Expressionism in Death of Salesman
From the opening flute notes to their final reprise, Miller’s musical themes express the competing influences in Willy Loman’s mind. Once established, the themes need only 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 – 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 first appearance, although, as Miller tells us, “[h]e hears but is not aware of it” (12).
Through this music we are thus given our first sense of Willy’s estrangement not only from nature itself but from his own deepest nature. As Act I unfolds, the flute is linked to Willy’s father, who, we are told, made flutes and sold them during the family’s early wanderings. The father’s theme, “a high, rollicking tune,” is differentiated from the small and fine melody of the natural landscape (49).
This distinction is fitting, for the father is a salesman as well as an explorer; he embodies the conflicting values that are destroying his son’s life. The father’s tune shares a family likeness with Ben’s “idyllic” (133) music. This false theme, like Ben himself, is associated finally with death. Ben’s theme is first sounded, after all, only after Willy expresses his exhaustion (44). It is heard 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. And Willy’s first words to Ben when he finally appears are the ambiguous “how did you do it?” (84). When Ben’s idyllic melody plays for the third and final time it is in “accents of dread” (133), for Ben reinforces Willy’s wrongheaded thought of suicide to bankroll Biff.
The father’s and Ben’s themes, representing selling (out) and abandonment, are thus in opposition to the small and fine theme of nature that begins and ends the play. A whistling motif elaborates this essential conflict. Whistling is often done by those contentedly at work. It frequently also accompanies outdoor activities. A whistler in an office would be a distraction. Biff Loman likes to whistle, thus reinforcing his ties to nature rather than to the business environment. But 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 songs 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 elevator! (60) This conversation reverberates ironically when Howard Wagner plays Willy a recording of his daughter whistling Roll out the Barrel” just before Willy asks for an advance and a New York job (77). Whistling, presumably, is all right if you are the boss or the boss’s daughter, but not if you are an employee. The barrel will not be rolled out for Willy or Biff Loman. 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 (116, 37). It is this music of sexual desire, I suggest, that “insinuates itself” as the first leaves cover the house in Act 1.5 It is 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” (27). This raw theme of sexual desire contrasts with Linda Loman’s theme: the maternal hum of a soft lullaby that becomes a “desperate but monotonous” hum at the end of Act I (69). Linda’s monotonous drone, in turn, contrasts with the “gay and bright” music, the boys’ theme, which opens Act II. This theme is associated with the “great times” (127) 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 (87). It sounds again when Willy implores Ben, “[H]ow do we get back to all the great times?” (127).
In his final moments of life, Willy Loman is shown struggling with his furies: “sounds, faces, voices, seem to be swarming in upon him” (136). 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 pursuit. And just as the travail of Moby Dick ends with the ongoing flow of the waves, nature, in the form of the flute’s small and fine refrain, persists – despite the tragedy we have witnessed.
In the introduction to his Collected Plays, Miller acknowledges that the first image of Salesman that occurred to him was of an enormous face the height of the proscenium arch; the face would appear and then open up. “We would see the inside of a man’s head,” he explains. “In fact, The Inside of His Head was the first title. It was conceived half in laughter, (60) for the inside of his head was a mass of contradictions” (23). By the time Miller had completed Salesman, however, he had found a more subtle plays correlative for the giant head; a transparent setting. “The entire setting is wholly, or, in some places, partially transparent,” Miller insists in his set description (11). By substituting a transparent setting for a bisected head, Miller invited the audience to examine the social context as well as the individual organism. Productions that eschew transparent scenery eschew the nuances of this invitation. The transparent lines of the Loman home allow the audience physically to sense the city pressures that are destroying Willy. “We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind [Willy’s house], surrounding it on all sides.
The roofline of the house is one-dimensional; under and over it we see the apartment buildings” (11-12). Wherever Willy Loman looks are these encroaching buildings, and wherever we look as well. Willy’s subjective vision is expressed also in the home’s furnishings, which are deliberately partial. The furnishings indicated are only those of importance to Willy Loman. That Willy’s kitchen has a table with three chairs instead of four reveals both Linda Loman’s unequal status in the family and Willy’s obsession with his boys. At the end of Act I, Willy goes to his small refrigerator for life-sustaining milk (cf. Brecht’s parallel use of milk in Galileo). Later, however, we learn that this repository of nourishment, like Willy himself, has broken down.
That Willy Loman’s bedroom contains only a bed, a straight chair, and a shelf holding Biff’s silver athletic trophy also telegraphs much about the man and his family. Linda Loman has no object of her own in her bedroom. Willy Loman also travels light. He has nothing of substance to sustain him. His vanity is devoted to adolescent competition. Chairs ultimately become surrogates for people in Death of a Salesman as first a kitchen chair becomes Biff in Willy’s conflicted mind (28) and then an office chair becomes Willy’s deceased boss, Frank Wagner (82). In, perhaps, a subtle bow to Georg Kaiser’s Gas I and Gas II, Miller’s gas heater glows when Willy thinks of death. The scrim that veils the primping Woman and the screen hiding the restaurant where two women will be seduced suggest Willy Loman’s repression of sexuality.
Expressionism has done more than any other movement to develop the expressive powers of stage lighting. The German expressionists used light to create a strong sense of mood and to isolate characters in a void. By contrasting light and shadow, and by employing extreme side, overhead, and rear lighting angles, they established the nightmarish atmosphere in which many of their plays took place. The original Kazan Salesman made use of more lights than were used even in Broadway musicals (Timebends 190). At the end of act 1, Biff comes downstage “into a golden pool of light” as Willy recalls the day of the city baseball championship when Biff was “[l]ike a young God. Hercules – something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him.” The pool of light both establishes the moment as one of Willy’s memories and suggests how he has inflated the past, given it mythic dimension. The lighting also functions to instill a sense of irony in the audience, for the golden light glows on undiminished as Willy exclaims, “A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!”
We know that Biff’s star faded, even before it had a chance to shine, and even as Willy speaks these words, the light on him begins to fade (68). That Willy’s thoughts turn immediately from this golden vision of his son to his own suicide is indicated by the “blue flame” of the gas heater that begins immediately to glow through the wall – a foreshadowing of Willy’s desire to gild his son through his own demise. Productions that omit either the golden pool of light or the glowing gas heater withhold this foreshadowing of Willy’s final deed. Similarly, productions that omit the lights on the empty chairs miss the chance to reveal the potency of Willy’s fantasies.
Perhaps even more important, the gas heater’s flame at the end of Act I recalls the “angry glow of orange” surrounding Willy’s house at the play’s beginning (11). Both join with the “red glow” rising from the hotel room and the restaurant to give a felt sense of Willy’s twice articulated cry: “The woods are burning!…There’s a big blaze going on all around” (41, 107). Without these sensory clues, audiences may fail to appreciate the desperation of Willy’s state.
Characters and Costumes
Miller employs expressionistic technique when he allows his characters to split into younger versions of themselves to represent Willy’s memories. Young Biff’s letter sweater and football signal his age reversion, yet they also move in the direction of social type. The Woman also is an expressionistic type, the play’s only generic character other than the marvelously individualized salesman. Miller’s greatest expressionistic creations, however, are Ben and Willy Loman. In his Paris Review interview, Miller acknowledged that he purposely refused to give Ben any character, “because for Willy he has no character – which is, psychologically, expressionist because so many memories come back with a simple tag on them: somebody represents a threat to you, or a promise” (Theater Essays 272). Clearly Ben represents a promise to Willy Loman. It is the promise of material success, but it is also the promise of death.6 We might consider Uncle Ben to be the ghost of Ben, for we learn that Ben has recently died in Africa. Since Miller never discloses the cause of Ben’s death, he may be a suicide himself.
His idyllic melody, as I have noted, becomes finally a death march. In Willy’s last moments, the contrapuntal voices of Linda and Ben vie with each other, but Willy moves inexorably toward Ben. Alluding to Africa, and perhaps also to the River Styx, Ben looks at his watch and says, “The boat. We’ll be late” as he moves slowly into the darkness (135). Willy Loman, needless to say, is Miller’s brilliant demonstration that expressionistic techniques can express inner as well as outer forces, that expressionism can be used to create “felt,” humane character. The music, setting, and lighting of Salesman all function to express the world inside Willy Loman’s head, a world in which social and personal values meet and merge and struggle for integration.
As Miller writes in the introduction to his Collected Plays: [The play’s] expressionistic elements were consciously used as such, but since the approach to Willy Loman’s characterization was consistently and rigorously subjective, the audience would not ever be aware – if I could help it – that they were witnessing the use of a technique which had until then created only coldness, objectivity, and a highly styled sort of play. (39) In 1983, when Miller arrived in Beijing to direct the first Chinese production of Death of a Salesman, he was pleased to find that the Chinese had created a mirror image of the original transparent set. Seeing this set, and observing that the kitchen was furnished with only a refrigerator, table, and two (not even three) chairs, Miller felt “a wonderful boost” to his morale (Salesman in Beijing 3-4).
Teachers and directors might offer a similar boost by giving full weight to the expressionistic moments in Death of a Salesman. For directors, achieving such moments may be technically demanding, but they should not be abandoned simply because they are challenging.7 Similarly, the expressionistic devices should not be considered too obvious for postmodern taste. In truth, the expressionism in Salesman is not intrusive. Its very refinement of German expressionism lies in its subtlety, in its delicate balance with the realistic moments in the drama. This ever-shifting tension between realism and expressionism allows us to feel the interpenetration of outer and inner forces within the human psyche. The expressionistic devices also elevate Willy’s suffering, for they place it in the context of the natural order. To excise the expressionism is to diminish the rich chord that is Miller’s drama
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