Setting can often reflect the underlying ideas in a play. In the light of this statement, consider the importance and use of setting in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is the story of a traveling salesman, Willy Loman, and his relationships with his wife Linda and sons Biff and Happy. The Loman home is in Brooklyn, New York, in a part of the city that has undergone significant transformations since Willy and Linda bought the house. In establishing his play’s setting, Miller describes the Loman home as follows:
“Before us is the SALESMAN’s house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange. As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home. . . The kitchen at center seems actual enough, for there is a kitchen table with three chairs, and a refrigerator. But no other fixtures are seen.”
Miller’s instructions for the setting where most of his play occurs continues on in this vein. As he walks us through the house, it is more than a little apparent that this is not the home of people of financial means. It speaks directly of lower-middle class drabness. The scene, in fact, is bleak, in keeping with the dramatic revelations that follow. The play shifts to various other locales during the course of the play, including the office of Willy’s boss, Howard Wagner, the restaurant where Willy goes with Biff and Happy, the hotel room where Willy engages in his affair, and so on. These scenes that occur outside of the Loman home are visualized by Willy within the confines of his home. As Miller describes the manner in which these transitions will take place,
“Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall on to the forestage.”
These scenes outside of the Loman home exist more in Willy’s mind, although they represent actual events. They are flashbacks and, when Willy remembers his deceased brother Ben, ruminations.
“Death of a Salesman” is a tragedy. Willy Loman’s has spent his life traveling the northeast, barely getting by while regretting his failure to join Ben in the business pursuits that made the latter wealthy. The setting of the play, the home surrounded by towering if uninspiring apartment buildings is itself a visible symbol of Willy’s failures. Clearly, the Loman home is one of the last to survive the urban transition that has replaced the neighborhood that used to exist – one of single-family homes lining the streets – with these urban eyesores. Willy’s garden, where he imagines another seminal conversation with Ben about what might have been, is the enduring symbol of that transition. It suffers for lack of sunlight, the sun having been blocked out by the rise of the towers. When Willy fantasizes with Linda about a home in the country, he suggests stopping for seeds later that day to plant in the garden. Linda's response, ". . . But not enough sun gets back there. Nothing'll grow any more," is yet another reminder that Willy's reality has grown weak.
Miller’s use of setting establishes the tone for Willy’s story, and that story is unrelentingly bleak. As he imagines the conversation with Ben in his garden, the pitiful garden represents the tragic ending that will occur.