In Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman, what is the significance of the initial stage directions?

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Death of a Salesman is set in New York, though there are flashbacks to Boston. The settings are Eastern and urban, but the characters in the play, particularly Willy and Biff, long for the wide, rural vistas of the West. This wanderlust is reflected in the flute music, "telling...

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Death of a Salesman is set in New York, though there are flashbacks to Boston. The settings are Eastern and urban, but the characters in the play, particularly Willy and Biff, long for the wide, rural vistas of the West. This wanderlust is reflected in the flute music, "telling of grass and trees and the horizon." This mood is set before the curtain rises.

The audience is then confronted with Willy Loman's house. There are "towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides . . . a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home." Loman's home is a physical manifestation of the protagonist's state of being: fragile, small, and overwhelmed by the forces around him. The world around him is "towering"; the angularity is emblematic of the postwar, postmodern architecture that characterizes New York. Loman is not a part of this new world. He clings to a distant past, "an air of the dream [that] clings to the place."

The kitchen is placed at the center of the stage, which "seems actual enough." There is a kitchen table "with three chairs, and a refrigerator." The choice of three chairs is interesting because there are four members of this family. There is foreshadowing, in the stage directions, of loss or the absence of someone in this family.

The forward area of the stage "serves as the backyard," where Willy experiences his "imaginings." This is the only "open space" offered to Willy. The play has "imaginary wall-lines" which are observed by the actors. The only instances in which these boundaries are broken is during flashbacks. During these moments, the characters "enter or leave a room by stepping 'through' the wall onto the forestage." This indicates that the characters experience a sort of mental freedom in memory that they cannot realize in the present. 

The flute music, which Willy cannot hear, plays on when he enters the stage. This non-diegetic music, music that is unrelated to the direct action of the play, maintains this mood of longing. It is "turbulent" longing that causes both Willy and his wife, Linda, so much pain and which defines their bond.

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The initial stage directions in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman seem significant in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • The opening reference to a flute melody that seems small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon” suggests the beauty and potential of life, especially a life that is in tune with nature and that can sometimes seem full of unbounded opportunities. Later, of course, we will be confronted with a fair amount of ugliness, unnaturalness, and literal and metaphorical confinement in this play. Thus the opening paragraph of the stage directions will later seem somewhat ironic.
  • In the second paragraph, Willy Loman’s house is described as being “surround[ed] . . . on all sides” by “towering, angular shapes.” Miller thus immediately juxtaposes the pastoral (emphasized in the first paragraph) with the urban (emphasized in the second). The opening paragraph suggests freedom and potential; the second paragraph suggests constriction and limits. Willy’s life will reflect the latter two traits far more than the first two.
  • The urban features described at the beginning of the second paragraph almost completely block out vision of anything else. Even the vision of symbolic blue skies (conventionally associated with optimism, potential, and joy) is partly blocked by the urban buildings – buildings which symbolize the cramped, conventional, commercial society in which Loman must survive.
  • The “apartment houses” that surround the “small, fragile-seeming [Loman] home” obviously symbolize the way Loman seems hemmed in and controlled by the mass, indifferent, impersonal society in which he must compete and make his way.
  • The relative simplicity of the Loman home – a kitchen table and three chairs – suggests that the Lomans are by no means wealthy or socially prominent.  They are relatively simply people; they are not grand or glorious figures of the sort who might have been featured in earlier tragedies. They are the kind of characters to whom most of the audience will be able to “relate.” Indeed, the simple rooms of the house, and the very basic, practical furniture they contain, imply that the Lomans are not unusual people. Instead, they are symbolic in many ways of the vast majority of lower middle-class people of their time and place.
  • The prominence of the athletic trophy implies the important role that past athletic accomplishments will have in this work.
  • The fact that a window looks out directly onto an apartment building symbolizes, once more, the ways in which this family’s existence will be constricted and constained. As Miller puts it in other symbolic sentence,

The roof-line of the house is one-dimensional; under it and over it we see the apartment buildings.

The apartment buildings symbolize the large city in which Loman (to echo the Bible) lives, and moves, and has his being.



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