Textual storyboarding Death of a Salesman – a vital skill for actors and theatre directors

Six reasons for storyboarding a play:

Textual storyboarding involves dividing the dramatic text into beats of action:

  • Manageability: participants often see a wall of text, or a sea of arbitrary scenes and acts. Storyboarding a script into components of action provides a much-needed sense of manageability.
  • Juxtaposition: changes in action often demand a change of colour and tempo. Without the slightest regard to a play’s chapters is to risk monotony. Designating components of action can be a way to observe contrast and juxtaposition in the text.
  • Focus: storyboarding textual components enables meaning to be focussed in a way that allows the micro-elements to complement the macro.
  • Action: textual storyboarding, perhaps above all, is about joining meaningful episodes of action together.
  • Identification: the arbitrariness of, for example, act I, sc iii means little to actors other than a rigid or abstract division. Naming each division provides a visual and physical code to the text.
  • Investment: it is essential that participants invest in the story of each component of action. Collaboratively naming each physical and visual episode greatly focuses participants on what the scene is really about. This can go a long way in shaping the entire look of a scene or play, and saves a lot of time in rehearsal.

From storyboarding components of action and aptly naming them, one develops not only a physical picture of each scene; but is directed into the deeper layers of character and conflict, enabling one to challenge binary perspectives and stereotypical treatments of dramatic texts, and to more incisively explore the complexity that lies beyond simple hero/villain polarisations.

Death of a Salesman:

Act One:

Let’s read the first part of the play. I would draw the first component of action at Linda’s departure, after she takes Willy’s jacket. Arthur Miller makes the distinction of action in this play quite straightforward.

I have named the first textual component Swiss Cheese. This is a strong image taken from the scene. What do we know about Swiss cheese – it has holes!

  • The family unit has holes (the ratio of chairs to family members).
  • The image of the workingman has holes, and the all-American worker, at that.
  • The image of Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, is full of holes.
  • The image of the competent husband is full of holes: ‘It’s all right. I came back’, suggests an air of expectation that he may not have done.
  • The image of prosperous post-war America is in holes (look at the sparsely filled house and the man’s sense of exhaustion).
  • Willy’s façade as a man with a contention, as a man with purpose is in holes. He often contradicts himself: ‘There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.’ This also applies to his authority and his hypocrisy as a man: he chooses Swiss cheese over American, in ‘the greatest country in the world.’
  • Holes signify the emptiness in Willy’s life and/or the emptiness of the American Dream as suggested by the playwright. There is also a link to the holes in Linda’s stockings.
  • Swiss cheese is harder than American cheese, an idea linked to the hardness of Willy defined by his reluctance to change.

These are signposts for greater holes, character flaws, and conflicts. Swiss cheese is a memorable, concrete image that introduces us to the play’s central problem of illusion.

Simonizing is a term Willy uses on a regular basis. It means to polish a car with wax. If you look at the scene, this is what all three are doing, metaphorically. After expressing concern about Willy’s eyesight they leave the discussion with Happy’s: ‘…he’s got the finest eye for colour in the business.’ In so doing they gloss over a very important detail about the degeneration of their father.

After conveying disgust at the idea of working indoors for someone in shipping, sales, or business, Biff concludes the scene with the idea of seeing Bill Oliver – a wealthy businessman. He glosses over his contempt for a system that his father ostensibly champions, in order to progress with the dream, however genuine, of owning a ranch. One feels that this dream is more of a desperate alternative to the life that Willy has led. The idea here is that by addressing the surface, gaining $10000, Biff feels that his problems will be solved.

Happy, though less conscious than Biff, and more settled according to the values of post-war America and those of workingman Willy, nonetheless expresses self-disgust at his lifestyle and those in his employ who sit above him. He is, in many ways, the product of a consumer society that we see today: he has money, and a surface respectability, but his soul is questionable. He takes his frustration out on women, consuming them in a manner he hopes will fill the void. He is repulsed by, yet reveres his job, and cannot leave it until he shows ‘those pompous, self-important executives that [he] can make the grade.’ In this respect, he shows deep concern for how he is perceived in a masculine business environment. His focus lies on the surface. In many ways Happy is the ultimate simonized human: all surface, all show, and very little substance. He typifies many of the automobiles of the 1950s and 1960s: all chrome, not much engineering, and faux sophistication.

Willy is interesting in this scene, and it is perhaps forgivable to overlook his contribution as the ramblings of a tired man. However, his continued reference to the red Chevvy that Biff simonized to the point of deceiving the car dealer is perhaps the quintessential image of the play. In this respect, Willy is also simonizing the past. His other contributions to the scene: ‘You gonna wash the engine, Biff?’ and ‘Don’t get your sweater dirty, Biff!’ also suggest an obsession with the superficial, and the importance of maintaining image, appearance and status. Moreover, it brings to mind Willy’s aspirational crisis, and his misguided belief concerning wealth and material success. Such laser-guided storyboarding of textual components can direct participants into a richer understanding of action and meaning. This particular component of action ends when the light on the boys’ room fades and the focus returns to Willy in the kitchen.

In the third scene, up to the advent of Bernard, Willy is intoxicated on images of masculine health and virility, harmony, and promise from the past. In this fantastical springtime fantasy Willy is impressed by the fact that Biff, his finest, is attracting female attention. It allows him to pontificate with unchecked fatherly authority on the subject of women, the correct simonizing technique, manual physical chores, sports such as boxing, the nature of people, the qualities needed for success, American towns and cities, and the world in general. In this reality, Willy is adored and elevated: his sons dance about vying for his attention, hanging on his every word. His boasts are devoured with awe and relish. He is a god who, in a bid to trump Happy’s positive reference to ascendant Uncle Charley, recounts a meeting with the Mayor of Providence. It is an exaggerated memory of invincibility, the apex of which is the image of father and son united in a kiss. It comes before the calamity, before the fall of his virile and popular football-playing son, before the irreparable schism. It is the feeling one gets at the early point of an alcohol-fuelled evening, before reality sinks in, before the embarrassing truth is exposed and, in many cases, before the physical collapse. It is a visage accessed through Beer Goggles, in which everything is totally awesome, and life is a fun game.

The Hangover is Bernard’s entry and his tugging on the arm of the ecstatic dreamer. His presence signals the foothold that reality must eventually gain against such inebriation. Young Biff and Bernard could not be more contrasted: the former is physical, sporty, confident, manipulative, and popular; the latter is earnest and worried, and associated with a vigilant study ethic and a penchant for math. In Biff we are presented with the mistake of youth: unchecked, irresponsible, and peaking too early; while Bernard’s growing presence in the scene reflects an approach to life that honours the long game, hanging in despite the ridicule he receives from the Loman males.

Willy’s wife, Linda, enters, and for a time completes the false sense of perfection in Death of a Salesman. Upon turning the conversation to the pragmatism of earning a living, however, Willy’s façade begins to peel away from the surface: from ‘sellin’ thousands and thousands’ Linda is able to whittle down his fabrications to a mere ‘seventy dollars and some pennies.’ Compounding the problem is the reality of how far seventy dollars and some pennies will last: after expenses for the refrigerator, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, roof, and the carburettor there is seventeen dollars and fifty cents remaining.

Perhaps the quintessential image of transition between fantasy and reality relates to the Chevrolet, superficially potent in red, paradigm of American post-war productivity and energy, symbol of the Dream. After praising it as the ‘greatest car ever built’ Willy, a mere two pages later, condemns ‘That goddam Chevrolet’, declaring a desire to prohibit its manufacture. Willy’s economic reality leads to serious introspection and guilt. He starts to question himself in manner and appearance. He is emasculated. He compares himself unfavourably to friend and neighbour, Charley. The hangover is upon him. Wife, Linda, boosts him as a man, bringing forth the memory of The Woman and his Boston transgression, and eventually – with the association of the stockings – his shame and guilt. Reality closes in on Willy upon Bernard’s return: an exasperated presence that signals the prospect of failure in his great hope, Biff. The scene climaxes in an explosion of denial from Willy, resulting in Linda’s devastated exit.

Death of a Salesman
Fertility is a key idea in Death of a Salesman…

Act Two:

The heartrending climax to Death of a Salesman is memorable for the catharsis that it brings, from ‘Where the hell is that seed?’ to ‘That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent.’ Biff and Willy’s relationship is linked to seeds, fertility, and Willy’s inability to grow his vegetable garden and his vision of life. The fertility metaphor reinforces the significant role that geography and non-verbal action play in the life of a dramatic text. In this scene Willy moves from the darkness of his yard to the light of the meals area indoors. He is moved from an old vision to a new insight. His son, Biff, loves him, and the fertility aspect is sustained with the idea that Willy really did plant something successful – Biff.

Through Biff, the seed, the family is doing something that it has never done before. He is the catalyst for growth, future, change and truth. Biff’s final line in the component of action (‘Put him – put him to bed’) is telling in that it transposes father and son, adult and child: the son now growing, the father diminishing – letting go of the pain. Importantly, Biff’s final line in the play, ‘Let’s go, Mom’ is future orientated, suggestive of imminent progress. The blockage is removed and there are signs that the organism will move into the next zone of experience. In this respect the opening line to this component of action is also ironic: ‘Where the hell is that seed?’

He was right beside Willy all along.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2014 All Rights Reserved