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Notes from the Undergrad: Reviving Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”

By Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Williams is an English and Plan I Honors student in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the class, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Williams shares his experience in the class.

 

About 65 years after its publication, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman remains one of the most recognizable pieces of American theater, telling the tragedy of Willy Loman as he falls from success and brings down his family with him. With almost seven decades of performances, what new effects can this play have on audiences, besides the ever-relative commentaries on capitalism? This question is what brought me to the archive at the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Many critics of the play comment on the patriarchal, abusive, and detrimental behaviors of Willy that bring down those around him and take away authority from characters that could rise above the play and stand up for themselves—specifically the play’s women. Not only are there very few women in the play, critics say, they are completely steamrolled by Willy’s selfishness and lack of respect. They characterize Linda as a slipper-bearing doormat who is only defined by domesticity, obedience, and a lack of self-respect. However, Miller’s stage directions and subtly in Linda’s lines, combined with the material available in the archive, reveal that she is not merely a plot device, but a wife and a mother who is fighting against the inevitable. Her character is defined by the psychology of caretaking—finding optimism in the darkest of situations and protecting the falling loved one from any form of hurt.

 

In the Ransom Center’s Stella Adler collection, there is a compilation of papers from her acting classes on Death of a Salesman. In one of her drafts of an introduction to a class, she laments the lack of respect paid toward Linda, wishing there were more scenes for the character because she is diverse and complex, but the text, as it is, leaves it up to the actress to add these extra layers. She teaches her actors that Linda’s overarching story is one that goes beyond the pages of the play and that she is a caring individual who has given up everything for herself to protect her family. Moreover, Miller himself, as expressed through his autobiography available at the Ransom Center, stands up for Linda and actresses playing her. He explains that Linda is a fighter who is able to keep the household running by herself while at the same time a strong caretaker offering her love and protection even in the darkest of situations.

 

Exploring the material available in the Arthur Miller collection and others at the Ransom Center was an absolute dream come true. It may seem nerdy, but the chance to analyze and inspect original documents and manuscripts has always been on my academic bucket list. There is so much to learn not just about a work from its archive, but also about all the things surrounding it, including biographical information, history, and correlations to other texts and archives. While it can seem overwhelming at times, archival work is truly rewarding, and the Ransom Center offers the perfect opportunity to experience such rewards.

 

Related content:

Drama in the Archives: Fall 2014 humanities class fosters undergraduate research

 

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From the Outside In: Typescript of "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller, ca. 1948

By Edgar Walters

Typescript of "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, ca. 1948.
Typescript of "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, ca. 1948.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

Etched into the windows of the Ransom Center is an image of one of Arthur Miller’s typescripts for the play Death of a Salesman. The excerpt depicted is between the title character, Willy Loman, and his wife, Linda, in the opening scene of the second act. Large scratch-outs zigzag through whole paragraphs, arrows rearrange the words, and new lines have been handwritten into place. The first lines discuss the couple’s dreamy expectations for a brighter future soon to come—a business loan his son might be given, a new house in the country, and an office job in the city so Willy can stop traveling. But Linda’s reminder “to ask [Willy’s boss] for a little advance” in the last lines “because we’ve got the insurance premium” exposes the discrepancy between their dreams and a reality in which they are barely getting by. The passage encapsulates the play’s central theme that valuing oneself in terms of the American dream is a setup for failure.

Although Death of a Salesman was not Miller’s first successful play, it was the play that established him as a great American playwright. Miller wrote the play in the spring of 1947, within a small studio he built himself next to his Connecticut farmhouse. The writing flowed easily for Miller, who finished the first half of the play in one day and night, and the second half in the next six weeks. According to his biographer Christopher Bigsby, Miller wanted “to take the audience on an internal journey through the mind, memories, fears, anxieties of his central character.” Rather than adhering to earlier playwrights’ conventions, Miller gave the play a radical structure in which the past and the present coexist, and where walls can sometimes be stepped through. The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, and was met with critical acclaim, winning Miller numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. The play has remained popular and has since been produced into films, translated, performed internationally, and revived on Broadway. Playwright Tony Kushner, while discussing the continuing importance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, has stated, “Willy is part of our mythology now.”

This typescript represents one of several papers within the Arthur Miller archive held at the Ransom Center, which includes the manuscripts of 34 different works, dated from 1935 to1953. Viewing Miller’s early notebooks and seeing how his works took shape gives one a more intimate understanding of the playwright who represented his generation so well by writing about the dreams and tragedies of his era. A leading scholar of Arthur Miller’s work and life—Christopher Bigsby, Professor of American Studies and Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia—benefited from studying these papers. Regarding his 30 years of research in the archive, Bigsby has stated, “The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence… it has had a hand in a new Renaissance.”

Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.