Playwriting Workshop – Day 7 – Death of a Salesman

Hi writers, we’ve reached the end of Week 1 of our playwriting workshop! As we worked on writing the component parts of a play, I hope you also enjoyed reading the first of four plays we’ll discuss this month, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. This is of course the classic, award-winning play about Willy Loman, an aging traveling salesman. In a series of flashbacks, Willy looks back on his life, in which he has always just managed to scrape by but has never achieved the sort of success he imagined he would, and tries to determine where and why everything went wrong. The play is in two acts (plus a requiem) and has only a handful of main characters. It is about success, failure, and the American dream. It is also about the relationship between fathers and sons, the way fathers graft their unrealized dreams onto their sons, and what happens when sons become disillusioned when they discover their fathers’ faults.

Many, many people have analyzed this play over the years. If the version you read has a good introduction, then you already have some understanding of its themes and innovations. As I did with the short stories we read last month, I’m going to make only a couple of points: one thing I noticed and one idea the play gave me for my own future writing.

One Thing I Noticed: Miller really plays with time here. It’s what the play is famous for. Time collapses as Willy’s worries coalesce. This is primarily achieved through set design and stage direction. When the scene is in the present, the characters respect the wall lines of the house. When it is in the past, they are free to step through the walls to the forestage, which also doubles as the house’s back yard. With this simple trick the past and the present seem to coexist, as if everything has already played out and we are right there with Willy, sifting through the layers of sediment to figure out what happened to his life.

I recently saw a production of Macbeth in which the normal subdued lighting was switched (I think a little chime also sounded) to a glaring overhead light each time the audience was meant to understand that the words Macbeth spoke were not heard by the other characters onstage but were his own internal thoughts. This was pretty effective. Under that glaring light the audience saw Macbeth for who he really was, a man driven by ruthless ambition.

One Idea: Play with the idea of causation. Write a scene in two ways (three? four?), exploring two very different outcomes. See if, through set design, lighting, costumes, or how the characters interact with each other or move on the stage, you can present both versions simultaneously. Maybe the same exact thing is happening in the different versions until one moment, when something happens that makes the stories split off from each other and triggers the different outcomes. Are the versions alternate realities? Do they exist only in the mind of one of your characters, who is wondering “what if?” Do the versions stray from each other but then come back, so that the outcomes are essentially the same? Does this say something about fate or inevitability in your character lives?