Resuscitating Death of a Salesman

death-of-a-salesman-coverIt’s sometimes difficult to teach Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman on the college level. What hasn’t been said? How can we resuscitate the work to foster a dynamic classroom conversation?

Even when I’ve taught business majors who have no background in theatre, Salesman seems to be right up there with Hamlet as one of the very few pieces of dramatic literature students studied in New York City’s public high schools. They come into class with pre-formulated assessments of the play’s depiction of the American Dream. On the other hand, many acting majors seem overly familiar with Salesman‘s two-person scenes, which reduces the work’s efforts to interrogate how time and memory function, and how the theatre apparatus can stage the cognitive fluidity of temporality.

In an effort to resuscitate Salesman, I emphasize Miller’s dramatic structure, use of stage space, and the ways in which casting choices impact the worldview of the play.

My lesson plan is quite straightforward. I ask students why Miller chose to split the play into two acts with no scene designations. At first, many students furrow their brows. Many didn’t seem to notice the lack of scenes. So, we revisit the text in class, looking at one or two moments when the past bleeds into Willy’s present. Eventually, students identify Miller’s complex temporal transitions and note that distinct scenes would demarcate time, thus diminishing the fluidity and simultaneity Miller aimed for (not their exact words!).

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We then discuss Miller’s use of the apron as the space of Willy’s “backyard as well as the locale of all WILLY’s imaginings and of his city scenes.” What does it do for the play to animate the apron with these specifics moments of dramatic action? How do these precise stage directions compare with other plays we’ve read (which mostly describe furniture and interior design elements)?

lee_j-_cobb_1960sTo examine how casting contributes to the dramaturgy of the play, students work in groups of three to cast the roles of Willy and Linda and say why they made their choices. After each group reports out, we pivot to a larger conversation about what different casting choices suggest about the characters. We then watch clips of Lee Cobb and Dustin Hoffman as Willy.What does it mean for Cobb’s broad torso and full face to fill the role of Willy? Was Willy really once a great and well-liked success? How does Hoffman’s shuffling and hesitant Willy impact our understanding of this iconic role? Was Willy always deluded and foolish? Are we watching the character’s rapid spiral downward, or the culmination of a lifetime of not measuring up?

These conversations fit within a semester-long arc of conversations about US cultural identity, white masculinity, capitalism, and the family.

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