Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Boston; Willy's Head; The Late 1940s
Most of the action is set in Willy Loman's home and yard in Brooklyn, NYC. Because of recent population growth, the Lomans' house is boxed in by apartment buildings. Throughout the play, the big encroaching buildings are shown to choke the more natural beauty that once surrounded the Lomans' home. Once there were trees and enough sunlight to grow a garden. The looming buildings, which have separated the characters from nature, add to their feelings of confinement and desire to escape.
There are a few scenes that don't take place at the Lomans' Brooklyn home. We see Willy get fired in an office in Manhattan, and he also meets his sons at a Manhattan restaurant. There's also the scene where Biff learns of Willy's affair, which happens in a hotel room in Boston. The Loman house, however, totally dominates the set, perhaps highlighting Willy's longing to provide for his family and showing that no matter how misguided he is, everything he does in some way revolves around his family.
We should also point out that the play, or at least a good portion of it, is set inside Willy's mind. The audience experiences many of the events through Willy's subjective viewpoint. All the flashbacks and blurred realities are from Willy's point of view.
The time period also has a big effect on the action of the play. It's the late 1940s, meaning that we've just come out of WWII. The country is all gung-ho about rebuilding itself and everyone achieving—yes, you've got it—the American Dream. Basically, the nation is just revving up for the economic boom of the 1950s. So, American commercialism as we know it is just about to take off in a really major way. This, of course, ties into many of the play's themes.
(Psst. For some more historical context, check out our US History learning guides on Postwar Suburbia and the 1950s.)
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In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman reviews a life of desperate pursuit on a dream of success. The playwright suggests to his audience both what is truthful and what is illusory in the American Dream. Unusual in its presentation of a common man as a tragic figure, the play literally processes Willy Loman’s way of mind. To accomplish this, Miller uses the sense of time on stage in an unconventional way to point up that, for Willy Loman, the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present.
The play uses two different time frames simultaneously, one based in the present, and one based in the past. Past flashbacks are often triggered in Willy’s mind by symbols and motifs from the present, and often serve to develop the present situation and explain why characters are acting the way they are. Because the play is about Willy’s search rather than the socioeconomic environment in which his search takes place, the play’s setting is meticulously devoid of detailed reminders of place and time.
For example, in Act One, Ben’s remarks, the flute music, and the voice of the “woman” illustrate Miller’s concept that everything exists at the same time—at least within the human mind. From the beginning, the Salesman image absorbed the concept that nothing in life comes next, but that everything exists together and at the same time within everyone; that there is no past to be brought forward in a human being, but that he is in his past at every moment and that the present is merely that, which his past is capable of noticing, smelling and reacting to.
Arthur Miller did not divide his play into scenes within each act. Instead, the action is continuous, even when flashbacks occur. The play encompasses an evening and the following day, but the action is interrupted by or mixed with flashback or memories of a period approximately seventeen years earlier. Act one covers the author’s pre-play description of the set as well as the opening action. Music throughout the rest of the play sets the mood for opening stage direction. At times of promise of better things to come in the future, the music is “gay and bright” and “raw and sensuous” during the “woman” scenes.
The flute music is associated with nostalgia each time Willy begins to imagine a happier life in the past. The set design of Death of a Salesman was innovative since it allowed Miller’s characters to move between present and past, the real and the imaginary, without cumbersome set changes. Moreover, the set design helps Miller suggest the way the characters, especially Willy, live in the past as much as the present. Even Before the characters appear on stage, the audience sees the set design. Miller’s description of the set is important as it establishes the tone of the play.
The set shows both the inside and outside of Willy Loman’s humble house in New York City. A “fragile-seeming” house, it is hedged in, surrounded by recently erected apartment buildings. Blue light falls on the house, giving it “an air of the dream,” while “an angry glow of orange” colors the edges of the set. The blue light around the set, indicating “an air of the dream” corresponds to Willy’s self-confidence (“I could sell them! ”) in the face of what are intimidating, depressing circumstances.
Simultaneously, “an air of the dream” may refer to all the characters’ anxious, dazed sense of being lost. The large apartment buildings are crowding Willy and Linda, beating down on them the same way many unrewarding years as a traveling salesman has weighed on Willy. The kitchen occupies center stage, flanked by a bedroom at a raised level on the right. Behind and above the kitchen is another bedroom, and a doorway draped with a curtain leads out from the back of the kitchen to an unseen living room. The setting is completely or, in places, partially transparent.
Miller tells the reader that when the characters are in the present, that actors will respect the “walls” of the house and enter only through doors; in the scenes from the past, however, the actors will enter or exit by walking through the transparent walls. By using flashback and reveries, Miller allows the audience to get into the mind of Willy Loman and brings the audience into a sense of pity for him. Miller also uses a lot of motifs and repeated ideas through the play to give the viewers an idea of what Willy and his situation is all about.
As far as plays go, the speech in Death of a Salesman does veer more to the realistic end of the spectrum than the unrealistic. Using a lot of colloquialisms and ellipses and dashes, make the speech seem more stunted and everyday like. Willy is fairly inarticulate and uses cliche phrases to express how he is feeling but this only serves to emphasize how this is a tragedy of a normal man. Vocabulary is naturalistic throughout, as is the rhythm and although the vocabulary and sentence structure is often simplistic, Miller was skillful enough to still make it powerful and effective.
There are still hints at times, however, that this is a play and not a reality show, for example, when Linda says “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person. ” In parts of the play, the past and present both run at the same time. This is intentional however; the play was begun with only one firm piece of knowledge: Loman is to destroy himself. The structure of the play was determined by what was needed to draw up his memories like a mass of tangled roots without end or beginning.
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Willy lives closer to our experience than many protagonists; he is struggling with the pressures of twentieth century life: of money, of the city, of the family, of the job, while his weaknesses are those which ordinary humans share. Loneliness, the inability to decide exactly what one wants, the breakdown of communications btw the two generations, are all part of our lives to some extent. Miller shows that man is isolated, and, even though he struggles, the may be faced with impossible odds.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Death of a Salesman Stage Effects
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