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Autor: anton • May 20, 2011 • 2,281 Words (10 Pages) • 444 Views
The Expressionistic Devices in Death of a Salesman
From the opening flute notes to their final reprise, Miller's musical themes express the competing influences in Willy Loman's mind. Once established, the themes need only be sounded to evoke certain time frames, emotions, and values. The first sounds of the drama, the flute notes "small and fine," represent the grass, trees, and horizon - objects of Willy's (and Biff's) longing that are tellingly absent from the overshadowed home on which the curtain rises. This melody plays on as Willy makes his first appearance, although, as Miller tells us, "[h]e hears but is not aware of it" (12). Through this music we are thus given our first sense of Willy's estrangement not only from nature itself but from his own deepest nature.
As Act I unfolds, the flute is linked to Willy's father, who, we are told, made flutes and sold them during the family's early wanderings. The father's theme, "a high, rollicking tune," is differentiated from the small and fine melody of the natural landscape (49). This distinction is fitting, for the father is a salesman as well as an explorer; he embodies the conflicting values that are destroying his son's life.
The father's tune shares a family likeness with Ben's "idyllic" (133) music. This false theme, like Ben himself, is associated finally with death. Ben's theme is first sounded, after all, only after Willy expresses his exhaustion (44). It is heard again after Willy is fired in Act II. This time the music precedes Ben's entrance. It is heard in the distance, then closer, just as Willy's thoughts of suicide, once repressed, now come closer at the loss of his job. And Willy's first words to Ben when he finally appears are the ambiguous "how did you do it?" (84). When Ben's idyllic melody plays for the third and final time it is in "accents of dread" (133), for Ben reinforces Willy's wrongheaded thought of suicide to bankroll Biff.
The father's and Ben's themes, representing selling (out) and abandonment, are thus in opposition to the small and fine theme of nature that begins and ends the play. A whistling motif elaborates this essential conflict. Whistling is often done by those contentedly at work. It frequently also accompanies outdoor activities. A whistler in an office would be a distraction. Biff Loman likes to whistle, thus reinforcing his ties to nature rather than to the business environment. But Happy seeks to stifle Biff's true voice:
HAPPY . . . Bob Harrison said you were tops, and then you go and do some damn fool thing like whistling whole songs in the elevator like a comedian.
BIFF, against Happy. So what? I like to whistle sometimes.
HAPPY. You don t raise a guy to a responsible job who whistles in elevator! (60)
This conversation reverberates ironically when Howard Wagner plays Willy a recording of his daughter whistling Roll out the Barrel" just before Willy asks for an advance and a New York job (77). Whistling, presumably, is all right if you are the boss or the boss's daughter, but not if you are an employee. The barrel will not be rolled out for Willy or Biff Loman.
Willy's conflicting desires to work in sales and to do outdoor, independent work are complicated by another longing, that of sexual desire, which is expressed through the "raw, sensuous music" that accompanies The Woman's appearances on stage (116, 37). It is this music of sexual desire, I suggest, that "insinuates itself" as the first leaves cover the house in Act 1.5 It is heard just before Willy - reliving a past conversation - offers this ironic warning to Biff: "Just wanna be careful with those girls, Biff, that's all. Don't make any promises. No promises of any kind" (27).
This raw theme of sexual desire contrasts with Linda Loman's theme: the maternal hum of a soft lullaby that becomes a "desperate but monotonous" hum at the end of Act I (69). Linda's monotonous drone, in turn, contrasts with the "gay and bright" music, the boys' theme, which opens Act II. This theme is associated with the "great times" (127) Willy remembers with his sons - before his adultery is discovered. Like the high, rollicking theme of Willy's father and like Ben's idyllic melody, this gay and bright music is ultimately associated with the false dream of materialistic success. The boys theme is first heard when Willy tells Ben that he and the boys will get rich in Brooklyn (87). It sounds again when Willy implores Ben, "[H]ow do we get back to all the great times?" (127).
In his final moments of life, Willy Loman is shown struggling with his furies: "sounds, faces, voices, seem to be swarming in upon him" (136). Suddenly, however, the "faint and high" music enters, representing the false dreams of all the "low" men. This false tune ends Willy's struggle with his competing voices. It drowns out the other voices, rising in intensity "almost to an unbearable scream" as Willy rushes off in pursuit.
And just as the travail of Moby Dick ends with the ongoing flow of the waves, nature, in the form of the flute's small and fine refrain, persists - despite the tragedy we have witnessed.
In the introduction to his Collected Plays, Miller acknowledges that the first image of Salesman that occurred to him was of an enormous face the height of the proscenium arch; the face would appear and then open up. "We would see the inside of a man's head," he explains. "In fact, The Inside of His Head was the first title. It was conceived half in laughter, (60) for the inside of his head was a mass of contradictions" (23). By the time Miller had completed Salesman, however, he had found a more subtle plays correlative for the giant head; a transparent setting. "The entire setting is wholly, or, in some places, partially transparent," Miller insists in his set description (11). By substituting a transparent setting for a bisected head, Miller invited the audience to examine the social context as well as the individual organism. Productions that eschew transparent scenery eschew the nuances of this invitation.
The transparent lines of the Loman home allow the audience physically to sense the city pressures that are destroying Willy. "We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind [Willy's house], surrounding it on all