Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Miller Time: Teaching "Death of a Salesman"

I feel like I ought to begin this column with some kind of public service announcement. Maybe a shaky close-up of the cover of the script of Death of a Salesman (preferably the one of Dustin Hoffman in old-age makeup), followed by a slow pan out as we hear Morgan Freeman's voice saying, "Teachers of America, before you teach Arthur Miller's classic, you should know... your students will not understand this play. If you have any choice in the matter — any choice at all — you should choose The Crucible."

I'm kidding, of course, but I'm obliged (and paid) to state my opinion, which is that this play is quite difficult for teenagers to grasp. I recollect reading (and watching) it in high school. I think we might agree that I'm not ungifted in understanding literature (again, paid!) but I really didn't get it. And subsequent re-reads and viewings, including one in the last two weeks, have only further convinced me that it is a delicate, tricky, and elusive play. It's packed full of regret, and, along with nostalgia, I think regret is one of the most difficult emotions for the majority of American teenagers to identify and connect to, as self-involved as they are.

But Death of a Salesman is a major player in many high school curricula, and it is certainly worthy of your class's time, so I will try to help you out here — do a solid, as my students would say — and find ways to help the language and play connect for you and your students. This is a wildly deep and rich play, so there's much to choose from. Let's focus on the language of the play, and the themes of regret and the struggle to become one's true self.

For My Theatre Peeps

Folks, forgive me for stopping for a moment to touch on a strongly held opinion of mine. This is that plays are written to be produced, with actors, and a stage, and possibly curtains, costumes and a sardonic director. Plays exist in one form (a script) but live on stage. This creates an initial, and major, barrier for your students if you do not help them experience any play as audience members before reading it. I have come to the conclusion that I'd rather sketch out a plot and point out a few things, then let my students see the play before reading it. I think reading a play first, especially by untrained and unskilled play readers (and believe me, skilled play readers are few and far between), kills the play.

Death of a Salesman is playing in theatres all over the U.S. at all times, except for when you actually want to take your class to see it. If that happens to you, or you just can't spare the time or money to trundle out the Juniors to see a show, you could show a televised version. It's not as good, but it's better than nothing. I'm not wild about the Dustin Hoffman/John Malkovich version from 1985, but it is much more widely available than the Brian Dennehy version, which was filmed for TV and you might catch it on late-night cable.

Nobody Knows What Everybody Knows: Language in Death of a Salesman

The play tells you how it's going to end from the very beginning. We 21st-century media consumers aren't used to this anymore, primed as we are for the twist at the end. Miller didn't write like that. You can see/read what's coming — Willy Loman's death by suicide, defeated, old and sad — from the first line of the play. Willy enters his house, his wife wakes up fearfully, and he calls up to her, "It's all right. I came back." At the end, he won't.

Of course, nothing's all right in this family, nothing much at all. Your students are going to understand what's happening so much more if you take the time to explain this to them before you begin. Arthur Miller doesn't have time to show you a lifetime of lies and secrets in the Loman family, so he relies on innuendo, references and flashbacks. These work together to help us understand just how ordinary, and how deeply troubled, this family is.

One fascinating thing about the language of this play is the contrast between what is truthfully said straight out, and what is alluded to but never explicitly stated. I think your students can relate to the realism of this, as we all talk this way. Surely, every family has topics that are freely discussed while others are taboo. (In my family, we talk about religion with a frankness that many might find surprising, but find matters of the bathroom indelicate.) For the Lomans, the facts of Willy's attempt to commit suicide can be discussed freely (if reluctantly), but Biff and Willy never really discuss the life-changing incident that play revolves around: when Biff discovered Willy's adultery. (And take note: your students may not understand the implicitness in this writing. Be sure they know what's going on!)

Also, note the braggadocio Willy uses. Late in the play, Biff tells Willy, "I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!" That's a heavy charge to lay at his dad's feet, but Miller's earlier flashbacks convince us this is true. Willy isn't content to have a good and athletic son in Biff; No, Biff has to be the best athlete, with a glorious life (contrasting with the life Willy's created) ahead of him. "The sky's the limit," Willy says about Biff. Ask your students if that promise of the future is exhilarating or deeply frightening (or both). Is Willy to blame for Biff's enormous sense of entitlement?

Willy: Love Him And/Or Hate Him

Note that your students might not like Willy Loman very much. A good portrayal of the character will make him some combination of desperate, grumpy, old and/or needy, which are all the characteristics we've been trained not to like. He's 60, which doesn't seem all that old anymore, but at the time of Miller's writing was like 80 today. And he doesn't have very many redeeming characteristics. And, although Brian Dennehy, I love ye, Willy ain't sexy.

But, hot or not, it's important to find ways that students can relate to him, and understand why he is the way he is. We don't learn much of anything about his background, so it's harder to have sympathy for his relentless lies. In particular, the first-act flashback, in which he tells Linda he sold "five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston" only to admit in a few seconds that "roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip" is more realistic, drives me nuts. Liar! Liar! Pants! Fire!

Perhaps where we can sympathize — and learn from Willy — is to understand how full of regret he is. Not just by the end of the play, but throughout it as well. Listen to how he puffs up Biff and puts down Bernard, the nerdy (and eventually successful) next-door neighbor. That's envy, as he regrets that he isn't young and athletic anymore (perhaps ever?). Watch him rip the stockings out of Linda's hands when she mends them. That's guilt, as he regrets his selfish choices. And in the example I quoted above, you can hear the regret of not being a better salesman, not making a wiser career choice, not caring for his family the way he thinks he should have.

Of course, by the end of the play, his regret is intense and deep, his defining characteristic. And his sons are also regretful, albeit Biff, who has taken a long look at his life, more so than Happy, who seems to be Willy's younger doppelganger. A note of hope is struck by Biff, however, when he tells his family that he knows who he is. Perhaps he'll make the second half of his life more meaningful than the first.

A question I'd like to ask my students to consider is about Linda. Do you think she feels regret? Look carefully at her last speech, the famous "free and clear" monologue. "I don't understand it," she says. "Why did you ever do that?" She seems angry, confused, bereft, but I'm not convinced Linda feels regret. If I'm right (and this would depend on individual actress interpretation, and, oh yeah, did I mention plays are meant to be seen?), then Linda is the only Loman who seems at least somehow satisfied with the way she lived her life. Probably not pleased, mind you, but satisfied, in a "job well done" sort of way.

I am, I said.

Which dovetails nicely into the last concept I want to mention. It's not difficult to find examples of the struggle to be one's self in Death of Salesman. Indeed, it's Biff's essential quest throughout the entire play — not so much to find himself, but to explain the self he's found to his father, a self that is far different from who his father wants him to be. I point it out because I think this idea is the key to involving your students in the play. If they can look for and identify this theme, I believe they will have a richer understanding of the play, as well as form a deeper connection to it. After all, there isn't a stronger need during adolescence than the drive to find out who one is.

For many years, Biff is content with the sense of self Willy has created for him, that of a wildly successful, extraordinary golden boy. The sense of entitlement this enables gets him into trouble, and finally, a stint in jail shows him the truth: "I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!"

Contrast Biff and Willy with Bernard and Charley, the next-door neighbors. Bernard is a bit of a whiner as a kid, and his hero-worship of Biff, while understandable, grates. But we see that Bernard grows into a successful, accomplished young man. What caused this contrast? Is it that Charlie was a better parent? Was Bernard just lucky? Or is there a chance that Bernard knew and accepted himself as he was from a much younger age than Biff?

Who are you? I ask my students. Is who you want to be likely to happen? Does it match who you are in your heart of hearts? Who are you on the path to becoming?

Charley says that Willy had to dream, and your students do too. What are their dreams? Are they likely to come true?

Because, in the end, the tragedy of Willy Loman's life, to my mind anyway, was not the failure at his job, or the hellish aging process, or his infidelity, or even his pumping up of his sons (frankly, I've always felt Biff might have gotten it together a lot earlier than 34!), but in his absolute failure to embrace his life. He had a family that loved him, a little house that he liked to work on, and the potential for content. He wasn't a contender, but he could have been happy. And he rarely was.

That's Death of a Salesman, folks, or rather, my few thoughts on it. A friend of mine once threatened to publish an anthology called Plays That Make You Want to Kill Yourself, in which this play was the lead-off inclusion. It's a downer, that's for sure. I'll try to come up with something a little more upbeat for next month. Let me know if you have an idea, and please feel free to share your insights on teaching this play below!

Shannon has also prepared a word list for the play here.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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