Death of a Salesman and Selective Realism

NOTES on Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller (1915-2005) ***** GENRE: Example of modern tragedy and “selective realism” Refer to your study guide for the quote from Arthur Miller’s “Tragedy and the Common Man” Selective Realism: refer to your text, and consider the notes following the brief remarks on the play below…. ***** Notes on the play, with comparisons to others this semester. (feel free to disagree or elaborate): PLOT: Willy Loman loses his job, regains a relationship with his oldest son Biff, and commits suicide, thinking the death benefit in his insurance policy will help Biff.

SPINE: Willy Loman makes his final sales trip. CHARACTER: See your play synopsis in the back of your textbook. THOUGHT: 1. The American Dream v. the reality of everyday life. How does each character view the American Dream? 2. Reality v. Fantasy. Reality: hard work, telling the truth, honest dealings. Fantasy: lies, wishes, hopes, dreams. DICTION: All New York accents. Think about the style and pace of the talking. MUSIC: The flute represents Willy’s brother Ben. Other musical themes are more representative of the mood of each scene. See what you can remember.

SPECTACLE: The set has drab, open spaces. The flashback sequences are colorful and bright. Which brings us to….. SELECTIVE REALISM: dramatic writing that portrays psychological states of mind AND naturalistic acting The set design is one key element in creating layers of memory through flashbacks and special effects. The other key elements are musical segues and costuming. Realistic /naturalistic acting relies on unaffected speech (i. e. , mumbling), movement (slouching), and playing the “subtext” (constant tension motivating dialogue). A BRIEF GENEALOGY OF SELECTIVE REALISM add to your study guide) Influences from the 1800s: Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905) Albert Einstein’s first part of the theory of relativity (1905) These people and their writings signaled major shifts in science, economics, religion, social theory. Classical tragedy and melodrama didn’t appeal to them nor to their followers. A new kind of writing for the stage emerged to experiment with these new philosophies: realism. Early realistic dramatists:

August Strindberg, Sweden Henrik Ibsen, Norway Anton Chekhov, Russia ————————————————- Chekhov’s actor friend in Moscow, Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) experimented with Chekhov’s work, among others, and developed a new system of teaching acting and directing realism at his independent theater, the Moscow Art Theater, founded in 1898. This theater was one of several independent theaters across Europe, which influenced the “little” theater movement across America, and eventually the college theater movement. (ex. —Yale established a drama program in 1925. ————————————————- In 20th Century America: ————————————————- Stanislavski’s system was so good that it changed acting and directing techniques all across Europe and America. The first American theater modeled after the Russian system was The Group Theater (1931) in NYC, founded by Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg. In 1947, another institution founded solely for the purpose of studying acting was established by Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis, and Elia Kazan, and later joined by Lee Strasberg.

This was The Actors Studio, famous for its focus on “emotional recall/emotion memory” as an acting tool. ————————————————- Elia Kazan directed the first productions of works by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, establishing selective realism as a dominant American dramatic style in the mid-20th century. His frequent designer, Jo Melziner, created the fragmented, shadowy set and lighting designs that enabled the rapid shifts between past and present, reality and fantasy, that created the “psychological realism” of this style of play.