Alexander Barnett

Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman:
Director’s Notes

Willy Loman
Alex Barnett Willy Salesman.jpg
Alexander Barnett in 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 refutation.

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.

Willy Loman
Alexander Barnett Willy Salesman.jpg
Alexander Barnett in Death of a Salesman
Willy Loman
Barnett  Willy Loman Salesman.jpg
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.

Death 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
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Willy and Linda
Barnett WIlly Linda Salesman.jpg
Alexander Barnett in Death of a Salesman

Character Analysis

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 very little.

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.

Her fundamental 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 toward Willy.

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.







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