Essay On Play Analysis – Death Of A Salesman
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is perhaps one of the great American plays, a fundamentally tragic account of the death of the American Dream and the impossibility of achieving the high standards of success set for oneself by society and upper-middle-class capitalist industrialism. The character of Willy Loman speaks to every American who has been sold the dream of a white picket fence, a full and happy nuclear family, and a successful and lucrative job – oftentimes, this does not happen, and this can be incredibly frustrating. Set against the backdrop of 1940s post-World War II America, Death of a Salesman touches on a great many trenchant American concerns, whether it be success or happiness or the allure of material wealth and virility – a theatrical production has to be able to touch on these concerns in a way that is relatable to the audience, while also giving them a glimpse of the ways in which this particular issue affected America in the nuclear age.
Venue and Setting
Death of a Salesman is a fairly intimate play, with most of the play taking place between several characters in small-scale conversations and discussions. To that end, I do not believe I would need a large venue to produce the play; a sizeable black box theater would do. By doing this, I would also allow the audience to be drawn further into the world of the play, as well as Willy’s fantasies and illusions. A three-quarter round set could be used to convey most of the show – the upstage wall could help to simulate the house in a very simple, pleasant sort of minimalism that would suggest the time period without going fully authentic. This would allow the downstage part of the set to be fairly empty and open to scenes that took place outside the house, such as the funeral.
In keeping with the time period (which I would like to keep), the play should follow that kind of Golden Age, optimistic nuclear-family Leave It To Beaver aesthetic. At the same time, this bright cheery 40s-50s exterior should be tinged with a certain amount of melancholy, similar in style to Mad Men or the Douglas Sirk film All That Heaven Allows. This would allow middle-class America to be given its appropriate level of malice and menace. The set and overall look of the play should indicate a deep, dark underbelly behind the ostensibly pleasant and well-meaning world of 1950s America, which the plot and themes of Death of a Salesman reveals.
If I were to have a dream cast for Death of a Salesman, I would pull from a cast of veteran character actors and actresses to fill the roles, finding the perfect actors to inhabit these characters. I believe Willy Loman could be aged down a bit – at 63, he does not quite have the same middle-age desperation a younger man in his 40s or 50s would have, and he should also be somewhat unattractive and frustrated. To that end, I believe Bryan Cranston would make a perfect Willy Loman – he has that perfect balance of sweet vulnerability and rage-inducing frustration and impotence that would make for an ideal Willy Loman.
As for Linda Loman, I would want an age-appropriate match for Cranston, while also offering the same kind of mixture of alienated suburban housewife frustration and knowing docility that Linda has in the role. Therefore, Laura Dern would possibly be a good choice for the role – she is of appropriate age, and she can mix vulnerability and anger in an incredibly great balance. Biff Loman would need a tremendously seasoned character actor, someone masculine, rugged and tough, but also just as vulnerable as Willy – Jensen Ackles might be able to foot the bill as somebody who can combine an open, vulnerable personality with a hearty, all-American toughness indicative of Biff’s football past.
Happy Loman could easily be played by Daniel Radcliffe – a slighter actor in his early 20s, his shorter stature would provide a nice visual indicator of his own frustrations, which plays into Happy’s desperate womanizing and his recklessness. His face would be a fresher, more innocent one for the character. Willy’s neighbor, Charley, is an affable, down-to-earth presence, who still instills a sense of jealousy in Willy – Shea Whigham would provide that mixture of relatability and intimidation the character so desperately needs. Bernard would have to be played by an actor who could play both teenager and young adult, given his presence in the flash backs; this could easily be accomplished by Logan Lerman, another young actor with a very youthful, almost teenage face but also believable as a man in his 20s.
The character of Uncle Ben is very important, as he acts as the audience’s guide through Willy’s subconscious, as well as a sounding board for Willy. John Lithgow would be age appropriate to play someone slightly older than Cranston, and he would offer the same kind of arrogant bravado that is necessary to show just how emasculated Willy himself feels because of his own failures in life. Since Uncle Ben is a much more presentational role than the others, this would be a chance for Lithgow to show his particular theatrical strengths.
As previously mentioned, the play itself is intended to remain in its own time period, so everyone would be dressed in the manner accustomed to 1940s America. Willy himself would have the trappings of a successful man – a nicely, cut suit, for instance – but the details would also reveal him to be a shoddy salesman who stretches his budget a bit too much (knit ties, ill-fitting dress shirts, slightly mismatched colors, etc.). The goal is to show just how close Willy is to looking like a successful American man, but just falling short of that goal. Willy’s costume allows him to wear his heart on his sleeve, but the rest of the characters mostly have their head on straight; to that end, their clothes will be the perfect image of Cleaver-esque family bliss. This will also contrast greatly with Willy’s mismatched suit, showing just how alienated he is from everyone around him.
Makeup would be minimal for Willy and the men, while Linda and the other women would be dolled up in the 1940s fashion, as society dictated they make sure to look good for their men. This would help to keep the play authentic, while still hammering home the themes of the play.
Apart from the minimalist set, the lighting would be one of the most presentational elements of this production of Death of a Salesman. Douglas Sirk movies would be an inspiration for this show’s lighting scheme, as I would make sure to use dark red or blue washes at pivotal moments in the show (e.g. Uncle Ben’s appearances) to help highlight moments of thematic significance, as well as reflecting Willy’s mood at the time. The use of dark, bold lighting that slightly invades the bright, Technicolor world of the Loman household would help to reflect the simmering resentment and frustration at the heart of the American nuclear family that this play reveals.
In keeping with the time period and the melancholic themes of the play, ironic use of 40s and 50s jazz or pop standards would be used throughout the play. Songs like Jo Stafford’s “You Belong To Me,” “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” “Anything Goes,” and more will help to bring the audience into the moment of the show, and illustrate the peppy expectations popular culture put on Americans at the time to be happy and joyful. By juxtaposing these peppy love songs with the sadness and misery of the play’s events, the hollowness of the songs’ sentiments (and the American Dream) will be revealed.
This particular vision of Death of a Salesman is what I see when I read the play – a harrowing tale of resentment, bitterness and regret set in the middle of a culture that celebrated its newfound superpower status with conspicuous consumption and the belief that anyone in America can be a winner if they try. By combining the period novelty of the 1940s and 1950s with hard-hitting dialogue and scenes that are still relevant today, this production of Miller’s play would showcase just how poisonous it can be when people are told to keep up with the Joneses, and what happens to those who buy into that philosophy a bit too much.