, 2111). Willy complains, “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses” (Miller, 2115). His attempts to grow vegetables symbolize his efforts to provide for his family and his desire to reap some reward for his efforts. As it is, Willy has remained in the same position in his job for years and he can barely afford to put food on the table. An air of Willy’s American dream still clings to the place, but it is surrounded by the unpleasant reality that has been built up over the years.Unlike the comfortable suburban setting in which the Loman’s first settled, Willy’s father and brother Ben spent most of their lives in remote, exotic locales like Alaska and Africa. These wild, untamed regions are like the capitalist jungle that is the American economy. It is here that one must compete if they are to achieve prominence and wealth in the economic world. This jungle is clearly not suited for everyone. Referring to Willy’s brother Ben, Irving Jacobson notes, “In the world of finance he was as much a pioneer, a ‘great and wild-hearted man,’ as his father” (Jacobson, 250). He could travel to Alaska, South Dakota, Africa, and back to New York and make his way just fine in each place because he was indifferent to human warmth, social relationships, or family ties. “His spheres of action related to things and quantities rather than people; even his seven sons seemed more like commodities than members of a family” (Jacobson, 250). Willy Loman is not the same kind of wild, ruthless, and savvy businessman that his brother is and is either unwilling to take the same drastic measures or fails to understand the rules of the jungle. In Willy Loman’s warped perception of reality he believes that one’s personal appearance and other’s perception of them are the keys to success. He continually refers to Dave Singleman, a salesman who was so well liked that customers and friends came from all over the country for his funeral. Willy asks, “‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eight-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (Miller, 2146). It was after meeting Singleman that Willy decided not to go Alaska with his brother and became a salesman instead. This decision in many ways seals his financial fate for the rest of his career.While Ben willingly ventures into the heart of the jungle and Willy is beaten down as the jungle grows up around him, a third character, Biff, seems to want to remove himself from the jungle altogether. As Jacobson writes, “Unlike his father and brother, Biff does not emulate the images of prominent men but rejects the years he has spent riding subways, keeping stock, buying and selling, feeling it ridiculous to spend a year in suffering for the sake of a two-week vacation” (253). For years Biff remained lost and confused about his future. Feeling connected to his father, but also betrayed by his father’s infidelity to his mother, and his constant distortions of the truth. Biff says, “I don’t know… I just can’t take hold, Mom. I can’t take hold of some kind of life (Miller, 2134). Despite his father’s harsh rebuke, Biff finds happiness ranching on his own in the rural West. “Screw the business world,” he says, “I don’t care what they think! They’ve laughed at Dad for years, and you know why? Because we don’t belong in this nuthouse of a city! We should be mixing cement on some open plain, or – or carpenters” (Miller, 2137). Jacobson notes that “Because [Willy] habitually deflects consciousness of his own failure by focusing attention on his sons, Loman cannot accept Biff’s way of life in the West on its own terms but tries to reabsorb him into a business-oriented culture” (254).In an effort to compromise between their own desires and their father’s expectations, the Loman brothers consider a joint venture in the West. Their short-lived dream of a Loman ranch is an attempt to synthesize the rural and the urban; the serious and the pleasurable. Here Biff hopes to have the opportunity to do the kind of work he enjoys while gaining the prominence to once again win his father’s approval. The plan ultimately dies with the realization that they cannot come up with the money necessary to start up the ranch. Biff realizes that such compromise is not always possible. Choosing to live a life of simplicity and fulfillment often means sacrificing prominence and wealth.Each one of these characters has different value systems and different criteria for evaluating success and prominence. For Willy Loman, success is defined by personal appearance and personal relationships; therefore he is attracted to the American suburb with close families, two car garages, and backyard barbeques. His fixation with material wealth has drawn him close to the commercial world of the city, but being unable to compete and survive in the urban jungle, Loman lives out his life trapped in his own harsh reality. Unlike his brother, Ben is bold, aggressive, ruthless, and conniving enough to blaze a path in the jungle. Treating every person and every relationship in his life like a quantity or a commodity, Ben’s entire value system is based on little more than dollars and cents. Of all the characters in the play, Biff seems to be the most likely protagonist. Trapped by his father’s expectations and confused about his future, Biff is labeled an underachiever. A revelation in Bill Oliver’s office, however, could prove to be the key to free Biff from his father’s lies and warped sense of reality. There is hope for Biff at the end of the play. He seems intent on following his dreams of a simple and humble life out west. It is unclear, however, whether Biff’s journey west will truly set him on the road to lifelong happiness and fulfillment, or if it is simply an impulsive attempt to escape his father’s pressure. If there were to be a sequel to Death of a Salesman written it would likely entail Biff traveling west and arriving at the realization that true happiness and self worth is achieved not through personal appearances or perceptions, nor through material posessions, but through hard work and perseverance.WORKS CITEDBaym, Nina. ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003. 2111-2176.Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman.” American Literature Vol. 47, No. 2. Duke University Press, 1975. 247-258.