Death of a Salesmen

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One of the reasons why Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is being often referred to as representing a particularly high dramaturgic value is that, it is not only that this play contains a number of truly innovative themes and motifs, but that play’s staging itself accounted for nothing less than triggering a ‘revolution’ in the field of dramaturgy. In this paper, I will aim to explore the validity of an earlier articulated thesis at length.

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The significance of themes and motifs in Miller’s play cannot be effectively discussed outside of what happened to be the particulars of playwright’s biography. Therefore, before we proceed with exploring how historical context influenced play’s thematic sounding and what accounted for the qualitative specifics of its first production in 1949; we will need to make a brief inquiry into Miller’s biographical background.

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Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York. In its turn, this partially explains why most of his dramaturgic works feature essentially ‘economic’ motifs – Miller’s formative years were strongly influenced by the Great Depression (Jacobson 248). After having graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Miller worked as a shipping clerk in an automotive parts warehouse, while being often required to take an active share in promoting these parts to the potential customers.

After his graduation from the University of Michigan, Miller returned back to New York, where he started to participate in a number of theatrical projects, such as Federal Theater Project – hence, gaining an insight into the essentials of a theatrical production. Around the same time, Miller also began exploring his potential in playwriting.

Miller’s first critically acclaimed play was 1947 All My Sons. It was namely this particular play, which marked the beginning of Miller’s preoccupation with exposing the inconsistencies of a so-called ‘American dream’, which author never ceased referring to in terms of people’s highly irrational and emotionally damaging pursuit of riches. All My Sons instantaneously established Miller as one of America’s most prominent playwrights of all times.

Nevertheless, it was after the staging of Miller’s tragedy Death of a Salesmen in 1949, that he gained himself the status of a ‘cult figure’ in American dramaturgy. As it will be illustrated later in the paper, there were a number of objective preconditions for this to be the case.

Throughout the course of his life’s latter phases, Miller never ceased being strongly affiliated with dramaturgy. Even though his consequential plays, such as 1961The Misfits, 1969 In Russia, 1994 Broken Glass and 2002 Resurrection Blues, were not quite as successful with the audiences as Death of a Salesmen, they nevertheless did strengthen Miller’s fame as one of the greatest playwrights of all times. Arthur Miller died in 2005.

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The first production of Death of as Salesman took place on February 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre in New York. The production was directed by Elia Kazan (who previously directed the production of A Streetcar Named Desire), with Lee Coob playing the character of Willy Loman, Mildred Dunnock playing the character of Linda, Artheur Kennedy playing the character of Biff, and Cameron Mitchell playing the character of Happy.

This production turned out to be a huge success, which in turn contributed rather substantially towards play’s popularization throughout the world. According to Most: “The popularity of Death of a Salesman is unmatched in the history of American realism. Within a year of the Broadway opening, productions had been mounted in Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden… Play has seen three successful Broadway revivals since its opening in 1949” (548).

It appears that there were two major prerequisites, which caused the first production of Miller’s Death of as Salesman to end up being instantaneously referred to as nothing short of a revolutionary theatrical event – the fact that Miller’s play parted with the conventions of dramaturgical tragedy and the fact that the staging of Death of as Salesman combined the elements of expressionism and realism (something that has never been done before).

Whereas, prior to Miller play’s first production in 1949, it was assumed that the act of a tragic hero had to radiate the spirit of nobleness, after 1949, this effectively ceased to be the case.

After all, even though that the process of main character Willy Loman’s mental deterioration, resulting in his ultimate demise, could indeed be discussed in terms of a high tragedy, Loman did not fall victim to the external circumstances (as it is being usually the case in classic tragedies) – main character’s death came as a result of him being intellectually inflexible.

Hence, one of the essential aspects of Miller’s dramaturgic genius – the fact that he proved that, just as it is being the case with existential decline of socially prominent individuals, the existential decline of many ordinary people is being just as capable of emanating the acute spirit of a high tragedy. As it was noted by Otten: “One way or the other Death of a Salesman provokes critical wars about the viability of tragedy in the modern age and particularly in American culture” (281).

Therefore, there is nothing odd about the fact that every consequential staging of Death of a Salesman at Morosco Theater used to attract ever-larger crowds of spectators. Apparently, the members of viewing audiences sensed that the themes and motifs, explored throughout Miller play’s entirety, were strongly related to the very essence of their own psychological anxieties.

This, however, only partially explains the nature of Miller play’s instantaneous popularity with the viewers. What also contributed to this popularity is the fact that, as it was mentioned earlier, the first production of Death of a Salesman featured the elements of expressionism and realism, inseparably fused into one dramaturgic compound. In order to achieve this, both: Miller and Kazan had to find the way for Willy’s flashbacks and daydreams to be integrally incorporated into unraveling of the plot, without undermining plot’s plausibility.

In other words, they were striving to combine what previously used to be thought of as utterly incompatible: the methodology of Naturalist production, which aims: “To completely remove the barrier separating theatre from life, to create an illusion so powerful that it would render the theatrical medium absolutely transparent” (Williams 289), and the methodology of Expressionist production, concerned with the process of actors creating a semantic content of their own, without having to make sure that the viewers perceive this content as being realistically plausible.

In its turn, this posed the playwright and the director with the challenge of ensuring a realist sounding of play’s clearly expressionist elements, such as the scenes in which Willy cuts short his conversations with Linda, Biff and Happy, in order to reflect upon the remarks of his long-deceased brother Ben, who appears out of nowhere.

Initially, Miller proposed to go about designing these onstage-shifts, from the actual reality of Willy’s world to the ‘reality’ of his daydreaming, by the mean of taking a practical advantage of ‘curtain drops’, during the course of which, the onstage sets and actors’ clothes would be rapidly changed.

This was the actual reason why, even though play’s original script made provisions for the utilization of some sort of expressionist setting, as plans for play’s production entered the organizational phase, Miller decided that it would make so much more sense having the onstage sets designed according to the principle of minimalism.

According to Murphy: “He (Miller) has mentioned his first notion of the set, in keeping with his idea for the play as The Inside of His Heady… As the play took shape, however, he dropped this notion in favor of a minimal set, which he has variously described as ‘without any setting at all’” (10). Kazan, however, convinced Miller to choose in favor of a traditional set – the first production of Death of a Salesman featured the setting of a regular middle-class house.

The onstage switches from the actual reality to the imaginary reality have been achieved by the deployment of a rather innovative theatrical technique: “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 onto the forestage’’ (Miller 12).

To foster the realness of abrupt transitional switches from one reality to another even further, Kazan supplemented play’s staging with contextually appropriate changes in stage’s illumination and with contextually appropriate music, which emphasize the spatial aspects of plot’s unraveling (Kimbrough 157). Thus, even though that play’s action took place within the spatial framework of two alternative realities, viewers did not experience much of an emotional discomfort, while exposed to actors’ performance.

Therefore, it will only be logical to conclude this part of the paper by reinstating once again that the overwhelming success of Death of a Salesman first production was dialectically predetermined. It is not only that this production helped audience’s members to come to terms with their of subconscious anxieties, related to the much advertised notion of an ‘American dream’, but it also provided other playwrights and production directors with the insight into the whole new realm of theatrical opportunities.

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During the course of forties and fifties, it was assumed that the values of a so-called ‘American dream’ are being equally appealing to just about all Americans. During this time, Americans never ceased being subjected to the governmentally sponsored propaganda of such a ‘dream’.

Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that, through forties and fifties, most American citizens did in fact believe that their foremost existential agenda was solely concerned with the blind pursuit of riches, as something that had a value of ‘thing in itself’ (Mcconachie 4).

Nevertheless, given the fact that the extent of one’s successfulness in trying to become rich at any cost, relates to the extent of his or her endowment with nobleness in counter-geometrical progression, there is nothing odd about the fact that, while chasing a vaguely defined ‘American dream’, many Americans could not help sustaining an acute emotional trauma.

And, as psychologists are being well aware of, this type of an emotional trauma causes people to begin suffering from a split-personality disorder – something that Miller was able to illustrate rather persuasively (Olson 330).

As it was pointed out by Weales: “The distance between the actual Willy and the image Willy is so great… that he can no longer lie to himself with conviction; what the play gives us is the final disintegration of a man who has never even approached his idea of what by rights he ought to have been” (171).

Thus, the character of Willy Loman is best discussed as essentially an extrapolation of ideologically brainwashed people’s failure to live up to the standards, forcibly imposed upon them by a consumerist society: “Willy does not understand the corruptness of the (American) dream… he dies in defense of the imperative that consumes him” (Otten 36).

This is another reason why even today, the theatrical productions of Death of a Salesman never cease attracting huge crowds. Apparently, people’s exposure to the themes and motifs, contained in this particular play, helps them to realize a simple fact that money is not the most important thing in life – hence, helping them to adequately address life’s challenges.

It is needless to mention, of course, that during the initial phases of the Cold War, Miller’s theatrical exposure of what accounts for the unsightly effects of people’s compulsive strive to attain material riches, balanced on the edge of being declared ‘anti-American’ (Reeves 48).

After all, during the course of fifties and early sixties, many American citizens ended up in jail, simply because they were not particularly enthusiastic about taking an active part in McCarthyist ‘witch-hunt’, the activists of which were perfectly serious about trying reveal those who did not share the foremost value of Capitalism (greed) as ‘masked Communists’ (Reno 1069).

Therefore, it is fully explainable why, after having watched the productions of this Miller’s play, many Americans were able to substantially expand their intellectual horizons.

The reason for this is simple – in Death of a Salesman, Miller succeeded in divulging the sheer inconsistency of consumerist, patriarchal and sexist worldviews, which American policy-makers of the time were trying to forcibly impose upon just about everyone in this country (Gibson 98).

He was able to show that, contrary to the ideological conventions, peddled by the self-appointed representatives of America’s ‘moral majority’, one’s chances to ‘strike it rich’ have more to do with the concept of blind luck than with the concept of entrepreneurial industriousness – hence, the essentially existentialist (progressive) sounding of Death of a Salesman (Martin 104).

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I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, in defense of a suggestion that the keys to Miller play’s popularity with the audiences, have traditionally been its ‘realistic-expressionism’ and the unconventional sounding of its themes and motifs, is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis.

It is not only that Miller succeeded in enlightening viewers as to the fact that people’s continuous exposure to a value-based behavioral ethics is being quite capable of driving them towards insanity, but he also succeeded in establishing a number of truly innovative principles of a theatrical production. Therefore, there is nothing surprising about the fact that even today; a substantial number of theatrical critics continue regarding Miller’s Death of a Salesmen as one of the finest products of American dramaturgy.

Bibliography

Gibson, James. “Intolerance and Political Repression in the United States: A Half Century after McCarthyism.” American Journal of Political Science, 52.1 (2008): pp. 96-108. Print.

Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman.” American Literature 47.5 (1975): pp. 247-258. Print.

Kimbrough, Andrew. “Death of a Salesman.” Theatre Journal 55.1 (2003): pp. 156-158. Print.

Martin, Robert. “The Nature of Tragedy in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.” South Atlantic Review 61.4 (1996): pp. 97-106.

Mcconachie, Burce. American Theater in the Culture of the Cold War: Producing and Contesting Containment, 1947-1962. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003. Print.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Most, Andrea. “Opening the Windshield: Death of a Salesman and Theatrical Liberalism.” Modern Drama 50.4 (2007): pp. 545-564. Print.

Murphy, Brenda. Miller, Death of a Salesman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.

Olson, Eric. “Was Jekyll Hyde?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66.2 (2003): pp. 328-348. Print.

Otten, Terry. “Death of a Salesman at Fifty – Still ‘Coming Home to Roost’.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 41.3 (1999): pp. 280-310. Print.

Otten, Terry. Temptation of Innocence in the Dramas of Arthur Miller. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Print.

Reeves, Thomas. “McCarthyism: Interpretations since Hofstadter.” Wisconsin Magazine of History 60.1 (1976): pp. 42-54. Print.

Reno, Raymond. “Arthur Miller and the Death of God.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 11.2 (1969): pp. 1069-1087. Print.

Weales, Gerald. “Arthur Miller: Man and His Image.” The Tulane Drama Review 7.1 (1962): pp. 165-180. Print.

Williams, Kirk. “Anti-Theatricality and the Limits of Naturalism.’’ Modern Drama 14.3 (2001): pp. 284–99. Print.

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