Death of A Salesman (1947), one of playwright Arthur Miller’s best works, is set against the backdrop of a typical American family situation and the ensuing drama caused by it as triggered by various social, emotional, and financial concerns. Exceptionally notable in the work is the generous use of expressionism, particularly to communicate the thoughts and feelings of Willy Loman, the beleaguered salesman. But this style works not just to Willy’s benefit, but also to reinforce the play’s theme of success and failure in pursuing the great American dream.
Expressionism attempts to paint a subjective version of reality as seen by a certain individual consciousness, which exposes the character’s inner life. In this case, the reality shown onstage is Willy Loman’s own sense of what had and what is happening; in the play, the device functions as re-enactments of past events rather than just memories he would narrate. This way, Miller was able to reveal Willy’s beliefs and his larger-than-life hopes, as well as the resulting disappointments.
Integral in the technique is the clever, meaningful use of music, sets, and lighting. I. Characters Most, if not all the characters in the play are avenues to express Willy’s mindsets, starting with the names given each one. The family name Loman, carried foremost by Willy himself, may be given further meaning as it sounds like “low-man”. Literally, it could speak of stature and acceptance in society. Willy’s perceived image of his present self operates in this context, revealing his insecurity of people like Charley, Howard, and even Bernard.
His sons’ names, Biff and Happy, also connote concrete impressions: Biff is the all-American stereotype, the kind that becomes a high school sports hero; the name Happy, a word so basic but positive, alludes to the contented disposition and second-fiddle role of the character; Linda, nondescript and plain, goes with the wife’s characterization. Willy can be seen as a variation of Will, which also means determination—quite apt for the non-negotiable attitude he gives throughout. In terms of Willy’s emotions, the characters have their own meanings as well.
Biff means hope, the potential for greatness and everything he never achieved. His older brother Ben, implied as a ghost, represents two things—material success, and death. By showing Ben relentlessly convincing Willy of a better life in the country, we can assume that doing this is tantamount to dying for Willy. Charley and Bernard symbolize Willy’s wrong decisions, considering the successes both achieved later in the story. Both were established as trivial characters, Bernard being merely Biff’s groupie and Charley as an ineffective salesman, as Willy saw it.
In the end, they became what Willy would have wanted for Biff and himself. II. Music and Sound A variety of musical signals are used throughout, to indicate a particular character at a particular time in Willy’s life. The start of the play is defined by flute music, small and fine, symbolizing nature—trees, grass, simplicity—that represents many aspects of Willy’s relationship with his son Biff. This flute sound is given several versions as the play progresses, each referring to certain moods and thoughts.
The first act utilizes this to introduce the concept of Willy’s father, and does this through a high, booming sound; such qualities are indicative of the determination and perseverance of a salesman. Compare this with the opposite-sounding flute strains that are more telling of farms, fields, and the uncomplicated life. The apparent distinction in sound also exposes the conflict between Willy and his father—the latter being the perfect example of a salesman whom Willy has forever tried to emulate.
That the father left his wife and children to pursue his love for adventure and journey makes his flute version symbolic of abandonment, another theme tackled by the play. A lighter, more dreamlike quality of music accompanies Ben’s each entrance. Ben, Willy’s older brother, appears whenever Willy is in a dire situation—the loss of his job, his fight with Biff—and is consistent in his offer of the outdoors, farm life, and more than enough money. His insinuations play to get Willy’s attention, to make him decide to give everything up, because Ben actually represents death.
The dreamy music can only be a facade, devised to entice Willy. Ultimately, Willy gives in to his thoughts of suicide, and Ben’s flute music comes in, followed by Ben himself. One counterpoint of the flute in sound and music is the reference to whistling, done mostly by Biff. Whistling falls in the realm of everything simple and stress-free, down-to-earth farm work and country sunshine that Willy and Biff both knew was where they would lead better lives. However, Willy’s tunnel vision for sales success and great expectations of Biff, made him fail to recognize that following what they truly want would have changed everything.
On the other hand, Willy’s younger son Happy considers whistling foolish and comic—revealing his true character and objective, exactly the opposite of his father’s and brother’s. Happy, while practically ignored and left on his own by both his parents and has been cornered into being an understudy for Biff, actually has the ambition and drive. Exactly the qualities needed to become a kind of corporate success Willy had always wanted for his eldest son. Happy knew what to do with his life, and had earned the respect of people outside of his own family, like the waiter Stanley.
But the one thing he never had was the time and attention of his father, who could not see that his younger son had become the reality of what he believed Biff would be. Raw, sensuous music is heard whenever The Woman’s scenes take place, which literally translates to sexual desire and noncommittal relationship. But this strain also relates Willy’s need to validate his achievements, or lack of them; The Woman makes him feel desired and wanted, which he does not get from his own clients.
Compare this to the sound that accompanies the appearances of Linda, Willy’s wife. From start to middle, the soft hum of a lullaby is heard, until it includes a desperate note towards the end when her family continues to experience problems coming from the conflict between Willy and Biff, and Willy and himself. The flashbacks in Willy’s life, specially those that involve his sons, are punctuated by gay, bright music; this melody lifts the scene’s mood, because it introduces probably the best memories Willy has ever had—great times with his boys.
The sound also evokes a promise of success, for it carries Willy’s hopes and dreams of wealth and career growth. III. Set Design Societal and financial pressures are exposed clearly and almost without boundaries, depicted by the set design used to show Willy’s home and office. Scenes are also made to play out within each other, adding to the problems happening simultaneously, or to indicate a cause-and-effect situation. The specific design of tall, imposing, and hard-edged buildings seen surrounding the simple structure of the Loman home also add to the boxed-in atmosphere.
Willy’s view of his own family is also made obvious in the props indicated for use: the dining table only has three, and not four chairs; and the bedroom is quite spare save for the prominently displayed trophy Biff received for his excellence in sports. These details show the importance of each family member, in Willy’s mind—topped by Biff, with Happy in middle ground, and Linda, whose opinions or feelings he hardly considers. IV. Lighting Mood and tone are not the only ideas expressed by the right lighting, and that is evident in its use in the play.
Several high and low points are emphasized by different lighting executions, and all of them echo how Willy’s sees each situation. Biff is shown in a “golden pool of light”, and clearly this refers to being a hero, almost a god, in his father’s eyes. Because of Willy’s incredible hopes and dreams for his son, the light always appears golden and bright, and unfading—even if the reality of Biff’s many failures has been revealed. A picture of contrast is how Willy sees himself, as he contemplates with suicidal thoughts; the lighting shifts to a blue hue, coming from the gas heater flowing through the wall.
Willy’s trysts with The Woman also uses a different lighting device, one that coincides with the sound. The feelings of desire and sex are captured by a red glow, which is typically used in many stage and film productions to connote illicit affairs and interludes. V. Sales and Stockings Willy’s job as a salesman is not so much about his merchandise, but of his self. Sadly, he is no longer of use to many people, like Howard and the company he worked in for thirty-four years. The flipside of it shows how he is also a buyer, of inflated dreams and false hopes.
A sale is a literal way of showing one’s worth, because the figures are seen straight away. Willy’s obsession with his imagined relationships with his buyers equate to his own self-worth; his way of urging Biff to negotiate for a big salary just reinforces what he thinks of his boy. The industry of selling has very precise requirements, and is run on charm, personality, and determination—according to Willy. It is not strictly about the volume one has sold, or the deals made; it is about respect, commitment, and relationships. He thought little of Charley because he had a weak “style”, and consequently refused to take Charley’s job offer.
He was adamant Howard would give in to what he wanted, because he was the one who gave Howard his name. Willy saw people in terms of the relationship he had established with them, and the degree of respect he had assigned to each. Traveling salesmen like Willy push a variety of items every time. The ubiquitous detail of “nine sheers” or stockings has a clear connection to the self-assurance and validation he gets from The Woman. While he easily gives her boxes of stockings—part of his own product inventory—his wife has to content herself with mending her old, ripped ones.