Death of a Salesman as an Expressionist Play
In his introduction to one of his expressionist plays, the dramatist August Strindberg wrote that he had tried to imitate the disjointed but apparently logical form of a dream: “Anything may happen everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist: on an insignificant ground work of reality, imagination, spins and weaves new patterns : a mixture of memories, experiences fancies, absurdities, and improvisations.” Thus time and space are dissolved and logical process is abandoned, as in a dream, so that imagination may more freely dramatize the complexities and contradictions of Willy Loman’s consciousness. Miller wanted to unveil the inside of Willy’s head, to project Willy’s inner reality. This aim obviously derives from expressionist drama.
But in writing the play, as Miller tried to find ways of showing the process of Willy’s mind, a strange thing happened. The two European traditions of naturalism and expressionism merged. The firm reality of Ibsen’s method remained, but this was blended with the dream-sequences of past life existing in the present. These dream-sequences were a derivation from expressionist drama. The stage setting expresses Willy’s divided consciousness. Time and space may exist for the surrounding apartment houses and their inmates, but may be dissolved within the reality of the Loman home. Reality dissolves for Willy at certain points in the play, and the dream-like remembrances of the past give further expressionist’ dramatization to his divided consciousness. Miller sees Willy as living “at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present.”
The dream-sequences, generally regarded as flash-backs, have been explained by Miller not as flash-backs but as “a mobile concurrency of past and present intended to show that “in his desperation to justify his life, Willy Loman has destroyed the boundaries between now and then. It is through these dream sequences that we become acquainted with some of the most important events in Willy’s life-Biff’s prowess on the cricket field : Ben’s adventurous nature and the fabulous wealth Ben acquired by going to Africa; Willy’s affair with a woman in Boston, and young Biff’s unexpected arrival at the hotel to see Willy with the woman, Willy’s seeking Ben’s approval for his contemplated suicide is also through a dream-sequence.
As for the realistic technique, we see it in the progress of much of the action- the dialogue between Willy and Linda when Willy unexpectedly comes back from his business trip, the dialogues between Happy and Biff, Willy’s whole interview with Howard, Happy’s conversation with the call girl in the restaurant, Willy’s driving away to kill himself, the scene at Willy’s grave, etc.
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Death of a Salesman with its skeletal setting, non-realistic lighting, musical leitmotives and free movement in time and space suggests expressionism, but it may be pointed out that these elements involve no distortion of reality. Actually Miller goes a step beyond Ibsen in the use of delayed exposition, or retrospective action (though he does not go the whole distance to Strindberg).
The dramatic devices, such as music and lighting, used by Miller in this play are, as indicated above, part of the expressionist technique. Each Act, as well as the final Requiem, is introduced with music. At the beginning of Act II, the music heard in the early morning “is gay and bright”. It reminds an audience of the temporary reconciliation which has taken place in the Loman family and also diminishes the grim hint of Willy’s suicide which had been given towards the end of the first Act.
The play opens with a melody played on a flute. The music is a device (drawn from expressionist theatre) for dissolving time and distance. The music suggests, in Miller’s words, “grass and trees and the horizon”. More particularly, it is associated with the flutes which Willy’s father made and sold across the whole country. The small, lonely music played on the flute may thus evoke spaciousness, freedom, and a lost ideal. This music is heard as soon as Willy and Ben begin to speak of their father. Music in combination with sound effects is used at moments of particular intensity in the play. For instance, when Willy is with the woman in the hotel room, “raw, Sensuous music accompanies their speech.”
A knocking is heard at the door. Discovery is inevitable, and the situation builds to a richer dramatic climax by the repeated rhythm of the knocking on the door and the sensuous music. Music and sound effects again combine in the climax to Act II. As Willy drives his car into the darkness, “the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound.” This slowly changes to a dead march as the characters prepare to take their places for the scene at the grave-side.
Lighting is of great significance in plays which draw upon traditions of expressionism. The dissolving of time and space can almost physically be shown by the use of lighting and transparent stage settings. For instance, the sequence which introduces Biff and Happy as adults ends with their getting into bed when they finish their conversation. As they relax into sleep, the light fades and goes out in their bed-room. Their father is dimly seen by the audience in another part of the large composite stage-set–the kitchen. The reality of the surrounding apartment houses fades away as the dream-like remembrance of the past in Willy’s mind becomes the focus of the dramatic action. As he begins to think about Biff’s and Happy’s adolescence, the light increases; it reveals the Loman home which is seen covered with leaves. (The leaves suggest growth, adolescence, and the belief in Willy’s mind that the past was a much happier time than the present).
The light focuses on the kitchen ; this now becomes the location which reveals to us the characters of Biff and Happy as school-boys and Willy’s attitude to them as a father. At the end of the sequence, the light changes again; the green leaves disappear from view as Willy remains “wilting and staring”; the reality of the apartment houses, suggesting the limitations of the present, then becomes the harsh image. (A similar device is used in Act II when lighting assists in conveying an idea of failure). It is noteworthy that this symbolic function of light is most obvious at the beginnings and endings of the Acts.
Among other marks of expressionism, apart from a presentation of dream-states already referred to, is the employment of symbolic characters. Willy Loman is a symbolic character. He is the most representative member of American commercial society. He may be regarded as an American Everyman. Charley and Bernard, who do not have any last name in the play, may also be regarded as having Everyman as their last name. Willy Loman’s dreams occupy half the play: they are the dreams of all the world, the dreams of a happy, hopeful past, and the inescapable dream of past guilt. The recollections are not straight flash-backs in the manner of cinema films, but they are distorted, speeded up, and heightened by repetition and selection. The accompanying music and the distinctive lighting compel the audience to set these remembrances apart from objective reality