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Death of a Salesman Acts

Get your head around the plot by reading our act by act breakdown.

Act 1

The play, as a written script, opens with very detailed stage directions. The actual drama begins with the sound of a flute. Willy’s father sells flutes, and this sound will be heard at key moments in the play.

The stage directions indicate a fluidity of time and space which is characteristic of the play. For example, Miller states: Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines...But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken.

Willy enters, exhausted, carrying “two large sample cases.” He has come back early, having had difficulty maintaining the concentration to drive. Concerned for him, Linda encourages him to look for work in New York and give up travelling. Their sons, Biff and Happy, no longer young men, are back home too. Willy laments how the neighbouring buildings are increasingly boxing them in. Biff and Happy, sharing a bedroom as they did when children, overhear their parents’ conversation. They exchange reminiscences about the jobs they’ve had and the women they’ve met, with a strong sense of having wasted their lives.

We fade into the past, with Willy giving advice (rendered ironic by what we’ve already heard) to his two young sons, about girls and schooling, and how to polish a car! Willy has bought them a punch –bag. He is sure of Biff’s sporting prowess, even that he’ll be forgiven for “borrowing” a ball from the coach. It’s clear he favours Biff.

The boys admire Willy’s tales of life on the road, a much more glamorous view of “selling” than we sensed at the start of the play. Willy sees his own sons in favourable contrast to Bernard, the scholarly boy next door – “you’re both built like Adonises,” he tells them, whereas Bernard is “a worm.”

Linda reminds Willy of the reality of their various debts from hire purchase (i.e. paying a smaller amount over a period until the debt is clear). In the background we hear the presence of another woman. Willy has given her stockings – like the ones his wife is now mending.

Bernard’s father, Charley, comes from next door to play cards with Willy, having “heard some noise.” Willy imagines his brother Ben, and continues a dual conversation with him and with Charley. Ben stands for the kind of opportunities – “tremendous in Alaska” – that Willy aspires to. There is a scene [in the past] where Ben mock-fights with Biff, defeating him with a trick. He advises Biff to “never fight fair with a stranger, boy.” Linda does not approve. The diamond fob watch which Ben gave him, and which Willy pawned, stands for what Willy might have achieved.

Back in the present, Biff is concerned about their father’s habit of talking to himself. He also laments his mother’s grey hair. She in turn reminds Biff that he’s a boy no longer. They quarrel. Linda is dedicated to Willy, but unsure Biff feels the same. Willy’s self-esteem has been hit by being put on “straight commission, like a beginner, an unknown!” She says: “He drives 700 miles, and when he gets there no one knows him anymore.”

Biff considers his father “a fake” but won’t say why. Linda tells him that Willy has been trying to kill himself. He tries to crash his car, and she’s found a pipe with which he can gas himself.

Biff is going to see Bill Oliver, who he used to work for, with a business proposition. But this becomes overwhelmed by a fantasy about the “Loman Brothers”. Linda wonders if things are beginning to pick up, but Willy’s advice to his sons reads like a succession of self-help clichés – “personality always wins the day,” or “start big and you’ll end big.” The language they use with one another - boy, sport, pop – seems immature, undercutting Willy’s view of Biff as being “Like a young god. Hercules – something like that.”

Act One ends with Willy promising Linda that he will ask his boss if he can work in New York from now on, with no more travelling, at the same time as Biff is hiding the length of rubber tubing, with which he fears his father will try to kill himself.

Act 2

It’s the next morning and the mood, at first, is brighter. The boys have gone, and Willy talks of buying some seeds to plant. But Linda warns about various payments still outstanding and that the insurance premium has reached its “grace period”, meaning it is due but they won’t yet be pursued for payment. Willy intends to ask Howard for an “advance” and is to meet the boys at a restaurant that evening. Linda finds that it was Biff who has removed the gas pipe, not Willy as she’d hoped.

We see Willy with Howard, his boss. Howard is distracted by a new recording machine he’s bought, on which he can play back the voices of his children, an example of the new consumerism into which Willy does not fit. It plays back recitations of pointless facts. He appeals to Howard on the basis of loyalty and longevity in the firm. “In those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it.” But instead of getting a better job, Willy gets fired – “Whenever you can this week, stop by and drop off the samples,” Howard tells him.

Willy again imagines his brother Ben offering him a job “in Alaska.” in a flashback, Ben is off to play American football –“three great universities are begging for him,” he tells Willy. Bernard is allowed to carry Biff’s shoulder guards, and Willy tells Bernard “This is the greatest day of his life.”

Back in the present, Willy visits Charley’s office. It’s obvious he’s an awkward visitor, and the mature Bernard, now a lawyer, has to deal with him. Willy tells Bernard that Biff has a big deal in the offing, but he then admits “From the age of 17 nothing good ever happened to him.” Bernard recalls that Biff “flunked math” at school, and didn’t attend summer school to catch up. Willy realises this is when Biff came to see him for help in Boston. We learn later why this was a turning point for Biff in his relationship with his father. But Willy refuses to take any blame.

We learn that Charley has been giving Willy money, who hasn’t told Linda where he gets it from. Charley tells Willy “you’re a salesman and you don’t know that.” He doesn’t share Willy’s view that everybody needs to be liked to get on. Willy cannot accept Charley’s offer of a job. His pride won’t allow it. But he takes Charley’s money, saying ruefully “you end up worth more dead than alive.” This reference to his life insurance anticipates the end of this act.

Happy is waiting in a restaurant for his father and brother. True to the type that we saw in Act One he picks up a girl, who goes to phone a friend for Biff. He has told her his brother is a professional football player. But Biff is deeply disillusioned by his very brief meeting with Bill Oliver – “...he gave me one look and – I realised what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!” He has stolen Oliver’s gold fountain pen in a pathetic gesture of defiance. Happy advises him to lie about this to Willy.

Willy tells them he was fired, but before Biff can tell him the truth, Willy hears Bernard telling him how Biff “flunked math,” and has set off to Boston to see his dad. The scene where Biff tells him about his disastrous “interview” is intercut with the episode in Boston where Biff discovered his father with another woman. Biff has come, relying on his father for help; he stares “open-mouthed and horrified” at what he finds, especially when he sees the woman with a box of stockings like the ones Linda has. Willy compounds the awfulness by pretending the woman’s room is being painted, and she’s borrowed his bathroom! He calls his father “a phony little fake” and we understand this is why Biff never made up for his “math” failure, and why his career has never recovered.

Back in the present, the two boys have gone off with the girls, and Willy makes his way home, looking for some seeds to buy, a symbolic compensation for his failure to “grow” a family. Linda castigates her sons for leaving their father - “You and your lousy rotten whores!” We hear Willy talking in his head to his brother Ben about the $20,000 he could realise on his life insurance. He even envisages his own funeral, which will be “massive”, he thinks, with guests coming from all over New England.

Willy and Biff have their final climactic argument. Willy refuses to shake Biff’s hand and Biff confronts him with the rubber tube. He also admits he was in jail for 3 months for stealing a suit. Biff insists, to his father’s horror, “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you...Pop I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop.”

Linda sees Biff’s tears as a sign of how much he loves his father. Willy agrees, and it confirms him in his idea of killing himself to realise the insurance policy. “Always loved me. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? Ben, he’ll worship me for it.” The hallucination of his successful brother fuels Willy’s fantasy.

Willy drives off to his death, and we see the other characters preparing for his funeral.

Requiem

It’s the next morning and the mood, at first, is brighter. The boys have gone, and Willy talks of buying some seeds to plant. But Linda warns about various payments still outstanding and that the insurance premium has reached its “grace period”, meaning it is due but they won’t yet be pursued for payment. Willy intends to ask Howard for an “advance” and is to meet the boys at a restaurant that evening. Linda finds that it was Biff who has removed the gas pipe, not Willy as she’d hoped.

We see Willy with Howard, his boss. Howard is distracted by a new recording machine he’s bought, on which he can play back the voices of his children, an example of the new consumerism into which Willy does not fit. It plays back recitations of pointless facts. He appeals to Howard on the basis of loyalty and longevity in the firm. “In those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it.” But instead of getting a better job, Willy gets fired – “Whenever you can this week, stop by and drop off the samples,” Howard tells him.

Willy again imagines his brother Ben offering him a job “in Alaska.” in a flashback, Ben is off to play American football –“three great universities are begging for him,” he tells Willy. Bernard is allowed to carry Biff’s shoulder guards, and Willy tells Bernard “This is the greatest day of his life.”

Back in the present, Willy visits Charley’s office. It’s obvious he’s an awkward visitor, and the mature Bernard, now a lawyer, has to deal with him. Willy tells Bernard that Biff has a big deal in the offing, but he then admits “From the age of 17 nothing good ever happened to him.” Bernard recalls that Biff “flunked math” at school, and didn’t attend summer school to catch up. Willy realises this is when Biff came to see him for help in Boston. We learn later why this was a turning point for Biff in his relationship with his father. But Willy refuses to take any blame.

We learn that Charley has been giving Willy money, who hasn’t told Linda where he gets it from. Charley tells Willy “you’re a salesman and you don’t know that.” He doesn’t share Willy’s view that everybody needs to be liked to get on. Willy cannot accept Charley’s offer of a job. His pride won’t allow it. But he takes Charley’s money, saying ruefully “you end up worth more dead than alive.” This reference to his life insurance anticipates the end of this act.

Happy is waiting in a restaurant for his father and brother. True to the type that we saw in Act One he picks up a girl, who goes to phone a friend for Biff. He has told her his brother is a professional football player. But Biff is deeply disillusioned by his very brief meeting with Bill Oliver – “...he gave me one look and – I realised what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!” He has stolen Oliver’s gold fountain pen in a pathetic gesture of defiance. Happy advises him to lie about this to Willy.

Willy tells them he was fired, but before Biff can tell him the truth, Willy hears Bernard telling him how Biff “flunked math,” and has set off to Boston to see his dad. The scene where Biff tells him about his disastrous “interview” is intercut with the episode in Boston where Biff discovered his father with another woman. Biff has come, relying on his father for help; he stares “open-mouthed and horrified” at what he finds, especially when he sees the woman with a box of stockings like the ones Linda has. Willy compounds the awfulness by pretending the woman’s room is being painted, and she’s borrowed his bathroom! He calls his father “a phony little fake” and we understand this is why Biff never made up for his “math” failure, and why his career has never recovered.

Back in the present, the two boys have gone off with the girls, and Willy makes his way home, looking for some seeds to buy, a symbolic compensation for his failure to “grow” a family. Linda castigates her sons for leaving their father - “You and your lousy rotten whores!” We hear Willy talking in his head to his brother Ben about the $20,000 he could realise on his life insurance. He even envisages his own funeral, which will be “massive”, he thinks, with guests coming from all over New England.

Willy and Biff have their final climactic argument. Willy refuses to shake Biff’s hand and Biff confronts him with the rubber tube. He also admits he was in jail for 3 months for stealing a suit. Biff insists, to his father’s horror, “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you...Pop I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop.”

Linda sees Biff’s tears as a sign of how much he loves his father. Willy agrees, and it confirms him in his idea of killing himself to realise the insurance policy. “Always loved me. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? Ben, he’ll worship me for it.” The hallucination of his successful brother fuels Willy’s fantasy.

Willy drives off to his death, and we see the other characters preparing for his funeral.