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How Successful Is Act 1 of Death of a Salesman as an Exposition?

Death of a Salesman poster epitomising the loneliness of the protagonist and the single solution is believes there is to his predicament.
Death of a Salesman poster epitomising the loneliness of the protagonist and the single solution is believes there is to his predicament. | Source

Act 1 of Death of a Salesman is evidently successful as an exposition, because it establishes the setting and atmosphere of the drama, as well as giving an insight into the tension between Willy Loman’s dysfunctional family and his relationship with his son Biff.

The exposition begins with a detailed stage design that establishes the setting and furthermore with the use of lighting and music, an atmosphere is created. Even before the curtain rises, ‘a melody is heard, played upon a flute’, which sets a melancholy mood and is a symbol of Willy’s fruitless search of the American Dream. The ‘American Dream’ depicts America as a land of opportunity and freedom for everyone. Willy’s abode is where much of the play’s action is taken place and represents his hope for the future, however ‘we see a solid vault of apartment houses’ towering over it, which portrays the evidence against Willy being promised the outcomes of the American Dream.

A photograph from the play The Death of a Salesman illustrating the dysfunctional Loman family and the tension within the main characters. The inability to reconcile the corrupt relationship catalyses the fatal and tragic ending of the play.
A photograph from the play The Death of a Salesman illustrating the dysfunctional Loman family and the tension within the main characters. The inability to reconcile the corrupt relationship catalyses the fatal and tragic ending of the play. | Source

Willy Loman, an everyday man is the tragic hero, as he spirals downwards due to his insecurity. He lives in his own world of delusion, where he believes he’s ‘vital in New England’. However, he sporadically cannot sustain his false image of strength as he pleads to Ben, ‘What’s the answer? How did you do it?’ revealing clearly his longing for guidance. Willy’s dream of ‘being well liked and popular’ was nothing more than an illusion to support his belief in the American Dream and the opportunities that anyone good-looking and admired could be successful. Willy is provided with an escape from the harsh reality through Arthur Miller’s use of mobile concurrency, which is the past reliving simultaneously in the present moment. Subsequently, it appropriately delivers the audience the background information needed to understand the reasons behind Willy’s character and his relationship with his son Biff.

The audience wonders if the tense relationship between Willy and his son Biff is the cause of Biff’s failure. Willy’s attitude towards his son is not evidently clear, as on one hand he is incapable of developing respect for his son’s work on the ranch, but on the other hand, his deep desire for success makes him feel compelled to motivate his son. But Willy has been a bad influence on Biff since the ‘good old times’, he didn’t encourage Biff to study in school and let him get away with anything. But Biff regarded Willy, as an example to look up to, so when he discovers the affair his father is having with another woman, he loses respect for him and realizes his father is a disloyal husband and a liar. This is the defining moment that ruins Biff entire life and the possibility of a successful father-son relationship. When Willy comprehends that his son is heading towards failure, like himself, he tries to believe Biff is in possession of the necessary traits to be successful in the business world. But he is terribly mistaken and only fooling himself with this illusion.

Willy Loman is a tragic individual and not merely a fool. His inability to realise his fatal flaw results in his unfortunate death. Arthur Miller in his play emphasises this tragic nature by illustrating Willy as a universal Everyman figure.
Willy Loman is a tragic individual and not merely a fool. His inability to realise his fatal flaw results in his unfortunate death. Arthur Miller in his play emphasises this tragic nature by illustrating Willy as a universal Everyman figure. | Source

Taken together, the use of a detailed stage design combined with an everyman tragic hero, Willy, and his tense relationship with his son, Biff, as well as the use of mobile concurrency, leaves the audience informed about the setting and background information, which will help them comprehend the upcoming events to occur in the main plot. Furthermore, Act 1 of Death of a Salesman is unmistakably successful as an exposition as the audience can relate to the tragic hero and are enticed to find out what lays ahead for him.

Death of a Salesman Act 1

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© 2016 Billy Zhang

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