The Structure of Death of a Salesman

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The play—the inside of a man’s head

      The Structure of the play is contained in a series of scenes, showing what is happening to Willy Loman, a salesman who is in his sixties within the time-span of one evening and the next day. This is coupled by voyages into the past by the protagonist. These fantasies that are otherwise outside the present time, sometimes clash and overlap with the present—the combined action becoming totally incomprehensible to the onlookers. Miller has explained that this usual structure was necessitated by what he had wanted to say about his ‘hero’, the first image occurring to him was of an enormous face, the size of the proscenium arch, which would appear and then open up, so that the audience would see the inside of mails head.

      The first title of the play was The Inside of his Head. “It was conceived half in laughter”, says Miller, “for ‘the inside of his head’ was a mass of contradictions. This image accounts for the treatment of time in the play; for the concept, that nothing in life comes next, but that everything exists together and at the same time within us, that there is no past to be brought forward in a human being, but that he is his past at every moment and that the present is merely that which his past is capable of noticing and reacting to”.

The form—no suspense

      Writing about the form of the play, Miller writes: “Writing in that form was like moving through a corridor in a dream, knowing instinctively that one would find every wriggle of it and best of all, where the exit lay. There is something like a dream quality in my memory of the writing and the day or two that followed its completion’’.

      The element of suspense, as to what happens next in the play, is comparatively much less than in the conventional plays. At the beginning, the end is almost half-realized. Miller has observed: “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. I was convinced 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 a mass of tangled roots without end or beginning?

      In this play, the author foregoes the process or preparation and holding back, in order to create suspense, while a series of revelations lead up to the climax. Willy Loman does not merely suggest or hint that he is at the end of his strength and his justification. He says this within five minutes of his appearance on the stage. He does not move into, or head towards a deadly conflict with his sons: he is undoubtedly grappling with that problem at the very outset; the scars of the conflict are etched out on his personality from the very beginning.

The movement—towards a deeper understanding of Willy and his predicament

      The play is not merely a series of flashes into the past, showing how they lead up to the present. The play marks an insistent movement towards a deeper understanding of Willy and his plight. The author achieves this by continually separating what Willy says from the real truth; and also by distinguishing between Willy’s view of other characters and their reality. The form of the play is particularly suited to Willy who has descended into disintegration—it would not be appropriate for a personality that is more integrated.

      In the theatre, different places and times inhabiting Willy’s head are present simultaneously on the stage—thus presenting a vision of a mobile concurrency of past and present which reflects the state of Willy’s mind. The author is able to convey to us the feeling of the horror in the spectacle of a man losing consciousness of his immediate surroundings—to an extent where he starts engaging in conversations with unseen people.

      The visions of the past are often conjured up by a word or an object in the present. A word, an object in the present, rings a bell in his mind and he is transported to a world which belonged to the; realms of his past. Both, the past and the present, are equally vivid in Willy’s mind and at times, the voice of the past is louder. We are gradually familiarised with what is stored in Willy’s unconscious—the technique, thus, is a great success, revealing to us the ‘inside of his head’ in dramatic terms.

The play—an artistic rarity

      We think William Beyers’s words can be taken as final. Beyers observes: “Miller has produced a challenging drama in Death of a Salesman and it is provocative, moving and occasionally eloquent play which makes pertinent comment on the decadent values in our society. The play’s structure drives its narrative home with emotional impact since Miller uses the familiar screen and radio technique.”


      The play begins and ends in one basic setting, the Loman home, and flash-backs in the popular stream of consciousness style clarify the present dilemma in terms of past relevances. Musical bridges between scenes dovetail them neatly together, for the music being used thematically is mood provoking and blends perfectly with the structure which is organically valid and an artistic "triumph. Sound craftsmanship is a commonplace in our theatre, but artistic creation is indeed a rarity and Miller has achieved the latter here, which makes both the playwright and the play eventful.

University Questions

“Structurally, Death of a Salesman is an achievement of remarkable originality”. (Benjamin Nelson) Discuss the structure of Miller’s play in the light of this remark.

“Death of a Salesman is an expressionist reconstruction of naturalist substance, and the result is not hybrid but a powerful particular form”. (Raymond Williams) Examine this statement critically.

“I had always been attracted and repelled by the brilliance of German expressionism after World War I, and one aim in ‘Salesman’ was to employ its quite marvelous shorthand for human felt characterizations rather than for purposes of demonstration for which the Germans had used it.” (Arthur Miller) Discuss the implications of this remark with reference of Death of a Salesman.

Do you think Miller's use of expressionistic method in Death of a Salesman adds to the significance of its structure?

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