Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ Exemplifies how Careful Attention to the Linguistic Features of a Play tell us all we need to know about Performance Kerri Margaret Scullion – Reid

A comprehensive analysis of the linguistic functions of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) will illustrate how, for a diligent reader, all we require to learn about performance is supplied within the written text. Concentrating on the dramatist’s use of preference structure, silence and the turn-taking system, will reveal that all the vital qualities of live theatre are available in the written words.

To assist in an examination of the legitimacy of linguistic approach and its outcomes, it is initially necessary to consider what might be determined from the text and efficiency of Death of a Salesman from a non-linguistic perspective. The play originated from the presumption that “the distinction we make in between our past and our present is unreal: all of it exists simultaneously in our minds.” Death of a Salesperson displays the mind of Willy Lowman as it degrades through repeated dissatisfactions and unattained aspirations. Numerous aspects add to this procedure: obstinate faith in the American Dream and a requirement to prove oneself as a hero of the American lifestyle types deception of relative and himself. The whole Lowman household are central characters – with possibly the exception of Delighted – and the audience/reader is afforded insight into the styles, plot and the lead character through their interactions. Willy’s other half Linda is a multifaceted character. She has the pretence of a stereotypical housewife in post-war America. The perpetual existence of a wash basket in her hands, phase directions such as ‘Linda is filling his cup when she can.’ … Linda holds his coat for him’ (p. 55) all highlight her perceived roll in the household. Linda speaks gently and plainly, when talking to her hubby, easy lines like ‘Simply rest. Should I sing to you?’ (p. 54) stress her soothing, protective nature in the delicate handling of his mindset. However, her determination to prohibit Biff from your house if he does not abide by her dreams relating to Willy, in conjunction with her skilled handling of the family finances expose Linda as a strong woman whose depth of perception far exceeds what her manner suggests. This is evident when she tells her son’s that Willy ‘needs to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to me that it’s his pay’ (p. 45). Linda’s extensive awareness of the truth of the family’s circumstance appears when she informs her boys in Act One about ‘the little rubber pipeline’ (p. 47) she found. This bare truth is juxtaposed with large deceptiveness

Every day I go down and take away that little rubber pipeline. But, when he gets back, I put it back where it was. How can I insult him that method? (p. 47)

This reverse epitomises the dispute in Death of a Salesperson. Those who allow themselves to see and face the truth are in dispute with those who live in a cloud of delusions – be it by option or repercussion. While Linda conceals the fact to protect her liked ones, Pleased selects to deceive himself and others. He exaggerates like his dad: when he meets Miss Forsythe in the dining establishment scene he lies about he and his sibling’s professions. Very much the marginalized member of the family, Pleased’s sporadic one-line contributions to discussions are incongruous and do bit more than offer comic relief: ‘I’m gon na get wed, Mom. I wanted to inform you.’ (p. 53) Echoes his teen mantra’ I’m slimming down, you notice, pop?’ (P. 26) These self – centred tactics for attention brighten his peacekeeping efforts. When Biff insists on informing Willy an undesirable fact about his ethical character, Pleased instructs him to ‘inform him something great’ (p. 83) and follows this by suggesting a good lie that would be sufficient. When the tension gets to the point of humiliation, Happy disowns Willy openly instead of do something about it: ‘No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy.’ (P. 91)

Biff’s character contrasts his brothers in its intricacy. He shows level of sensitivity towards nature when describing the ‘inspiring … sight of a mare and a brand-new colt’ (p. 16) in his very first appearance on phase. Biff likewise admits in this scene that he is ‘mixed up’ and ‘like a kid’ (p. 16); this sets the tone for Biff’s positive development towards self-awareness – the only character in the play that attains this. Young Biff’s self-confidence is based on an incorrect, inflated self image and perception of the world supplied by his father. Miller clashes the moment when Biff first looses all certainty of self with the minute he first peeks the truth of who his dad is. The years of disillusion that followed stop when Biff comes to a clear understanding of himself and the risk of lying to oneself:

How the hell did I ever understand I was a sales guy there? I even thought it myself … he gave me one appearance and – I understood what an absurd lie my entire life has actually been. We have actually been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk. (P. 82)

Miller’s usage of the word ‘dream’ in that speech of Biff’s draws a parallel in between the insignificant day-to-day lies and the “biggest lie of all, that the world is composed of individuals to whom society is answerable, if one works hard adequate success is unavoidable.”

Belief in this maxim contributes mostly to Willy’s disappointments in himself and in Biff. His journey towards suicide is stressed with morsels of hope hinging on falsification. At the end of Act One optimism surrounds the upcoming journey to Willy’s boss Howard, of which he specifies ‘Whatever’ll be alright.’ (p. 54) The following morning is likewise the day of Biff’s check out to Oliver for an impractical organisation proposition. Willy informs Linda that Biff is ‘heading for a change … He might be a – anything because match!'(p. 55). When all endeavors fail, Willy’s trouble differentiating look from reality and past from present degenerate:

Biff: so I’m washed up with Oliver, you understand? Are you listening to me?

Willy: Yeah, sure. If you had not failed- (p. 87)

Guilt from past misconduct can be seen here hindering present judgement. Willy’s older brother Ben – who only appears in flashback series of Willy’s memories- symbolises the remarkable past and the achievements of his daddy (as is indicated by the flute music which accompanies him) and therefore also the importance of household ties. Ben likewise embodies the American dream. It is substantial then, that it is he who lures Willy to the final decision of suicide.

Desmond Wilcox mentions “Miller has actually denied that the play is either an indictment of American Commercialism or an analysis of household relationships gone wrong, though any reader or spectator is bound to feel that these are elements in it” It is proper that Wilcox includes the reader and the spectator as equates to in his statement on the understanding of Death of a Salesperson. Linguistic analysis of Arthur Miller’s adjustment of turn taking systems – based upon V. Herman’s modification of Sacks et al.’s solution as explained by Levinson (1983) – in an excerpt from completion of Act One (see appendix), supports many of the previously discussed reductions of character and theme. The series requires Linda, Biff and Happy talking about Willy’s condition. Of the 37 turns in overall Linda owns 19, Biff 13 and Delighted just 5. Right away the reader understands that in the co-text of Linda’s typical infrequent, short soothing turns, this shows an unforeseen depth to her character. Linda is the dominant character in this series, she self chooses 8 times keeping the subject and orientation on Willy’s bad luck regardless of Biff’s efforts to close the conversation at turns 10 and16, and his turn skips whenever Linda pry’s him for a genuine answer; 10, 16 and18. At turn 7 Linda takes a long turn of 16 lines with no pre-emptory quote for the floor. Her speech is full of challenging rhetorical concerns which show to the reader much of the history of Willy’s situations and degeneration, ‘nobody knows him any more, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man’s mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent?’ The repetition of ‘nobody’ emphasises the atmosphere of isolation that afflicts Willy and permeates the play: the same seclusion that filled the Lyric Theatre throughout the efficiency I attended. The environment was assisted by Miller’s set style notes requiring ‘imposing angular shapes … surrounding all sides’ (p. 7), which imposed on the audience along with the actors. The solitude stimulated that evening is equally present in the texture of Linda’s speech at turn 7. Miller uses naturalistic language with poetic syntax to convey atmosphere and tone in the speech. Repeating of ‘old’, ‘why’ and ‘the length of time’ resonate with disillusionment and weariness. The description of his unsuccessful efforts epitomise how the American Dream is legendary and Willy’s commitment to it destructive to his wellness.

Pleased’s shallow nature is evident in Linda’s pointed remarks in turn 3 and her insult which prompts him to end turn 7 by interrupting her with his characteristic brevity. She reacts with a regard to endearment in turn 9 to soften the dispreferred accusation, then she turns her attention to Biff, Miller shows in the phase directions that he is chosen as next speaker. She postures a direct question, but the adjacency pair is left open, Biff turn skips at turn 10 and at the same time tries a closing of the discussion. Linda who will plainly disprefer both aspects of her kid’s reaction, self selects and rejects him the power to close the conversation whilst ensuring that the present topic is preserved. In turns 11 – 14, mom and son alternate turns similarly and speak honestly. Turns 13 and 14 are a (QA) adjacency set that expose a reality about the past and mention the secret affair of Willy’s that Biff dare not discuss to his mom. The guilt, sensitivity and protective nature of Biff emerge in Miller’s turn management here. When Linda reproaches Biff with metalanguage to explain even more in turn 15, he reacts with a multi-clause turn avoid with more attempts to close the conversation abruptly ‘I’m going to sleep.’ And follows this with an effort to leave the room. Linda once again self selects at line 17 with a significant truthful remark that outrages Biff, however does not prompt to question her – highlighting the avoidance of reality which characterises this household. He instead counter reproaches her with the question ‘Now what do you want?’ Linda resists his counter-reproach choosing instead at turn 19 to force the fact about Willy out into the discussion. She chooses Biff in the turn, which indicates the injustice amongst the three characters, Pleased ‘turns quickly to her, shocked’ however does not turn grab despite Biff’s attributable silence at turn 20. Biff’s silence might be due to a gap in between his capability to consider the news and then formulate a respectful, pertinent reaction. This would be supported by other sign of Biff’s sensitive character in spite of all his spite.

What follows in turns 21 and 22 is another (QA) adjacency set, honest and direct on both parts. In turn 22 Biff asks his mom ‘How’ is his daddy attempting to eliminate himself and because the subject has actually now orientated to a matter which includes Linda’s secretive behaviour the dominance shifts a little. Linda turn skips for the very first time at turn 23 and this segues to a brief side sequence. Biff reproaches her at turn 24 and prompts her at turn 26. At turn 27 Linda begins her full explanation, however it is stressed with full stops and doubts. Pleased self selects at turn 28 with an exclamatory remark, one line long, denying the reality of the situation. The remark is not acknowledged by anybody (which takes place throughout the play) and Linda resumes her explanation at turn 29. The routing dots and stage directions imply a pause at the end of Linda’s very first line, she is likely to be bracing herself for the divulgence of more unpleasant info but Biff misinterprets the TRP and begins to speak ‘simultaneously’ as Linda continues causing an overlap of turns 30 and 31. The reader may infer that Biff’s contribution to the overlap was provoked by an over-attentiveness originating from guilt of secrecy and his desire to protect his mother that manifests itself repeatedly in the play, e.g. Biff [furiously]: ‘stop chewing out her!’ (p. 51). Another side series results, initiated by Linda’s ‘what?’ at turn 32. Biff selects the favored option and drops out pleasantly. Linda nevertheless does decline this and reproaches him to tell her what he stated. Metalanguage controls the explanation of this series as turns 35 and 36 form a final (QA) adjacency set leading to Biff repeating his words truthfully. Happy self picks at turn 36 with a mild prompt to move the conversation far from conflict and Linda responds by at last elaborating to address the question she was asked at turn 22, hence closing the Question/Answer pair.

It is clear that Biff and Linda manage each other a complete hearing (apart from one misunderstanding). Smooth turn modification between them occurs with each reacting when selected and no turn grabs occurring. This highlights the shared regard and love they share. On the contrary, Linda just selects Delighted once and that is the only time he is selected, his shallow duplicity is not only obvious in the turn management of the series, it is also mentioned within Linda’s 3rd and 7th turns. It is considerable that the 2 kids facilitate Linda’s dominance of this series, as they provide her complete hearing bar the periodic disruption and choose her most. It is apparent in this series that the styles of the play involve the risk of deluding oneself and enjoyed ones, in addition to the detrimental effect dedicated belief in a national misconception. Linguistic analysis likewise showed all features of character that one requires to know to comprehend the play and experience its stress, pathos and tragedy.


Wilcox, Americans. P. 45

Ibid. p. 49

Banks. Drama and Theatre Arts. P. 257

Wilcox. Americans. P. 45

Herman. Significant Discourse. P. 81

Ibid. p. 118

Grant. Director of: Death of a Salesperson. Oct. 1999.

Herman. Remarkable Discourse. P. 131

Ibid. p. 84

Ibid. p. 87

Simpson. Odd Talk. P. 39

Herman. Significant Discourse. P. 83

Ibid. P. 85

Ibid. P. 111

Ibid. P. 113


Main Sources

1. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesperson. England: Penguin Books Ltd. 1961 reprint.

2. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Director, David Grant; Lyric Theatre, October 1999.

Secondary Sources

1. Banks, R.A. Drama and Theatre Arts. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. 1985.

2. Herman, Vimala. Remarkable Discourse. London: Routledge. 1995

3. Simpson, Paul. Odd Talk in Exploring the Language of Drama from Text to Context. eds: Culpeper, J., Short, M. and Verdonk, P. London: Routledge. 1998

4. Wilcox, Desmond. Americans. Hutchinson, 1978.

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