The original title for Miller’s play was ‘The Inside of His Head’. How does Miller’s use of set, lighting and stage direction help us to understand this idea?
Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949. This date is the period after the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression and this is significant, as one of Miller’s aims in writing this play was that it would be a tragedy that American workers could relate to. The central themes and issues in the play are consumerism and exploitation; Miller wanted to write a play that was critical of capitalism and that would expose the falseness of the American Dream.
The original title reflects one of the underlying themes in the play – the central character’s struggle to grasp the distinction between illusion and reality and the past and the present; often Willy Loman’s thoughts and views do not comply with those of the majority of the remaining cast.
Miller uses symbolism, set, lighting and stage direction to help us to understand what is happening inside Willy’s head.
One of the several symbols that give us an insight into Willy’s thoughts is the athletic trophy. It is placed on a shelf in the sitting room where it can be clearly seen; this demonstrates how important it is to the family. This importance then in turn shows that winning and competition are key ideas here and that this part of the American Dream is important to Willy and he prizes the achievements his son made as they show him as being superior to other people, which is what Willy is always striving to achieve, particularly in regards to Charly.
In the same scene is the use of the melody of the flute. It reflects Willy’s father’s success as an entrepreneur (making wooden flutes), something Willy is always striving to achieve, and also the strong influence this has on his son. Also, the actual melody that is being played ‘tell(s) of grass and trees and the horizon’, and reminds us of the stark difference between the life Willy lived as a young child (with the father who he idolises) and the position he is in now; in an overcrowded area of New York, working for someone else (i.e., not working on his own terms, like his father) on commission.
Another of the important symbols in the play is the lighting at the end of Act One. Just as Willy is talking about how great Biff was when he was younger, on another part of the set Biff walks into a gold pool of light, which is reflecting the praise Willy is giving him, the gold symbolising the initial power and success that he had. Also, just after this the light fades on Willy, representing the fact that his career, his influence on his children and possibly his life are drawing to a close.
A further example of Miller’s symbolism in this play and his manipulation of non-naturalistic elements is in Act Two, the restaurant scene, with varied use of both lighting and music. The first of these symbols is the use of the ‘single trumpet note’ used in conjunction with ‘the light of green leaves’. This initiates the start of Willy’s mind thinking back to an event several years ago, the green of the leaves symbolising the time when the house was not surrounded by high rise flats, noise and pollution. Miller also says that the light ‘holds the air of a… dream’, which is insinuating that at this point in time Willy’s dreams for himself and his children had not yet been ruined. This is upheld by the naturalistic state of his living environment.
Throughout the scene the light continues to fluctuate and highlight different places and times. Another important part in this restaurant scene I when the music changes dramatically to accompany the presence of The Woman in Willy’s mind. The music is now ‘raw and sensuous’ highlighting one major part of Willy’s life, at this point in time, that does not fit into the same mould as the rest of his life; he is a family man, supportive of his children and striving to achieve new heights for his family, but now he is doing the very opposite of this by cheating on his wife, and so the music does not reflect any of the other, often light and cheerful melodies played on the flute. Up until Biff discovers his father with The Woman, no one else is aware of her part in Willy’s life, so even at this early stage, Willy will have thoughts inside his head which do not relate to those of an of the other central characters.