|Death of a Salesman
Thematic Content and Structure
This is not the story of a salesman: It is the
story of Willy Loman who just happened to be a salesman. This is not the story of Everyman. Willy’s passion, love and
drive go way beyond the norm. Perhaps most people will relate to Willy, be moved by him and, most importantly, think, contemplate
and learn from his life and his mistakes.
Willy, like Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View
from the Bridge, demands to be “totally known”. Like Eddie, he could never settle for half. He must attempt
everything even if it means ending up with nothing. He will risk his very life to achieve his “due”, what he considers
his rightful status. As Arthur Miller says, “The commonest of men may take on that [tragic stature] to the extent of
his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in the world”. Of course,
this willingness automatically removes him from being the commonest of men.
Self-esteem based upon the approval of others is evanescent and leads to self-delusion
and self-destruction. This, to me, is the primary theme of Death of a Salesman. All of Willy’s other problems--his
lack of self-knowledge, his refusal to follow his natural instincts, his constant self-doubt, confusion and lack of confidence
(no sooner does he make a decision then he needs to be reassured that it’s the right one), his stubborn, pigheaded determination
to do things his own way, positive that he’s right and yet in the next moment afraid that he’s wrong, begging
for another opinion, the very bad influence he is on his sons--all of this stems from the primary theme.
Having achieved his self-esteem through the approval of
others, Willy has watched these ‘approvers’ go to their graves and take his self-esteem with them. As the play
progresses, it becomes more and more difficult for Willy to lie and delude himself. One after another, all the myths he has
created in the past are exposed before his eyes. There is no self-pity, only frustration, bewilderment and epic struggle.
The more he struggles the faster his decline. Subconsciously, Willy knows where he went wrong, but consciously is unable to
come to terms with it. The constant and horrendous turmoil Willy endures is based upon his subconscious awareness and conscious
Both Biff and Happy,
his sons, are confused, but Biff is desperately searching for answers; Happy is under the delusion that he is searching, but
in many ways has found his niche. Like most womanizers, he’s mindless and self-gratifying. In no way is Hap a young
Willy as has sometimes been stated. He lacks the love, passion and depth. Hap is puerile where Biff is undisciplined. Biff,
being deeper and more sensitive than Happy, suffers more from Willy’s influence.
Memory and Flashback Scenes
In all of the memory scenes Willy, unlike
the other characters, never actually leaves the present, but re-experiences the past. In effect, he revisits the pivotal moments
in his life and tries to make sense of them. Subconsciously, however, he already knows what has and what will happen.
Example: In Act ll when he is in the hotel room with the woman and hears the knocking, he knows that if he opens the door
it will be disastrous, but is so lost in the memory he cannot comprehend why. The memory scenes are subjective and emotional;
a pure visualization of Willy’s feelings and thoughts. Thus, they are fragmented, elliptical and epitomized. He will
sometimes remember four or five separate events within one sequence.
|Alexander Barnett in Death of a Salesman
The set must be light, minimal and portable. There should be as much free and open space
as possible. The confines of the home should be created primarily by the lights, not by actual, permanent walls. We should
be able to expand and retract easily and naturally. When his brother Ben enters, for example, we must go from the confines
of the kitchen to the open space of Alaska, Africa and the prairies.
Rarely will there be a blackout. Lights will
frequently overlap or cross-fade. The action must never stop. Willy’s mind is on a collision course and the lights must
reflect this. The set and lights must serve Willy’s mind, which is constantly changing, striving, searching.
There can come a point in a man’s life when it is too late. After this point is reached the truth, and not delusion,
becomes the killer. Contrary to most opinion, Willy does achieve self-awareness, and this very awareness is something he is
unable to come to terms with. He cannot live with the reality and so hangs on to the delusion and dies with it.
of a Salesman is a tragedy of the first order. Consider: a theme of epic importance; the strength, immensity and uncompromising
nature of Willy’s struggle; his fatal flaw; his intensity, passion, love, devotion and total single-mindedness; his
ultimate destruction; Biff’s ultimate self-awareness. And finally, the fact that true tragedy must have the potential
for creating self-awareness in the audience. From this will follow a purging of the soul. Death of a Salesman most
definitely creates this self-awareness.
|Willy and Linda
|Death of a Salesman
It is a sad and frightening truth that Linda, Willy's wife,
who is so totally devoted and loyal to him, who is his pillar of strength, who will let no one speak ill of him (no matter
how justified it may be), who does everything possible to make his life peaceful and happy, who knows so well how to handle
him, who can anticipate almost his every mood and who prides herself on understanding him so well, in actuality knows Willy
She encourages him to stay at a job he is obviously unfit for; she is unaware of his self-esteem crisis
and his pie-in-the-sky delusions; she discourages him from starting other pursuits (this because of her ultra-conservative
nature); and is completely bewildered by his suicide, despite the clues that are dropped everywhere.
decency, integrity, loyalty and love are remarkable and unquestionable, but it must be realized that she unwittingly feeds
Willy’s problem. The love and devotion she gives him, however, are truly a wonder. Tragically, Willy never understands
the depth of her commitment.
Fundamentally, Biff is decent, gentle and sensitive. He is extremely stubborn, with
a strong independent streak. Right to the very end it is love, not hatred, that drives the relationship between Biff and Willy.
Biff hates Willy for betraying his mother, but still loves him deeply for the love and affection Willy lavished on him. He
is furious with himself for being unable to remove what he considers this yoke of love, and this exacerbates his antagonism
It is said that Biff’s life is ruined after discovering that Willy is a philanderer. Certainly,
it is a tremendous setback, but there are other factors at work here. His innate nature plus his prior experiences and conditioning
are of major importance. It is not the discovery of the event itself that causes Biff to give up and leaves him unable to
cope with the experience.