Expressionism in the play Death of a Salesman

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      Expressionism on the other hand means that the artist or writer wishes to portray his own subjects and events. Here the chronological sequence has no part to play. The past and the present begin to overlap and have a sort of interaction. As Miller himself says, everything exists together. Nothing in life can happen next to something. A man’s present is merely that which his past is capable of noticing, smelling and reacting to. A leading exponent of the Expressionist School avers that it is our imagination that spins and weaves new patterns on an insignificant groundwork of reality. What we have therefore is a mixture of memories, experiences, fancies, absurdities and improvisations.

      Dream Technique. It is to clarify this that dramatists have recourse to the dream technique. In a dream, time and space have no real significance at all as though both of them have dissolved completely. All logical actions are utterly abandoned in a dream. The writer or dramatist of the Expressionist School tries to depict the complexities and contradictions of the consciousness of his characters. The inner reality of the characters is attempted to be projected. A more free play is accorded to the imagination.

      Happy blending of Realism and Expressionism. As far as the play, Death of a Salesman is concerned we find a happy Trending of these two traditions of literary theories viz. Realism and Expressionism. For the technique of realism Miller may be said to have been indebted to the celebrated Norwegian dramatist of the nineteenth century, Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s plays are naturalistic. The hero’s mind has a process of behavior revealing a tendency for the commitment of an act while the others would rather be silent or recede to the background. Many important things might have happened in the past. They should have shaped their character in such a manner as to make it inevitable for them to emerge with a new force, when the action of the play is being actually staged.

      Thus we see that Miller goes one step further than the ordinary writer of the realist or naturalist school. He begins to dramatize the events of the past and present them as coexisting. The dream-sequences in the play Death of a Salesman, depicting past life as existing in the present one, have been added on to a realistic portrayal to give the play a better stage appeal. The dialogue between Willy and Linda throughout the play is a fine example of realism because Linda is a practical-minded woman. The conversation between Happy and Biff, Howard’s interview with Willy and his firing him ultimately, the interlude at the restaurant with the waiter Stanley and the call girl Forsythe—all these are examples of realism. The same can be said of the entire Requiem.

      Use of expressionistic technique. The expressionist part of the play has the following main scenes. The lighting effect contributes much in conveying ‘a mobile concurrency of past and present’ as Miller himself has explained. Willy Loman has been compelled to recall some important events of his past life and the dramatist depicts this by means of his dream sequences which go far beyond the ordinary flash-backs used in some other plays. How Biff used to show some promising bright career during his football days while he was a teenager, the phenomenal success and adventurous life of Willy’s elder brother Ben, Willy’s illicit connection with the Boston woman and how Biff unexpectedly caught him in the act, Willy’s proposal to take an insurance policy in order to bequeath a large amount to Biff to enable him to start some lucrative business and how he seeks Ben’s approval of the same—all these scenes come under the scheme of expressionistic depiction.

      The introduction of musical leitmotifs helps in enhancing the expressionistic effect in the play. Here, music is a contrivance for the dissolution of time and distance limitations. The use of music mitigates the grim effect on the audience when the contemplated suicide of Willy is revealed by Linda. Many moments of particular intensity in the play have been rendered more pleasing and aesthetic by the use of music in combination with sound effects.

      The climax in the end of Act II has the following stage directions ....There is the sound of a car starting and moving away at full speed... As the car speeds off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello string...The music has developed into a dead march.

      The effect of lighting on the stage heightens the significance of the implied values of the play in the expressionist tradition with the proper adaptation in the stage-setting as well. Sometimes the dimming of the light conveys the idea of failure whereas when Willy recollects the adolescence of Happy and Biff the light is brighter probably conveying the idea that as far as Willy is concerned, the past was far better and happier than the present.

      Employment of symbolic characters. Dramatists of the Expressionist School have recourse to the employment of symbolic characters representing some section of the society. In the present play Willy Loman is a symbolic character representing the average American citizen of that period.

      Conclusion. In Death of a Salesman, Miller blends the techniques of realism and expressionism to convey the tragedy of Willy Loman all the more poignantly. It brings out effectively Willy’s loss of grip on reality, his living in the past and building castles in the air which have little relevant to the hard light of the present.

University Questions

Show how the technique of Death of a Salesman is a blend of realism and expressionism.
Do you think Miller’s use of expressionistic method in Death of a Salesman adds to the significance of its structure?
Discuss the statement: ‘Death of a Salesman is an expressionist reconstruction of naturalist substances, and the result is not hybrid but a powerful particular form’.

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