When Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman at the end of the 40’s, it was with a purpose. There was much the playwright wanted to say about the human condition and society at large and Death of a Salesman was no exception.
The original theatrical run of the show on Broadway opened in February 10, 1949 and had a year and a half run. That original production was legendary for many reasons, and created a legacy that marked the way for revivals and film/TV adaptations for the next 60 years. One of the best productions done for Death of a Salesman occurred in 1985 starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, Kate Reid as Linda Loman, John Malkovich as Biff, and Stephen Lang as Happy. This production best showcases the dichotomy of the play as it was transferred from the 1984 Broadway stage to film by using the strengths of both mediums and combining them together.
The setting and reality of Miller’s play made that first production a scramble to figure out how to execute technically. The fading nature of Willy Loman’s mind causes a myriad of shifts in both time and space. The quick shifting make the set design for any version of this show crucial. One second the present sits effortlessly in the house and the next it flies years into the past. The outcome usually creates a very technically rewarding show.
Essentially, Miller wrote a play where scenes and transitions are set up better for filmed media. This makes Death of a Salesman a bit more difficult to stage with the amount of locations and quick shifting, and the screenplays far easier as movie magic need barely a second to transition the viewer from one place to the next. The play Miller wrote before Salesman was All My Sons (1947). This play takes place nearly entirely in the backyard and inner room of a house, which is a fairly simple set; very different from Salesman’s quick shifting. How Miller came to the conclusion that portraying the rumpled mind of a weary man onstage would be plausible is perhaps the second greatest mystery from this play; the first being whether or not to classify it as a Greek tragedy.
Regardless, the ease of set transition established in the film is heightened by the theatricality of each new setting. Be it the house, the restaurant, the office, or the hotel room these places appear very real. The interiors of these buildings never hint that they may just be set pieces or walled off sections of a set, but the lighting and the lack of an outside world brings into question whether these places are real. In fact, the viewer wonders whether these places only exist in Willy’s mind and some of them do. The soft tones of a scrim or painted background speak more towards a stage than the real running water and furniture inside.
The most interesting part of the production’s set is how hard it works to maintain a play like feel. The house used could have been real, but it appears on a sound stage and, like a theatre stage, it is equipped with a backlight scrim for atmosphere and painted drops. The shells of the houses next door are clearly uncompleted and no more than facades, but the Loman house is an amazing cross between detailed recreation and theatricalized ingenuity. At every turn the film wants the audience to believe in the real world of the play as real places and businesses, but the film also chooses to pay homage to the play by theatricalizing elements with the purpose of adding meaning.
The houses next door are facades, to play into the fact that Willy may not truly see past his own life. Or perhaps they are shells to discuss the hollow relationships that the Lomans have with their neighbors whom they have lived next door to for some twenty odd years, at least. The drops and scrims add a beauty and a boundary to the setting. As previously stated, Willy views his world only as far as his yard. The very near boundaries may appear far and dimensional, but at the end of the day they are within arm’s reach.
The undertones of the house hold a very real, and yet very abstract expressionism from the first glance to the last. As Willy steps into the house at the start, the massive door dwarfs him while the dark black tiling create a very oppressive and austere feel to the home. A very unwelcoming sight when entering a home, and this is Willy’s own house that greets him so coldly.
The way the house is filmed also creates some amazing shots. At one point a discussion between Linda and Willy fades in and out as a perfectly placed window allows the viewer to be drawn into the sons’ room and discussion, all the while allowing glance over into the parents’ room. It is not a realistic structure for a house, but for a story it is genius. The house itself also seems to be falling apart. Not only do the appliances and parts of the old house break and wear, but the set is missing bits of walls and parts of railing. Like Willy the house is not all there; it’s losing a few marbles every day. This allows the first scene to question the American Dream of owning a home; the first rumblings of the plays overarching idea. Why work so hard for something that acts as a reminder of your failure?
Failure is what Willy see’s when he looks at his house, but it’s not the only emotion he receives. The time shifts and slips into Willy’s mind occur mostly because they are memories Willy has of his home and his family. The backyard is not only where Willy tried and failed to grow seeds with the hopes of creating a sustainable food source, but also where Biff was the star quarterback with a bright future and Happy had nothing to prove. In these cheerful moments the sky is bright, the images are soft, and the whole family is warm. Everything about this tv movie was thoughtful and expertly done.
The double-sided nature of this play starts with its context, but the only way to realize the concept and the meaning Miller steeps his play in is to create a world where these concepts are literal. The reason Willy goes from moment to moment, from joyful to angered, so quickly happens because the life he leads is both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to him. This duality of a salesman is shown in the theatrical yet real sets, in the adherence to the 1984 play’s staging, dialogue, and set. Even the cast comes from the ’84 play.
The house which is so prominent and integral to the story and Willy’s view of his life stands in a fake world too close to the edges as it falls apart becoming frailer each day. What is real and what is creation becomes blurred not only in Willy’s head, but also in each location of this film. Therein lies the premise of the play; what we think maybe the most important part, may in fact be a cardboard façade that will only disappoint us in the end.