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The American Dream is the promise that any man may become a success through hard work and a good personality. Death of a Salesman is based on the false promises of the American Dream and follows the struggles for success of Willy Loman and his Family. Arthur Miller sets the play mainly in the Loman household in 1942. However, there are several dramatic flashbacks where Willy remembers back t o1928. Miller has set the play in the time of the American Dream and by using this real life situation he adds realism and dramatic devices in historical context.
During scenes in the present, the actors ignore walls and all physical boundaries on stage. In the past, however, these boundaries are totally ignored. By using this theatrical technique, Miller not only helps to differentiate past from present, but also adds a dramatic effect by creating a sense of illusion and dreams. Another way in which Miller helps to separate the flashbacks from the rest of the play is by using music.
In one of the scenes that is set in the past, happy and joyous music is played. This music is to represent the happiness of the past in Willy’s mind; it also adds a sense of darkness and unhappiness to the present.
At the start of the play, flute music is played. This gives the effect of dreaminess and creates a surreal mood for the start of the play. Another example is in the restaurant scene. Loud, raucous music is heard.
The music sets the scene for the dramatic confrontation of Willy and his sons. Miller uses different types of music to reflect the mood and tone of the scene. Another way the setting contributes to the plays dramatic effect is by creating a sense of being ‘boxed in’. Willy is particularly aware of this because he says, ‘gotta break your neck to see a star in this yard.
This is not the case in the flashbacks as we know there is space to run around in the back yard and Willy was thinking of putting up a hammock. This reveals that over the years, the city has been built up around Willy and it makes him feel small and insecure. Willy also says to Ben, ‘there’s snakes and rabbits and- that’s why I moved out here. ‘ This tells us that Willy enjoys being out in the country. He often complains about wanting something to grow in the back yard and remembers back to when there were lilac and wisteria growing in the garden. The flowers represent happier times from the past.
As Willy gets older and life is closing in on him he has a strong urge to leave something behind that has life. Both his attempts fail; his efforts at plating seeds and his attempts at raising successful sons. The structure of the play would be very simple if it wasn’t for the constant interruptions of flashbacks which disturb the progression of the play. These flashbacks are memories or illusions which take place in Willy’s mind. The present setting of the play is only one day long in total. During the present time all scenes are in New York, mainly in the Loman household.
The flashbacks, however, go back to 1928 and reach places outside New York. This can make the structure complicated and the plot hard to follow. The structure if the play shows the difference between illusion and reality and emphasizes how past can affect present day. Sometimes, Willy’s illusions are brought into present time, for example when he talks to his dead brother, Ben. This shows how Willy is unable to separate his illusions from reality. Often Willy gets caught up in a conversation with Ben whilst he is talking to someone else in the reality.
This adds confusion to the audience, highlighting the confusion in Willy’s mind. The play is spilt into 2 acts. In Act 1 we see the build up of Willy’s hopes and dreams. Biff tells Willy he is going to see Bill Oliver and Happy comes up with the idea of them both going into business together. This is all Willy has ever dreamed of and tells the boys, ‘I think your troubles are over. ‘ In the second act, on the other hand, we see all these hopes destroyed. Act 2 is full of truth and the harsh realisation that the family cannot succeed.
Biff realises that Oliver doesn’t remember him and tries to tell Willy the truth about his life and that he stole his way out of every job he’s had. Willy also loses his job and has to go to Charley for money, stressing the fact the Willy his a sad man who is totally dependant on others and cannot succeed for himself. The whole play is a build up of dreams and fantasies followed by a ruthless realisation of the truth. This contrast of the two acts creates the drama of the play. Arthur Miller uses American dialect and colloquial language throughout the play to add to the realism.
He uses realistic terms and structures the dialogue so the audience feel they can relate to the story and believe that what is happening is real. Miller creates the characters to be ordinary Americans which makes them seem more realistic, therefore adding drama. Willy Loman is the protagonist in the play. He is a sixty year old salesman in the lowest of positions, who believes in the false promises of the American dream. He lives in a world of fantasies and illusions and is unable to distinguish reality from his dreams. He cannot face the truth about himself of his sons.
He lies that he is well liked by his company and makes up that he gets paid a lot more than he really does. His whole life is a lie. Willy has an unstable relationship with both his sons, Happy and Biff. Willy knows inside that he is a failure and so puts all his hopes into his sons, especially Biff. Biff is the more attractive of the two boys and was an excellent athlete at school. Willy told him that ‘personality always wins the day’ and makes him believe he can get by on his good looks and the ‘smile on his face. ‘ As a result of this he “flunks” math and cannot get into university.
He lost every job he has ever had because he is a compulsive thief. Willy will not believe this and suggests Biff should speak to Bill Oliver, an established businessman, and ask for a loan to start up his own business. Oliver, however, does not remember him and Viff ends up stealing his fountain pen. Biff admits he a total failure to his father. He says, ‘Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing Pop! ‘ Willy finds this hard to face up to as he has placed all his hopes in Biff. Another reason Willy wants Biff to succeed is to prove that he was not a bad father.
He feels he has failed at everything and doesn’t want to fail as a father too. When Willy was working in Boston, he had been having an affair with ‘the woman’. She made Willy feel good about himself and reminded him of his wife, Linda, while he was away. At the end of one of Willy’s flashbacks, the woman’s laughter blends into Linda’s, showing that Willy though they were similar. When Willy and ‘the woman’ were in a hotel, Biff walked in to find them together. Since then Biff has been unable to trust his father and Willy blames this for Biff’s failure. When talking to Bernard, Willy asks, ‘Bernard, was it my fault?
Y’see? It keeps going round in my mind, maybe I did something to him. ‘ This shows that it is troubling him and he’s feeling guilty. By asking Bernard, he hopes he will tell him it is not his fault and put his mind at ease. Throughout the play Willy makes statements and theories which are often proved to be wrong later in the play. He also frequently contradicts himself. This proves that his mid cannot focus and he is always trying to do or say the right thing. He tells Biff, ‘Walk in very serious. ‘ Then a few lines later he says, ‘Walk in with a big laugh. He likes to think he knows what he is saying but really he is a failure himself and doesn’t know the secret of success.
Another example is when Willy says, ‘personality always wins the day’ and ‘it’s the smile on your face. ‘ Charley later proves him wrong by telling him about J. P. Morgan. ‘In a Turkish bath he’s look like a butcher. ‘ Willy believes his funeral will be similar to Dave Singleman’s and people will travel miles to be there. The irony is that almost no-one is there, proving the error of his philosophies. In many ways, Happy is similar to Willy.
He has a poor job and often gets caught up in lies himself. In the restaurant scene, Biff is trying to tell Willy what happened with Bill Oliver. Happy doesn’t want to see Willy upset and so he tells Biff to lie. He says, ‘You tell him something nice’ and ‘say you got a lunch date with him tomorrow. ‘ This proves that Happy also finds it hard to face the truth. This use of simple language hides very complex issues and underlying plots which add to the dramatic effect of the play. There are many recurring themes in Death of a Salesman all merge together at the end to add irony and drama.
The most obvious theme is Willy’s belief that personal attractiveness and popularity guarantees success. Unfortunately, Willy talks about his theories with his sons and fills them with so much hot air that they cannot recognise the truth or take orders from anyone. Throughout the play Arthur Miller develops the theme of things being ‘all used up’. Willy is constantly complaining that the refrigerator, the car and the house are all breaking down, much like himself. Willy has a strong desire to own something for himself before it is broken. He says, ‘For once in my life I would like to own something outright before it is broken. This is echoed on the day of his funeral when Linda says, ‘I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. ‘
This brings out the dramatic irony that Willy has spent all his life paying off the mortgage and when he finally does, he is not there to enjoy it. Just like Willy’s refrigerator, Willy is used up and broken. After working for the Wagner Company for thirty-four years, they have squeezed all they could out of him, then fired and discarded him. The Requiem reflects on the rest of the play and the themes are tied together. We see that Happy is going to turn out like his father.
When Biff gives him a hopeless glance we know that he is also aware of this. We also find that Linda may have been taken in by Willy’s illusions when she asks, ‘Where are all the people he knew? ‘ But really Willy’s only friend was Charley, however Linda doesn’t seem to realise this. The real tragedy is that Willy killed himself because he believed, ‘a man is worth more dead than alive. ‘ He wanted the life insurance money to go to his sons to set up a business. The irony is that the insurance would not cover suicide. Willy’s life and death was all a failed attempt for success.
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