"Death of a Salesman"
I dedicate the study of this play to my father, Larry Pritchard, a man who had "all the wrong dreams".
Arthur Miller: October 17, 1915 – February 10, 2005
Scene from film (the affair): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkLOUFru-CI
Scene (the truth): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh2w_0NUtC4&feature=related
Requiem-Student Production: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Er9FOaY7xQ
Final Scene-Student Project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRaZ17hnXdk
Miller Tribute: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjvOLS8Zcx4&feature=related
About Miller: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/arthur-miller/none-without-sin/56/:
Brief Bio: Arthur Miller (October 17, 1915 – February 10, 2005) was an American playwright and essayist. He was a prominent figure in American theatre and cinema, writing a wide variety of dramas, including plays such as The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman, which are studied and performed worldwide. Miller was often in the public eye, most famously for refusing to give evidence against others to the House Un-American Activities Committee, being the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama among countless other awards, and for his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Miller is considered by audiences and scholars as one of America's greatest playwrights and his plays are lauded throughout the world. [wikipedia.com]
Death of a Salesman
Who is Willy Loman? His name is a pun on "low-man", the man on the bottom, so to speak, who is down on his luck. He is a salesman, a man who peddles goods made by someone and owned by someone else; he owns nothing and makes nothing, adn he has no sense of accomplishment or ownership in his life. Because of this, he develops the theory of the "well-liked" person; he beleives that a person who is liked and is attractive will have doors opened for them. IS THERE TRUTH IN THIS?
These are the notions from which Willy builds his life. He dreams very big, and his main goal is to be like Dave Singleman, a man who was a great salesman and who when he died, had tons of people from all over attend his funeral. However, Willy's ideas and dreams cause him to live a life based on telline lies and living illusions, which eventually replace reality for Willy. He tries to covnice people that he is "building something" and that he is a valuable and well-liked salesman. He tells his family that he makes more money than he actually does. He has an affair with Frances in Boston-- she serves as an ego boost for Willy. This is not an illicit love affair, but a way for Willy to perceive himself as liked and wanted.
Willy lives life vicariously through his sons, especially Biff. Biff shows promise fo being a leader, maybe a great football player. When Biff flunks math, he goes to Boston to ask Willy to convince his teacher to change the grade. He catches Willy having the affair and begins to see him as a fake. This entraps Willy in a lie. For 14 years, Biff lives an unstable life and cannot hold down any job; he is a drifter, while Willy continues on with his job with nothing left to live for but his illusions. Biff's disappointment in his father effects them both profoundly. Willy lives in a dream world, stuck in the time before Biff turned on him. Willy may have had "all the wrong dreams", but he lives and dies for those dreams and illusions.
Willy's wife is Linda; she is the "eternal wife figure"-- a stock character, a stereotype. She is abused by Willy, but her whole life revolves around him. She is always ready to reject even her sons to stand by her husband. Linda also has illustions; she cant' understand Willy's dreams of success and even holds him back from his opportunity to go to Alaska because of his "great future with the Wagner firm". LInda is in no way adventurous. She is partly to blame for Willy's tragedy; she keeps him in his dream world, always ready to boost his ego. She goes ballistic whenever her sons try to point out Willy's senility, irresponsibility, suicide attempts, and lack of character. She is a simple character, the wife "caught in the struggle between illusion and reality who has not the strength to support, reject, nor understand either one".
*Reminds me of my dad, who had dreams of success in the military, but my mom wanted to remain a small town girl; he gave up his dream for her. If you want to see what he gave it up for, click on the "St. Martinville" links I posted on the NING!
Biff: His name suggests "dumb jock"; he starts out as the stereotypical jock figure, always the center of attention, who feels that life owes him something because of his greatness. He is influenced by Willy as a young man in that he believes in his father's philosophy of life (to be well-liked); he refers to his friend Bernard as "liked, but not well-liked". Biff's greatness, though, is just another illusion. He is a petty criminal, but Willy jokes about this rather than taking it seriously. Biff believes, as his father teaches him, that popularity and attractiveness are more important than excelling in school, and when he learns that this isn't ture, it is already too late. He gets a revealtion when he steals a foutnain pen from Bill Oliver (a man he had stolen basketballs from years earlier). He conveys to Willy that he is "no good, I'm a dime a dozen Pop, and so are you". It is at this point that Biff can finally adopt some of his own values and beliefs and let go of his father's. He doesn't see Willy as a hero or a fake, just as a weak man with some good qualities [which is a fair assessment of his character]. With Biff, we see hope for self-awareness.
Happy Loman is constantly overshadowed by his brother Biff, yet he doesn't express resentment for this. He is neglected, and is therefore warranted when in the restaurant, Hap rejects Willy, "no, that's not my father. He's just a guy". Willy commits suicide for Biff to have $20,000 of insurance money-- not Happy. He is a weak character [how could he not be under these circumstances], and although he doesn't complain, his life-long rejection by his father means he, ironically, can never be "truly happy." Happy wants nothing more than his father's approval, yet it is something he can never get. He takes a page from his dad's playbook and projects himself to be more successful than he actually is. Willy barely notices.
Charley is a FOIL to Willy; he is everything opposite of Willy. He has no dreams of success, yet he is successful. He doesn't care what people think of him. He contradicts everything Willy stands for, and thus stands as proof that Willy's views are wrong! This is why Willy could never accept work from Charley, because then he'd have to admit that he was wrong and Charley was right. Willy talks the talk, Charley walks the walk. Willy is the illusion, Charley is the reality. Bernard is Charley's son, and he too is proof that Willy is misguided in his beliefs. While Bernard was "not well-liked" in school, he goes on to become a very successful lawyer. Willy's revelation of this fact is a poignant moment in the play.
Ben is Willy's brother. He also stands for everything that Willy is not; he is Willy's "ideal" figure. He was adventurous (unlike Willy)--he ran away from home and came back rich. However, Willy did want to go with Ben, but Linda persuaded him against it. Willy has flashbacks of Ben that jar him because he probably regrets not going with Ben when he had the chance. This also could be a source of tension between he and Linda; he may subconsciously blame Linda for not allowing him a shot at Ben's success.
** The play is packed with symbolism; some examples are the stockings, bricks and windows, the broken car and appliances [a major theme in Miller's work is the condemnation of American Society-- the consumerism and false notion of the "american dream", which was misguided]. The flute muisic is also a motif in the play; it represents a distant, faraway, dreamworld. The flute melody both opens and closes the play.
The American Dream is all about perception-- we must present the facade that we are keeping up with the Jones'. The result is that we have become a credit card nation; we live in debt. Willy, like most fathers, would like to leave something to his children, but he has nothing to leave. He and Linda live month to month. Willy works hard, and we are told that being hardworking is the cornerstone of the American Dream, but Willy stands as an example of the fact that this is not always true; hard work does not always pay off. Willy finds it hard to keep up with the ever-changing world-- a world of tall buildings and emerging technologies. He sees everything he thinks he knows disproven-- it all slips away. He believes in the philosophies of being well-liked and hardworking, but his kids never buy into the ideal; in the end, he and his sons are failures. Willy does not live up to the American Dream, but it isn't for lack of trying.
While "Hamlet" is a tragedy that recounts the downfall of a prince, "DofS" is a tragedy that recounts the downfall of a common man.
Points of Discussion
* The Philosophy of Business * The effects of the woman * The flashbacks as a means of explaining Willy's motivations * His attitude toward his sons * Is he a sympathetic character?
* Is she sincere-- about anything? * Is she purely a stereotype? Why/Not?
About Biff and Happy:
* Highlight their differences/similarities * Discuss Bernard as their foil
* Dream Vs. Reality * Past Vs. Present * the "American Dream" * The setting (meaning, symbolism?) * Is Willy pathetic or tragic? Why?
* This is a "memory" play... what does that mean?
The Memory Play "Post-World War II many American playwrights began to tap into the power of memory as a narrative device. Influenced by the forces that were shaping American society, especially the psychoanalytical concepts of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, these playwrights used the concept of memory to fuel non-linear plots and intense character development."
Does the mind operate with simultaneous threads of experience - threads of memory pulsating at the same time the mind is processing extrinsic experience, weighing options, anticipating and/or conjecturing future experience? During intense concentration - evoked perhaps by coping with strong emotional response, facing a difficult decision, or dealing with a traumatic situation - does the mind become more one-dimensional, shutting out other forces and compulsively concentrating on one thing or problem? How "selective" is memory? Are only the good things remembered? Is memory built on illusions about what has happened in the past? Or does it recall things exactly the way they happened? What are some of the effects of memory? (Does it disturb? Support? Reaffirm? etc.)
Interview with Miller: http://www.neh.gov/whoweare/miller/interview.html
NPR commentary on Willy: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18607090
Audio Discussion Link-- life and work: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june99/miller_2-10.html
NPR On-Point on Miller, audio: http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2005/02/death-of-a-playwright/
Various Links: http://www.ibiblio.org/miller/links.html
Instructor's Blog: This play is very meaningful to me. Written in 1949, it captures a snapshot of of my parents' era. Everytime I read the play, I see parallels between Willy & Linda and Larry & Lena (my parents). Like Linda, my mother was a very traditional woman; she didn't like change or adventure. Like Willy, my dad never found success. Like Willy & Linda, Larry & Lena never owned much, and they never found fulfillment in life. Like Willy, Larry was weak; like Linda, Lena was an enabler. However, underlying all of that, was love. You get the feeling that Willy & Linda, although toxic together, were also destined for one another. Willy loves Linda deeply, but his indiscretions leave him with a guilt that eats away at their relationship, while Linda pours an unwarranted amount of love and affection to her imperfect husband... this was not true of my parents. While my dad, like Willy, never did figure out how to show his children love, he never had a problem letting Lena know that she was his world. However, it was Lena that resented the life that she was leading. While Larry missed out on his opportunity for adventure, like Happy, he never complained. As long as Lena was happy, he was fine. Unfortunately, he never figured out how to make that happen... try as he might, he could never find the right answers. My dad even spent a few years trying to sell insurance... predictably, he failed. Like Willy, my father was not a bad man, only a weak one. He was not cut out to handle the harshness of this world. In fact, like Willy, he longed to be at peace; he did not fear death. My father was never a fighter; he did not fight to succeed, he did not fight to live... he just took the punches. Like Biff and Hap, I too love my daddy, despite his weaknesses... we are all human, and inherant in that humanity, is certain imperfection.