Miller’s Introduction to the Drama: Death of a Salesman

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The Title of the Play

      The first title of the unpublished, home version of the play was the Inside of his Head.

How the Play Was Conceived

      “The play was conceived half in laughter, for the Inside of his Head was to be a fusion of the past and the present occurring together.”

The Purpose of the Playwright

      “I wished to create a form which, in itself as a form, would literally be the process of Willy Loman’s way of mind. But to say “wished” is not accurate. Any dramatic form is an artifice, a way of transforming subjective feeling into something that can be comprehended through public symbols. Its efficiency as a form is to be judged, at least by the writer, how much of the original vision and feeling, is lost or distorted by this transformation. I wished to speak of the salesman most precisely as I felt about him, to give no part of that feeling away for the sake of any effect or any dramatic necessity. What was wanted now was not a mounting line of tension, nor a gradually narrowing tone of intensifying suspense, but a block, a single chord presented as such at the outset, within which all the strains and melodies would already be contained.”

The Strategy of Narrating the Story

      The strategy adopted by Miller in this play is different from what he adopted in All My Sons. Miller says: “This time, if I could have told the whole story and set forth all the characters in one unbroken speech or even one sentence or a single flash of light. As I look at the play now, its form seems the form of a confession, for that is how it is told, now speaking of what happened yesterday, then suddenly following some connection to a time twenty years ago, then leaping even further back and then returning to the present and even speculating about the future.

      “Where in All My Sons it had seemed necessary to prove the connections between the present and the past, between events and moral consequences, between the manifest and the hidden, in this play all was assumed as proven to begin with. All I was doing was bringing things to mind. The assumption also was that everyone knew Willy Loman....there was a kind of confidence underly: ing this play which the form itself expresses, even a naivete self-disarming quality that was in part born of my belief in the audience as being essentially the same as myself. If I had wanted, then, to put the audience reaction into words, it would not have been ‘what happens next and why? “so much as on, God—of course”.

‘Salesman’ as a Species of Jurisprudence

      “In one sense a play is a species of Jurisprudence, and some part of it must take the advocates, something else must act in defence, and the entirety must engage the law. Against my will, All My Sons states, and even proclaims that it is a form and that a writer wrote it and organized it. In Death of a Salesman the original impulse was to make that same proclamation in an immeasurably more violent, abrupt, and openly conscious way. Willy Loman does not merely suggest or hint that he is at the end of his strength and of his justifications, he is hardly on the stage for five minutes when he says so; he does not gradually imply a deadly conflict with his son, an implication dropped into the midst of serenity and surface calm, he is avowedly grappling with that conflict at the outset. The ultimate matter with which the play will close is announced at the outset and is the matter of its every moment from the first. It (Death of a Salesman) was to hold back nothing, at any moment, which life would have revealed, even at the cost of suspense and climax. It was to forego the usual preparations of scenes and to permit and even seek—whatever in each character contradicted his position in the advocate defence scheme of its jurisprudence. The play was begun with only one firm piece of knowledge and this was that Loman was to destroy himself. How it would wander before it got to that point. I did not know and resolved not to care. I was convinced only that if I could make him remember enough he would kill himself, and the structure of the play was determined by what was needed to draw up his memories like mass of tangled roots without end or beginning”.

The Structure of Events and the Nature of its Form

      “The structure of events and the nature of its form are also the direct reflection of Willy Loman’s way of thinking at this moment of his life. He was the kind of man you see muttering to himself on a subway, decently dressed, on his way home or to the office, perfectly integrated with his surroundings excepting that unlike other people he can no longer restrain the power of his experience from disrupting the superficial sociality of his behavior. Consequently he is working on two logics which often coalesce. For instance, if he meets his son Happy while in the midst of some memory in which Happy disappointed him, he is instantly furious at Happy, despite that fact that Happy at the particular moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present. In dramatic terms the form, therefore, is this process, instead of being at once removed summation or indication of it”.

A Mobile Concurrency of Past and Present

      “The way of telling the tale, in this sense, is as mad as Willy and as abrupt and as suddenly lyrical. And it is difficult not to add that the subsequent imitation of the form had to collapse, for this particular reason. It is not possible, in my opinion, to graft it into a character whose psychology it does not reflect, and I have not used it since because it would be false to a more integrated—or less disintegrating—personality to pretend that the past and the present are so openly and vocally intertwined in his mind. The ability of people to drown their past is normal, and without it we could have no communication among men. In the hands of writers who see it as an easy way to elicit exterior information in a play it becomes merely a flashback. There are no flashbacks in this play but only a mobile Concurrency of past and present”.

Importance of the Dramatic Tension of Willy’s Memories.

      “It may be proper to remark, in this connection, that while the play was sometimes called cinematographic in its structure, it failed as a motion picture. We believe that the basic reason aside from the gross insensitivity permeating its film production—was that the dramatic tension of Willy’s memories was destroyed by transferring him, literally, to the locales he had only imagined in the play. There is inevitable horror in the spectacle of a man losing consciousness of his immediate surroundings, to the point where he engages in conversations with unseen persons. The horror is lost and drama becomes narrative—when the context actually becomes his imagined world and the drama evaporates because psychological truth has been amended, truth which depends not only on what images we recall, but in what connections and contexts we recall them. The setting on the stage was never shifted, despite the many changes in locale, for the precise reason that, quite simply, the mere fact that a man forgets where he is, does not mean that he has really moved. Indeed, his terror springs from his never-lost awareness of time and place”.

The Motif to the Play

      “That I have and had not the slightest interest in the selling profession is probably unbelievable to most people and I very early gave up trying even to say so. And when asked what Willy was selling, what was in his bags, I could only reply, ‘Himself. I was trying neither to condemn a profession nor particularly to improve it, and I will admit I was little better than ignorant of Freud’s teachings when I wrote it. There was no attempt to bring down American edifice nor to raise it higher, to show up family relations or to cure the ills afflicting that inevitable institution. The truth, at least of my aim—which is all I can speak of authoritatively—is much simpler and more complex.”

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