Places: Death of a Salesman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1949

First produced: 1949

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Late 1940’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedLoman home

Loman Death of a Salesmanhome. Modest house in Brooklyn, New York. Despite the play’s fixed location, playwright Arthur Miller makes it clear that Willy’s alienation and loss of meaning are afflictions of any modern American city. The introductory stage directions he wrote for act 1 state that the “small fragile-seeming home” is surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular shapes,” which have sprung up around it. Throughout the play, the audience is visually aware of a gap between past and present: The house which once stood on a pleasant street of similar homes is now dwarfed by “a solid vault of apartment houses.” Like Willy himself, the house has been made insignificant by progress.

Jo Mielziner, who designed the play’s original stage setting, framed the house so that it was “wholly, or, in some places, partially transparent.” Miller’s stage directions explain that whenever action occurs in the present, “actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left.” By contrast, “in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall onto the forestage.” The stage setting thus represents the two halves of Willy’s life: the realistic present, in which his breakdown is unfolding, and the dreamlike past, where most of his problems originated. “An air of the dream clings to the place,” Miller writes, “a dream rising out of reality.” Examples of the nature of these two halves pervade the play, concluding in the short “Requiem” in which Willy is buried. All those who hold onto their past, Miller implies–and all the Lomans are guilty of doing this–will have trouble adapting to the present.

*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. New York City borough in which the Lomans live. Willy’s failed career, his splintering family, and the materialism that has overtaken his life are also real problems audiences can recognize in the city that has arisen around his house. The play’s setting perfectly grounds its themes: No trees or grass grow in Brooklyn, only “the hard towers of apartment buildings.” Throughout the play, Miller contrasts this harsh urban environment with the country–such as Willy’s New England sales territory, his memories of his rural childhood, and his son Biff’s wanderings in the American West.

Willy clearly lacks the tools for success in this modern urban world. Values on which he grew up–represented by his brother Ben and salesman Dave Singleman–are those that came out of a nineteenth century world in which frontiers were still open and the American Dream was a reality. The modern world has been transformed into a consumer culture (represented by products such as cars and refrigerators that Willy complains about), leaving little room for men like Willy. The success myth Willy has followed his whole life is dead. In the end, his son Happy takes up his false dreams, but Biff frees himself from this urban tragedy. The city, the play shows, holds little promise for those who cannot understand themselves and the world they inhabit.

*Boston

*Boston. Massachusetts city to which Biff rushes in a flashback scene late in the play to get Willy’s help so he can finish high school. When Biff discovers his father with a woman, his idealized image of his parent collapses, and his nomadic life begins. The scene could take place in almost any city; however, the Boston hotel room effectively represents both the life of the salesman on the road, and the location for his son’s loss of innocence.

Suggested ReadingsBloom, Harold, ed. Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. A collection of sixteen focused extracts from books and articles, with ten complete essays providing an excellent selection of criticism focusing on Willy as a literary character. Includes a provocative introduction by Bloom in which he discusses Willy as a tragic hero.Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988.Dukore, Bernard F. “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.” Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989. An excellent introduction for beginning students. Analyzes the text from both literary and theatrical points of view and examines selected productions of the play to demonstrate the rich embodiment of literary ideas.Koon, Helene Wickham, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Death of a Salesman.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. An anthology of ten essays that provide a wide variety of critical approaches to the play. A standard source.Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.Miller, Arthur. “Salesman” in Beijing. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Miller’s fascinating and highly readable diary account of the famous production he directed of Death of a Salesman in Beijing, China, in 1983, where the universality of the play became most evident. Includes photographs by his wife, Inge Morath.Murphy, Brenda. Miller: “Death of a Salesman.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.Nelson, Benjamin. Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright. New York: David McKay, 1970.Roudané, Matthew C., ed. Conversations with Arthur Miller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Transcriptions of thirty-nine interviews with Miller between 1947 and 1986. Notable for personal insights into Miller and the productions of his plays. The interviews persistently return to questions concerning Death of a Salesman and Miller’s theories on tragedy.
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