Poetic Drama of American Style in Death of a Salesman

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      Introduction. In a tragedy of a common man, which is what Death of a Salesman is, it would be incongruous to find the poetry of Euripedes, Sophocles and Shakespeare who wrote about the gods or kings. Elevated or heightened language by itself can serve no useful purpose; it has to match the theme, action and characters. Death of a Salesman, obviously, could not be written in the conventional elevated language of tragedy. Miller’s use of language fits the needs of the play. He is writing of an average man sold on the standard and commercial products of his environment; he thus conforms to the standard language. Indeed, this conformity to the standard language is Miller’s strong point. He adheres to colloquial idiom; there is no heightening and this perhaps adds to the realism of the play.

      Language to suit character. Miller’s use of language in Death of a Salesman is linked with the characters. The language is a means of self-exposition for the characters. Linda’s naturalistic vocabulary suits her character. Her statements are marked by a simplicity combined with a universality of meaning. Biff's language about his father before he makes the self-discovery differs from his language after the death of Willy. Earlier, his language when he speaks of his father, is marked by antagonism. By the time Willy dies, Biff has made the self-discovery, and his tone at the Requiem is different, though he does not ignore the truth. Charley’s cool and rationalistic approach is embodied in the language of his speech at the Requiem. The language used by Willy reflects his resolution in the pursuit of success. Willy’s world is full of aspirins, arch supports, saccharin, Studebakers, Chevrolets, shaving lotions, refrigerators, silk stockings, washing machines, etc. In moments of excitement the characters do not rise above ‘Knock him dead, boy’ or ‘I’m gonna knock Howard for a loop’.

      Use of cliches and stock phrases. Miller’s use of cliches and stock phrases in Death of a Salesman emphasizes the background of the American language. Most of these phrases are drawn from the Brooklyn dialect. The superficial glamour of the commercial society is reflected in the stock phrases used by Willy - ‘well-liked’, ‘contacts’, ‘personality’. Willy: is so completely wrapped up in the world of salesmanship that he brings that world into his home, and his language when speaking to his sons also reflects his attitude. Happy’s language at the Requiem is the language current in the society to which he belongs. ‘Personality always wins the day’ and ‘Start big and you will end big’ are stock phrase obviously out of the commercial world’s copybook. These phrases, such as ‘make a nice impression’, indicate the importance of the superficial gloss and appearances in the society to Which Willy belongs. These words and phrases clearly bring out the contemporary commercial society’s bias for a materialism and the physical.

      Use of rhetorical devices. Miller does not ignore rhetorical devices in his effort to put across his significant message. Linda’s words, about Willy being a little man, and that a little man is also a human being and should not be treated like a dog, have rhetorical and thematic significance. Linda, unconsciously, makes the distinction between the small man and the great man on the basis of status-orientation, the standard of measurement current in that society. Her repeated ‘Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person’ effectively evokes awareness of the fate of a man like Willy and of all those who face the problem of an absence of identity and are unable to seek or find any remedy.

      Language is often used by Miller as an instrument of truth and analysis. Bernard’s question to Willy as to what happened in Boston brings out the sense of guilt and repression hidden in Willy’s personality. Willy’s question as to why he is always being contradicted makes us aware of the contradictions in his very personality. Biff's judgment of Willy at the Requiem evokes a strong sense of the illusions which dominated Willy ‘He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong’. His words also bring out Willy’s loss of identity: ‘...he never knew who he was’.

      Beyond the realism of the language lies a significance which may be called ‘poetic’. Miller certainly made use of the colloquial idiom effectively to enhance the realistic quality of the play. However, the play gains in its expressionistic atmosphere because the realistic language has a greater significance than what appears on the face of it. Cant is not used for its own sake. Colloquial idiom and common speech of life is used in such a way as to open one’s mind to an awareness of a wider significance. In the beginning of the play Willy has returned home and is talking to Linda about Biff. Linda wishes that Biff ‘finds himself. Willy’s comment is: ‘Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace...’. The dramatic irony is pointed, though Willy himself is not aware of the true significance of his words. Willy himself has not found himself, and will not be finding himself before the end. Biff, on the other hand, does achieve self-discovery as well as the discovery that his father is a nonentity. Biff's statement, We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house’ contains more truth than what is apparent in the separate words. The statement points at the false ideals and illusions which dominate Willy’s life. Even the cliches and stock phrases, as we have noted, assume a broader significance in the context of the whole play. Linda’s echoing ‘We’re free...We’re free at the Requiem has greater implications than mere linguistic realism.

      Conclusion. Miller’s use of language has purpose and significance. Even his metaphors are used significantly’ to enlarge; the meaning of the play and not for mere decoration. Harold Clurman remarks: ‘There is poetry in Death of a Salesman, not the poetry of the senses or of the soul, but of ethical conscience. Death bf a Salesman stirs us by its truth, the ineluctability of its evidence and judgment which permits no soft evasion’. The truth is arrived at by the means of language. Gilbert W. Gabriel has called the play a fine thing, finely done and vastly delivered. In the overall effect of the play the language has no small part to play, for ‘the American language,...the Brooklyn accent, the Bronx cheer, contribute not a little to the effect of ‘a compelling surging quasi-poetry’.

University Questions

‘Death of a Salesman is an attempt to develop a poetic drama rooted in American speech and manners’. Discuss.
How far do you agree with the view that the language style of the characters in Death of a Salesman reflects their style of conduct?

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