Birth Of Expressionism Essay, Research Paper
Birth of Expressionism
Considered one of the greatest pieces of American Literature in the twentieth century, Arthur Miller s Death of a Salesman is truly a masterpiece. When it was released in 1949, the play won numerous awards and became the most popular show on Broadway. Since then, the play has continued to run off and on in New York, along with other prominent international cities like Berlin, London, Beijing, and Amsterdam. The play was written as a method for Arthur Miller to show the people of America what the true image of a salesman in the thirties and forties was. Not only did Miller succeed, he also opened peoples an eye to what the true American Dream is and what its faults are. The play centers mainly on Willy Loman, a salesman in his fifties. Willy has spent his entire career selling things and now it seems the customers have stopped coming. The audience first meets Willy at the start of his trouble. Willy has come home from Boston without selling hardly a thing, his son Biff has quit yet another Job, and the bills are beginning to stack up. Willy tries diligently to keep his family afloat while he desperately ponders why he has no more customers. Willy then tries to convince Biff that the only happiness he will find is in business. Biff does not want to go into business because he can see what it has done to his father, as well as his younger brother Happy, who spends most of his time drinking and indulging with prostitutes. One the most creative aspects of the play are the expressionistic devices that Miller writes into key scenes of the play. In his essay Arthur Miller: An Overview, Gerald Weales describes Death of a Salesman as an example of American Expressionism in which realistic scenes are played in an anti-realistic context (Weales 3). Through expressionism, Miller is able to portray his characters and ideas in an entirely new and exciting form of theater.
The most obvious of all of Miller s expressionistic pieces in Death of a Salesman are the characters themselves. Craig Garrison describes in his essay that Miller uses a multitude of characters to portray success and failure in America (Garrison). The first and foremost expressionistic character is Willy himself. Throughout his life, Willy was inspired by the success of his father, and later his brother. In her essay Willy Loman s Brother Ben: Tragic Insight in Death of a Salesman, Sister M. Bettina says that Ben personifies his brother s dream of easy wealth (Bettina 2). Bettina also says that Ben is the only character in which Miller combines realism with expressionism, emphasizing his symbolic function (2-3). Willy spends his entire life trying to become successful himself. Willy Loman embraces the American Dream, assumes that success is not only possible, but inevitable (Weales 1). Inspired by an old eighty year-old salesman, Willy decides that selling is the way to go to find wealth. After proving that his imagination is much bigger than his selling abilities, Willy tries to live his successful life through his two boys, Biff and Happy. Willy tries to make them everything he never was. Unfortunately, the constant pressure only ruins the two boys future, turning one into a bum, and the other into a confused young man in search of his true identity.
Biff Loman has always lived his life as a successful and popular student. That is until he discovered that his one true inspiration, his father, was a liar and a fake. After Biff discovers Willy in the hotel room, he becomes a man in search of who he really is, knowing that taking the same road as his father would eventually lead to disaster. Due mainly to all the hot air Willy feeds him, Biff continues to stumble in his fight for life (Garrison). Biff continues to struggle in his quest until one day he has a revelation while applying for yet another job (Garrison). He realizes that all he wants to do is be outdoors working with his hands, much like Willy dreamed of. The difference is Biff decides to act on his feeling, realizing that happiness is more important than money.
Happy, Biff s younger brother, is exactly the opposite of Biff. Unlike Biff, Happy listened to everything Willy told him and went into sales in a futile attempt to be successful (Garrison). It soon becomes obvious that Happy is not happy at all in his new job. Although he is making money, he is not enjoying his life. Happy tries to make himself more popular with his family by claiming that he holds a certain prominent position within the company (Garrison). Sadly, Happy s is only another salesman, heading down the same road as his father.
The music in Death of a Salesman is one of the most important of all of Miller s expressionistic devices. Throughout the play, whether it is a single melodious instrument, or an entire orchestra, the music helps the audience to visualize exactly what Miller is trying to say. One of the most important musical motifs is the single flute. Barbara Lounsberry describes the flute in her essay The Expressionistic Devices in Death of a Salesman by saying that the flute is first heard as a mellow, airy tune that fits well with the nature look first seen on the stage (1). As Willy enters for the first time, this music perfectly represents Willy s own love of nature and his separation from it. As Arthur Miller says in Death of a Salesman, he hears but is not aware of it (2). During Act I, the audience learns that the flute has a direct correlation with Willy s father, who used to make flutes and sell them (Lounsberry 1). The father song, first heard when Willy begins to speak of him, is described as a high, rollicking tune, quite different from Willy s nature type song (Miller 34). This difference perfectly sums up Willy s biggest conflict; a conflict that his father solved easily. Willy s father was a salesman, as well as an explorer; a dream that Willy always had. The flute continues throughout the play as a symbol of triumph and failure, along with tragedy and comedy.
Another important musical motif is the music played during Willy s most despicable act. Throughout the play, a woman appears on the stage as a reminder of Willy s evil deed. It is not until later that the audience learns of Willy s infidelity. Although surprising, the encounter with the prostitute was definitely planned by Miller as one of the key turning points in Willy s life. The music played during the appearance of the woman and during the hotel room scene helps to emphasize Willy s sexual desires and needs. It also helps to create a sense of danger when Biff appears outside Willy s room. It is also this music that is heard when Willy warns Biff about making promises to girls and how dangerous it can be (16). Linda s musical themes are however, in stark contrast to those of the prostitute.
When Linda sings her lullaby to Willy in their bedroom, she contrasts the sensuous music of the prostitute. The raw theme of sexual desire contrasts with Linda Loman s theme (Lounsberry 2). Linda is will stand by Willy s side no matter what because she is his wife (Garrison). Her lullaby begins as a soft, soothing tune. It helps Willy to relax and remember his love for her. However, just as their relationship has grown to become, Linda s melody starts to become monotonous. Linda soon looses Willy s attention and he drifts away. This is a perfect foreshadow of the hotel room scene, where Willy rekindles his sexual interest with a prostitute, rather than Linda.
Whistling also presents itself as an important musical theme in the play. The conflict between selling and living in the outdoors is perfectly contrasted by the motif of whistling. Many people, as it is said in the popular Disney tune, whistle while they work (Lounsberry 2). However, whistling is more associated with outdoor activities than business. Therefore, because Biff Loman likes to whistle, he is associated more with nature that with business (2). Willy often tells Biff that whistling is unacceptable in the world of business, emphasizing Willy s desire to have Biff go into business. Happy tries to refute Biff by telling him that no one hires a man who whistles in an elevator. Ironically, when Willy goes into his boss office looking for a promotion in the business, Wagner does none other than play a recording of his daughter whistling and whistles along with it. Wagner s actions are almost in direct opposition to Willy and Happy s beliefs about whistling, thus proving that Biff was right all along (Lounsberry 2). Whistling does not offend the boss as much as it may appear. In fact, maybe Will and Happy could have gotten farther if they learned to whistle in the elevator.
Near the end of the play, Willy is faced with all of his failures as he tries to think of a way to keep his family going. All Willy can think about is becoming rich and helping his family to survive. After careful consideration, Willy decides that killing himself and allowing his family to collect on his insurance is the only way. In her essay Conceptualizing Death of a Salesman as an American Play, Susan Smith reports that here again, the light, airy sounds of the flute are heard, calling Willy back to the life of nature that he always dreamed of living (7). Willy then jumps into his car and speeds off, as the flute becomes louder and louder.
The dynamic story of Death of a Salesman would be impossible to tell without the cleverly designed sets. Examining the scenic choices opens the way for discussion of Miller s play-within-play layering of temporal and special memoirs (4). The sets in the play help to bring out the simplicity and struggle In Willy s life. Before the play opens, the audience is able to view possibly one of the most blatantly obvious expressionistic devices in the show. During the overture, a large scrim covers the stage. On the scrim is an image of the open face of Willy Loman. This face is an invitation by Miller for the audience to come inside the mind of Willy Loman so they can better understand his situation. In fact, Miller s first title for the play was The Inside of His Head (Lounsberry 3). For the Broadway production, Miller decided to use transparent scenery as a more subtle way of showing Willy s imperfections. However, the open face is still used in some productions in conjunction with the scenery, to show Willy Loman as the confused and troubled person that he really is.
Some of the first and most obvious pieces of expressionism in the set are the transparent lines between the Loman house and the city around it. The juxtaposition of the burning, angry, distorted city with the dreamlike, transparent house is the frame for the action, which in turn frames other sites of action (4). It is almost as if the house becomes the city in a smooth transition. On every side of the Loman s small house, the city is closing in. Willy often recalls the empty space and woods around their house that is now all covered with apartment buildings. The transition from the Loman house to the buildings allows the audience to see the pressure the city and possibly business, is exerting on Willy and his family.
The furnishings in the Loman household also reveal a great deal about Willy s character. The very little amount of furniture also contributes (Lounsberry 3). Perhaps the most important of the furnishings are the three chairs in the center of the kitchen. Realistically, the family table should have four chairs, one for every member of the family. The fact that Willy s table has only three emphasizes both the importance Willy places on his sons, and his disregard for Linda as an important member of the family (3). Near the end of Act I, Willy goes to the refrigerator to get some milk, only to find that the refrigerator has broken down. Willy s source of life, the refrigerator, had broken down, just as Biff and Happy s source of life, Willy, was beginning to break down as well. Inside the Loman bedroom there is a bed, one chair, and a bookcase with Biff s athletic trophies on it. Having only one straight chair again suggests Willy s low regard for his wife, who must share the room with him. The bookcase of Biff s trophies displays Willy s obessesion with Biff and with being surrounded with overall success. The trophies only belonging to Biff could also be a representation of Biff s success over Happy in there childhood, creating a motivation for Happy wanting to succeed and please his father in the world of big business.
During the expressionistic movement, new and improved forms of lighting were also developed to help relay the author and director s interpretation of the play. The golden pool of light in Act I is a perfect example of expressionistic lighting (4). Biff walks into the pool as Willy begins to remember Biff s baseball championship. The golden light represents the sun that shown down on Biff that day while all of those people were watching him. The light also helps to portray Willy s idea about his son being a star that can never fade away. The audience is aware that Biff s star has gone out before it was even lit. Ironically, as soon as Willy says this, the light begins to fade on Biff (4). As the light fades, the glow of the gas heater can be seen behind another transparent wall in the house. The gas heater serves to represent Willy s wish to help his family by killing himself. Any production that does not use either the golden light or the gas heater is possibly removing one of the key images of Willy s ongoing internal conflict.
The expressionistic movement created many changes in the staging of American theater, as is obvious by the somewhat radical “Death of a Salesman.” Arthur Miller s Death of a Salesman is one of the first plays to utilize this new staging. This is perhaps one reason why the play was and still is so successful. Whether a person likes expressionism or not, one has to admit that it helps enormously in the portrayal of Miller s modern tragedy. After the release of Death of a Salesman, expressionism began to appear in more and more works of literature, proving its universal appeal. Whether or not expressionism remains a part of American literature is yet to be seen. However, one thing is certain, expressionism has helped to make Death of a Salesman one of the most viewed, taught, and criticized plays the world has ever known.
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