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Arthur Miller said that his first title for “Death of a salesman” was “The inside of his head”. Why do you think Miller considered using this as a title and how can a production of the play convey to an audience that it is about Willy Loman’s way of mind.
“The image was of an enormous face the height of the proscenium arch which would appear and then open up, and we would see the inside of a man’s head .
. . it was conceived half in laughter, for the inside of his head was a mass of contradictions.”
– Arthur Miller
Miller of course, did not use this ‘arch’ in any way in his play, but he did use a number of things to show what was going on inside Willy Loman’s head. He not only showed the audience reality the way Willy Loman did, but at the same time show what was real. There are three levels of understanding: Willy’s perception of reality, Willy’s memories of his past, and the audience’s perception of reality in the present.
Past and present are used to show the audience what Willy Loman’s past was like and how the present is linked to it. It can get quite confusing for the audience, especially those who had not read the play beforehand, as the present frequently switches into the past and vice versa. The present is shown as a realistic view of what is happening to Willy and his family.
But the past is mainly shown as how Willy remembered it. He may have remembered it in a slightly different way to what it was like in reality, as he felt his past was all he had to cherish, the past was all the hope he had left, to him, everything else had seemed to whither away.
Onstage, unreality is shown using lighting, golden light is used on Willy’s figures of respect, such as Ben. The majority of the time Ben is onstage, Willy is just imagining it. It wasn’t even one of his memories from the past. Such as in Act two, towards the end of the play, Willy speaks to Ben about suicide. This never happened in the past.
Willy’s disillusioned dreams of Biff and his success cause him mental traumas when he realises he has never achieved his dreams, his colleagues were no longer working and Willy Loman was no longer very well known in society at all. His salary is taken away, even after all the years he had been working for his company. He is no longer successful. This is first explained to the audience in Act one with Linda, Biff and Happy:
Linda: He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him anymore, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man’s mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent?
Willy is getting old, and to him, life has already ended. All he has is his hopeful past to and his memories to hold dear. Willy is constantly in a world of his own. It is like we are taken back in time to share what Willy experienced. It explains why he is the way he is. Willy often reminisces about a certain time in the past when there is something in the present that reminded him of it. For example, when Biff comes home, he remembers when Biff was in high school, in the football team and being offered scholarships in universities for their sport teams. In this scene he is speaking to Bernard in the past:
Willy (angrily): What’re you talking about? With scholarships to three universities they’re gonna flunk him?
Willy has this flashback the evening he comes home after almost crashing his car, when Biff has just come home (Act 1). He remembers Biff as he was in high school, full of hope and promise. He feels Biff is now completely lost, as explained to the audience in the beginning of the play in his conversation with Linda:
Linda: He’s finding himself, Willy.
Willy: Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!
Biff grew up trying to accept Willy’s values and ideas of how to be successful as his own; perhaps this was why he has not found himself yet. He never wanted to waste time in his life, but he has just realised that he had done just that. He explains this to Happy, early on in Act one:
Biff: And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and everytime I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life.
Biff never found his own path to follow and after discovering his father’s affair with Miss Francis he had to face reality for the first time. (The audience are not aware of this until near the end, this is to create more dramatic climax.) This causes many problems for him; he lost hope, as the one man he admired had let the family down. Biff gave up trying to graduate and as a result, he had pointless jobs followed by pointless jobs.
On stage, the past is indicated by a number of things: Firstly, music was used to set the mood for what Willy was thinking back to. For example in Act 2 for the Ebbots Field scene, cheery, joyful music was used to indicate that Willy thought back of that event as happy and hopeful. Miller had specific ideas about how music was to be used, for example:
Young Bernard rushes in. The gay music of the boys is heard.
The production we saw used slightly altered techniques. Different music is used for the Ebbots Field scene; it was fast and cheery music. This went quite well, appropriate music was played and it helped the audience understand the feelings of Willy and what he was thinking at the time.
Miller had originally suggested a flute for whenever there was going to be a change in time. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. I think this would have worked better, as it would be less confusing for the audience.
When present moved into the past in the play, the lights would often change with it. Brighter colours showed the past whereas in present scenes, dull, worn out colours were used. Again, Miller had originally suggested something else, infact, the opposite to what was done in this particular production. Miller had visualised the lights in past as dim, signifying the faded out, blurry past.
Leaves are also used onstage. This is something that Miller had suggested; it indicated the present moving into past. I think this is quite effective onstage as it helps us realise when we are no longer in present, but in past. In Act one, the first time present switches into the past, these stage instructions are given:
The apartment houses are fading out, and the entire house and surroundings become covered with leaves. Music insinuates itself as the leaves appear.
I thought the production’s alterations were significant, as the brighter past is relevant in terms of what was happening inside Willy’s head. It suggests he sees the past as brighter, and more joyful. Something that reality is not.
In the present, there should be an imaginary kitchen wall onstage that the actors could not walk through. In the stage directions, Miller states:
Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall on to the forestage.
This shows Willy’s mind is not in the kitchen or even his house anymore and has drifted into a world of its own. For example, in scenes with Biff and Happy in the past. The actors freely walked through the imaginary wall-lines.
Scenes with The Woman would always be in the past as she was only a memory of Willy’s. In the film, she was bought on in Act one after Willy looked through a mirror, this was again, not something Miller had suggested but it worked well, as it showed he was imagining all of it and it wasn’t happening in reality at all but in his mind. Both the film and production used the woman’s laughing as a way to indicate he was starting to reminisce about her again, as indicated in the text:
From the darkness is heard the laughter of a woman. Willy doesn’t turn to it, but it continues through Linda’s lines. This shows that his past experiences with The Woman are with him as he is talking to Linda.
Sometimes the past and present are played on stage at the same time. This is when Willy is reminded of something and starts reminiscing. E.g. in Act 1 in the scene when Charley first appears in the present, and he reminds Willy of Ben, his deceased brother:
Uncle Ben, carrying a valise and an umbrella, enters the forestage from around the right corner of the house. He is a stolid man, in his sixties, with a moustache and an authoritative air. He is utterly certain of his destiny, and there is an aura of far away places about him. He enters exactly as Willy speaks.
Willy: I’m getting awfully tired, Ben.
Ben’s music is heard. Ben looks around at everything.
Charley: Good, keep playing; you’ll sleep better. Did you call me Ben?
Ben looks at his watch.
Willy: That’s funny. For a second there you reminded me of my brother Ben.
Ben: I only have a few minutes. (He strolls, inspecting the place. Willy and Charley continue playing.)
In this particular scene, Willy sees and hears Ben, as he is in his head, whereas Charley does not. He is confused when Willy starts talking about completely different things to what they were previously discussing. This is one example of the dramatic irony Miller uses throughout the play to show that Willy is in a completely different world of his own. It also creates tension and suspense. The other characters do not see what he sees, but the audience do. This helps the audience understand Willy’s state of mind, and can make us feel pity for him. It seems to be heading towards a very tragic end.
Symbols play a significant part in the play. It is used to show what is going on in his head. Willy Loman’s constantly longing for the good days to return, and this is presented in many ways, for example:
His affair with Miss Francis. He is clearly still guilty and this is shown using stockings. He sees his wife fixing hers, just the way she tries to fix all the family problems straight after he remembers he gave Miss Francis Linda’s stockings. He orders that she throws them out straight away and he would not have his wife fixing stockings in his house.
Willy: (noticing her mending) What’s that?
Linda: Just mending my stocking. They’re so expensive-
Willy (angrily, taking them away from her): I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out!
This particular action suggests that Willy yearns to be free of his problems at home.
Also when Biff finds out about his father’s affair, in Act two, he is very upset she had been given his mother’s stockings.
Biff: You- you gave her Mama’s stockings! (His tears break through and he rises to go.)
This again is a symbol that a bond and happiness has been broken.
Willy’s car plays a symbolic role as well. In this car, Willy is driving himself to death. The “accidents” he had were perhaps early attempts to commit suicide, but they were definitely attempts to draw attention to his condition. The car represents control, and movement forward of which are symbols in Willy’s life of desperation and misery. It was no wonder he used it to kill himself.
Imagery is also used to create dramatic effects and to show what is going on in his mind. One of the most important incidents is in connection with Ben, Willy’s successful brother, who introduces the motif of the jungle and the diamonds.
Ben: The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.
Willy remembers his brother saying “When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out…And by God I was rich!” The jungle was the place Ben found success, but for Willy, his “woods are burning” there is simply no time left. The jungle symbolises life and the diamonds are symbolic of success. This image shows that Willy thinks every piece of hope is closing in on him: time, his business and family. Even the apartment buildings are too, they don’t show the beautiful view like they did in the years of Willy’s success.
Willy: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighbourhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should’ve made a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?
This is said in his conversation with Linda when he first comes home in Act One.
Even everyday things involved in the play suggest the weary daily life of Willy Loman. The fridge is one example; it is so old and uninteresting and has been in that house for almost as long as Willy had. It represents how worn out he and his hopes were.
Linda: And you got one more payment on the refrigerator…
Willy: But it just broke again!
Linda: Well, it’s old, dear.
Willy: I told you we should’ve bought a well advertised machine. Charley bought a General Electric and it’s twenty years old and it’s still good, that son-of-a-bitch.
The scenery in the production that I went to see with my school was very symbolic of what Willy’s mind was like. It seemed closed in, small and Willy appeared to be trapped in it wherever he went. The house was in the background of all the scenes, this seemed to show that no matter where Willy was, he couldn’t free himself from the pain and misery in his life. The backdrop was of the apartment houses around the Loman house. They towered over the house and invaded the privacy.
I think Arthur Miller made the right choice with using ‘Death of a Salesman’ as the title for the play instead of ‘The inside of his head’. Though the original name was suitable, I feel it gives away too much of what the play is about. ‘Death of a Salesman’ however is a little more discreet and subtle and gives away only the fact that there is a death at some point of the play. It doesn’t give any clue as to what the structure of the play is. Miller is very careful with his words in this title. He uses ‘A salesman’ as opposed to ‘The salesman’, this gives us the sense that the salesman who died was not important. I think the title as it is now adds a bit more excitement, suspense and drama into the play for the audience.
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