Definition of the term "drama" and references to its Greek traditions
B Main part
1. Defining a tragedy and comparison to the book
2. Analysis of the form of "Death of a Salesman" and its function for the understanding of the play
a) Greek influences
b) Expressionistical elements
4. Analysis of the structure according to ancient Greek drama
5. Symmetry of characters and form
"Death of a Salesman" - traditional or modern drama?
Before starting to have a closer look at the dramatic structure of the book "Death of a Sales- man" by Arthur Miller, the general meaning of the word "drama" has to be defined.
A drama is a work of literature or a composition which delineates life and human activity by means of presenting various actions of, and dialogues between, a group of characters. The drama has a purifying effect on the spectators who shall identify themselves with the charac- ters and then undergo the same experience. Drama is furthermore designed for theatrical pre- sentation, that is, although we speak of a drama as a literary work or a composition, we must never forget that drama is designed to be acted on stage. Even when we read a play we have no real grasp of what that play is like unless we at least attempt to imagine how actors on a stage would present the material. Finally, drama is more than the representation of life and character through action and dialogue, for drama is also entertainment.
Greece is the birthplace of the drama. The protagonist shall either have a problem with him- self, a problem with another person, the antagonist, or he shall have a problem with society. By writing a drama, the author always has to follow three rules: The first rule deals with the unity of action, that means that only one problem shall be dealt with. The second rule includes the unity of place, all the action shall take place only in one setting. The unity of time forms the third rule, all action shall take place only in 24 hours.
Ancient drama consists of five acts: The first act is always an exposition, the setting (place and time), the characters and the problem are introduced here. Rising action is the second part of the play in which the forces creating conflict are delineated, enlarged, and prepared for some disaster. The first major pause in the play occurs when the hero makes a decision or makes some all-important discovery about either himself or someone else in the play. This third act, the act which interrupts everything else that is happening, is always referred to as the climax. The fourth act, the falling action, follows the climax and usually presents the ways in which the hero is slowly overpowered and becomes increasingly helpless. The fifth act always includes a denouement. Either a final solution, a kind of happy-end, can be found or a catastrophe breaks out, caused by the protagonist's failure in life or his death. The catas-trophe is the one event in the play toward which everything else has been working, either di-rectly or indirectly. Although the catastrophe is depressing and usually unpleasant, it satisfies because it fulfils the audience's expectations.
B Main part
The definition of tragedy is based on the Aristotelian tradition. He defined tragedy as a drama which concerns better than average people, for example heroes, kings or gods, who undergo a development from favourable fortune to misfortune and who speak in an elevated language. Tragedy always represents a moment of life and a personal destiny.
The existential and fundamental problem of a tragedy is the question of guilt and punishment, liberty and force, and also the relationship between the protagonist and society.
Usually there is a central character with some particular "tragic flaw" (hamarita). This cha- racter reveals a certain weakness of personality, making him imperfect, but humane. He is often let into despair, misery or even death through some sort of failure either in himself or in his action. An essential reason for this could be an excessive self-destructive pride called hybris. The hero is let into suffering or into crisis after which he gains inside into his psyche and his environment.
The suffering or the failure of the hero often leads to a catastrophe (but we can also find trage- dies with a happy end). This often highly emotional ending shall touch the feelings of the au- dience, it shall have a purging effect (catharsis). The audience shall be purged of both, pity and fear at the end of the tragedy. But Miller is convinced that "Death of a Salesman" also does have a shattering emotional impact that corresponds to that of Greek tragedy. Further- more the tragic hero's failure shall offer the audience or the reader a greater moral awareness and a keener self-knowledge.
If we try to compare Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" with a classical Greek tragedy, we will surely find some differences.
As soon as "Death of a Salesman" was published in 1949, critics began to analyse its relation- ship to Greek tragedy, usually pointing out that Willy Loman does not qualify as a tragic hero. In the Aristotelian tradition, the hero would normally not be an average man like Willy Lo- man. Aristotle's heroes would be outstanding personalities, like kings or gods. Willy is con- vinced of himself and feels superior to his fellows, but we know that this does not correspond to reality, he is not such an extraordinary and successful person as he is convinced to be. His dream or his greatest aim is to achieve perfection.
We cannot find an elevated language which Aristotle mentioned in his definition of tragedy as well. All the characters in "Death of a Salesman" speak in a colloquial way, this can be seen looking at expressions like "Yeah!" or "Heh!" in the dialogues between the actors.
The classical tragedy consists of two climaxes, the first one is the encumbrance of the hero as a result of the tragic conflict (in the classical tragedy it normally happens during the third act), and the second climax is the resolution of the guilt (normally at the end of a tragedy).
In the case of Arthur Miller's protagonist, Willy Loman, we cannot find two climaxes. The first and the only one is the affair with the woman he had in his past, but the second climax, the one where Willy's guilt would be solved, does not fit to "Death of a Salesman", because Willy does not solve his problems, his solution only is to commit suicide.
2. Form and Function
The structure of a literary work in general refers to its organization. The author delineates the structure with the intention to make a summary of the scheme of the drama. In essence, the author has effective reasons why he chooses a special way of structuring and assembling the actions and events of his play.
The drama "Death of a Salesman" can't serve the function of a traditional drama concerning its structure. The reader clearly notices that Miller doesn't subdivide the plot into five acts with scenes as it is typical of especially Greek Drama. He splits the drama into two acts and a short requiem, and thus gives the structure an outstanding and special meaning for the play. At first sight, the reader subdivides the actions into three parts, an introduction, a main part and an end.
But why does Miller structure the drama in such an extraordinary way? Why does he use only two acts and no scenes?
Each act has a certain unity and compactness of contents; an act clearly separates two actions or events. Thus the distribution of a drama into acts serves a more important function than a di-vision in scenes only. With the beginning of a new act, a new period of actions and a new part of a character's inner development starts. Additionally, the reader notices a certain architectural and rational harmony between all acts and between each single act and the whole drama. As we already mentioned, a scene is not as important for the plot of a drama as an act. Normally, a new scene starts with the appearance or quit of a character. This change of characters has consequences on events and conversations. The absence of scenes in "Death of a Salesman" gives the impression of a breakless and linear plot. By structuring the drama only in acts, Miller puts emphasis on the whole plot, not on single events. Thus "Death of a Salesman" can be called a "closed drama" for it only focuses on one main action: the crisis and failure of Willy Loman.
Miller once wrote in the "Introduction to the Collected Play", "I was convinced only that if I could make him remember enough he would kill himself, and the structure of the play was de- termined by what was needed to draw up his memories like a mass of tangled roots without end or beginning." That means the structure is characterized by the way Willy Loman thinks at a particular moment in his life. The play mingles the past with the present because this is the way Willy thinks. Miller wanted to show his inner conflicts, feelings and associations. He created a pattern of thoughts and language with all its confusions and contradictions. In fact, the structure of the drama is somehow predetermined because it results from Willy's natural manner of thinking.
The short requiem at the end serves an important function for the drama. "Requiem" is the be- ginning of the Latin of the Introit "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine" which means "Give them eternal rest, O Lord". It is known as the musical setting of the holy Mass, normally of the Mass for the Dead. A requiem serves a dramatic element and expresses respect and piety to a dead person. It shows the meaning of death and perishableness.1
Miller's use of a requiem in his drama can be seen as dramatic irony. The scene takes place on a cemetery where Linda, the boys and Charley take leave of Willy who committed suicide.
But Miller doesn't give the impression of a real funeral. In this scene, the total failure of Willy Loman, the final catastrophe is described. It becomes clear that the protagonist's dreams of "being well liked and popular" and of having "real friends" were nothing more than a lie or an illusion. Willy's sons don't pay any respect to him and even Linda, his "loving and admiring" wife, feels relieved and free after his death. Thus Miller changes the original meaning of a requiem: He doesn't show respect towards the protagonist and his life as it is normal in a requiem, but he judges or even condemns Willy's dreams and ideals. In this play, the requiem doesn't show the meaning of death and perishableness, it shows the American Nightmare, the total failure and the painful and embarrassing experience of not reaching one's aims.
It is striking that Miller doesn't call his play a drama, what it surely is, but "certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem". Thus, from the very beginning, the reader is aware of its extraordinary structure and he is invited to occupy with its construction as with its meaning for the play as well. It becomes clear, that Miller puts stress on the characters' thoughts, dreams and feelings and on the relationships among them. The things they say to each other are explosive and full of symbolic meaning. The reader must be attentive because he needs to read between the lines, he needs to be alert to contradictions and to people, not saying what they really mean.
By the way Miller structures the drama, he presents himself as one of the most innovative and modern dramatists of the 20th century.
Before taking a closer look at the drama's structure and form, we first should focus on the different influences that made Arthur Miller expose his drama in that special way.
When Arthur Miller began reading plays in college, Greek tragedies, such as those by Aris- totle, Sophocles and Euripides, made a profound impression on him. He highly appreciated the Greek drama's "magnificent form and symmetry". So Miller took up this classic con- struction in his drama "Death of a Salesman" as well. He once confessed, "That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in."
Referring to our introduction, some other similarities can be found. Firstly, we can find the in- evitable movement towards the death of the protagonist or the central character Willy Loman. Secondly, the tragedy consists of one single story without subplots which directly refers to Aristotle's theory of the unity of action. Furthermore the unity of time is also respected; "Death of a Salesman" takes place within the course of about twenty-four hours.
The unity of place is not strictly paid attention to. The setting varies from the Lomans` house to Charley's office, from Ebbet's Football Field to a hotel in Boston, and several other locations as well. But the most important location is Willy Loman's inner mind.
More important for an understanding of the form of "Death of a Salesman" is a certain familiarity with German expressionism (1910 - 1925). The essential aspect of expressionism was the depiction of the character's inner life. Expressionism used symbols to evoke the un- seen and the unconscious. So expressionist plays were objective and impersonal in their approach. Miller took up this form, for example by means of the flashbacks, but he made the play more humane and personal as far as the characterization of Willy Loman is concerned. Miller once pointed out that his drama "desired the audience to forget it was in a theatre".
This use of objective symbols (not only flashbacks but also music or colours) tries to expose Willy Loman`s characterization in a very subjective way, because the reader or the spectator gets the insight of Willy Loman's inner life and his own, subjective point of view.
The audience is not aware of the fact that it witnesses a very interesting technique.
The incidents from the past that Willy recalls in the presence are an "expression" (compare with "expressionism") of what is going on in Willy's mind. This expression of internal action lets the reader or the audience experience Willy's process of thought. An observer in the pre- sent would simply see Willy talking to himself but would not be able to understand the exter- nal action without having been informed about the origin of Willy's problems that are rooted in the past.
4. Analysis of the Structure
Taking a closer look at the interesting form of the drama, we can find out, that the whole story is presented through Willy's flashbacks. This use of flashbacks is fundamental to the structure and understanding the play. The play starts at present-day. The flashbacks and the daydrea- ming sequences offer essential background knowledge to understand why those present-day- problems appear in the Lomans' family life. So the plot is not presented in chronological order but it is a kind of bit-by-bit piecing together of events.
The play is divided into three main parts, Act I, Act II and a Requiem. Specified scene di- visions cannot be found. In spite of this first subdivision into three main parts, the drama can, nevertheless, be divided according to traditional Greek categories. The Greek five-part drama- tic structure, consisting of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and final catastro- phe can be found here as well.
Referring to the drama "Death of a Salesman", the exposition and thus the whole play starts with a very long and detailed stage direction describing exactly the setting of the drama. It does not only describe the Loman's house but it also already points out that certain stage areas are used in order to perform Willy's imaginings and city scenes and others for present-day- situations. But not only location is presented but the atmosphere is already hinted at, too, by means of colours and music, for example. The reader or the spectator already experiences a certain discrepancy between a comfortable atmosphere and an aggressive atmosphere which already foreshadows further events.
But the introducing stage directions also give an insight in the relationships among certain family members by characterizing some of them. Linda for example is portrayed as a jovial woman and an understanding wife always being very considerate and tolerant towards her husband Willy who, contrary to his wife, seems to have a difficult character with a certain temper including "massive dreams and little cruelties". From that first dialogue between Willy and his wife Linda, the reader can already draw the conclusion that a kind of central problem arises. The origin of that central problem must be closely linked with the relationship between Willy and his son Biff, because of the fact that the subject of the dialogue between Linda and Willy is, in fact, Biff's unability to make something out of his life. Additionally, Willy's attitude towards his son becomes clear. On the one hand the deception about his son's business makes Willy pessimistic and unable to develop neither respect for his son nor any motivation to accept that fact (compare Willy's affirmation " Biff is a lazy bum!", page 11).
But on the other hand his deep longing for success makes him feel obliged to encourage his son and to motivate him.
The further development of this father-son-relationship is depicted in the rising action. The reader or the spectator gets to know by means of flashbacks in how far the family's past is linked with the source of this conflict. It becomes clear that it must be this reality versus illusion problem that eventually leads to a downfall at the end of the drama. Remembering the "good old times" - Biff's highschool time - Willy is not aware of the fact that his sons do not have the necessary qualities to succeed in life. He transfers his old pride on his sons from past to reality and he does not realize that his pride turns into false pride as far as it reaches reality. His sons do not turn out to be what he wants them to be. He believes that they are great men who are in possession of what is required to be successful in business world. Unfortunately, he is mistaken.
A further aspect that is developed in the rising action is Willy's feeling of superiority over his neighbour Charley. This domination from the past turns into its opposite: Willy has to accept the fact that Charley and his son Bernard are, in fact, more successful and thus superior to Willy.
All his hopes for the future and his wishes he had in the past have not been fulfilled. So he tries to build up a kind of dream world in which his sons are popular and successful business- men. But it is just an illusion he lives in.
The reader asks himself in how far Biff's failure is connected to his relationship to his father. The answer is given at that moment when young Biff discovers his father's affair with another woman. This event represents the climax of the drama because that discovery is the ruining factor of Biff's entire life. Once he realizes that his father is a hypocritical liar and an unfaith- ful husband, he is no longer able to regard him as an example. This deep deception is the base to ruin the chances for any success in a father-son-relationship which is hoped for at the beginning of the play.
After that great shock, the falling action includes Willy's feelings of sinking deeper and deeper. He starts to realize that his sons are doomed to be failures like himself and that it is his own fault that they will fail, particularly because of the way in which his behaviour leads to Biff's loss of respect. This awareness of debt drives him into such despair, making him powerless and helpless that he finally believes that a man can be "worth more dead than alive". Because of the fact of having failed in life he starts to regard life as unworthy to be lived although Charley - the voice of reality - points out "that a man isn't worth anything dead." Thus Willy is too exhausted to live according to his dream - the American Dream.
This loss of confidence leads to the final catastrophe of the drama. At Willy's funeral - ex- posed in the Requiem - a man is buried who has been working all his life and who finally loses trust in himself and in the society which has spit him out mercilessly, like a "piece of fruit".
In this last scene Happy seems to be optimistic and willing to step into his father's footsteps ("I'm gonna win it for him", page 111). The tone of irony can be found here for we know that Happy will be a failure as well, like his father. So he will steps into his father's foot-steps in a special way. Happy also refers to the dream Willy lived for ("He had a good dream", page 111). For Willy, the American Dream turns out to be the American Nightmare followed by the most severe consequences a human being can ever imagine: death.
5. Symmetry of Characters and Form
When Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman", his intention was to portray a person's feelings and thoughts and to show the "subjective process of thought-connection". In fact, his original title for the play was "The Inside of His Head".
When the reader gets to know the protagonist, Willy Loman, he knows from the very beginning that Willy is a doomed man, destined to fail. Although the reader is slowly let into important events, such as the climactic discovery of Willy's affair with another woman, he is always aware of the final event, the final catastrophe. This can be explained by the fact that the only thing Miller knew when he began to write the play was that Willy was going to die. That also explains why Miller finally called his play "Death of a Salesman": It only focuses on Willy's death as the main event. The choice of the title and the use of a requiem somehow foreshadow this event.
Another foreshadowing of Willy's death can be found by regarding the symmetry of charac- ters. Normally, the author builds a balanced relationship between the characters and chooses an uneven number to secure the protagonist's strength, confidence and will to win.
There can be found a balance between positive and negative elements.
In contrast to this, Miller chooses four main persons and thus the balance between the characters is disturbed.
This graphic shows the missing symmetry between the characters which stands for the prota- gonist's failure:
As well, there is no symmetric structure. In general, the climax builds the axis of the middle of the play to underline its solid and well-organized construction. This missing balance between single parts again stands for the protagonist's vacillating and weak personality.
All in all, the structure serves an important function for a drama in general, because it underlines the particularity of its formal organization. Arthur Miller mingles traditional and modern elements of structure and thus invents drama in an extraordinary and new way. He unites ancient Greek drama with modern drama of the 20th century. Clive Barnes, a reporter of the New York Post calls "Death of a Salesman" a "classic". He points out, "It is one of the major texts of our time." This affirmation can be seen as a representative statement for the critics of Miller's drama. Thus he can be portrayed as one of the most important dramaturgists of contemporary time. an be portrayed as one of the most important dramaturgists of contemporary time.