Tension in Death of a Salesman

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Show how the playwright creates tension and how this increases your appreciation of any aspect of the play.

Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy Death of a Salesman is rife with tension regarding the protagonist, Willy Loman, a salesman eluded and deluded by the American Dream. The play follows Miller’s reworking of the Aristotelian hero in the final twenty-four hours of his life. Willy’s obsession with his Dream and all associated with it – personal attractiveness, business success and family success – all fail him in this painful examination of consumerism and the American Dream. His destructive insecurity strains his relationship with his wife Linda and his sons, principally Biff, and he is driven to suicide with the knowledge that “you end up worth more dead than alive.”

As the curtain rises to a “small and fine” flute melody, its delicacy is in tension with “towering angular shapes” and the “angry orange glow” which surround Willy’s “small, fragile seeming home”. By reflecting Willy’s status in life and the business world through staging, Miller creates tension through contrast and the overwhelming buildings that represent capitalist America already seem to be consuming Willy, a literally low man. Miller’s use of partially transparent walls allow what the playwright terms “Willy’s imaginings”, a technique taken from expressionist theatre, to stylishly take place.

Willy’s exhaustion is made apparent in his entrance as he sets down his “burden”, two business cases. Through making clear the atmosphere of failure and fatigue, Miller’s dilapidated hero is an entirely pathetic character. As Linda mothers him and makes excuses for his early return from the road, Biff and Happy are introduced, as is the key conflict of the play: the relationship between Biff and Willy. Biff has rejected Willy’s ideals as “a measly manner of existence” and pursues his dreams of working in the countryside, which would better suit both of these characters and indeed the rest of...
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