Currently Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I don’t have a lot of experience reading plays.
The last play I read – which I honestly didn’t even get through in its entirety – was Doctor Faustus for my British literature class. Before that, it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in my senior year of high school. Not only has it been a while, but I’m pretty sure this is close to the extent of my list. The only other plays I can remember reading are The Importance of Being Earnest and Streetcar Named Desire. Again, my experience is pretty limited.
Well, there’s one rather significant clause to that statement.
I don’t have a lot of experience reading non-Shakespearean plays.
When it came to Shakespeare, I just couldn’t seem to get enough. Although I had been exposed to his work in high school, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I became addicted. My professor for my Introduction to Shakespeare class was amazing and she ignited a passion in me for the Bard’s work that has ultimately led to me where I am today (it’s pretty unusual to work at the Folger Shakespeare Library and not be a fan). I took every Shakespeare course offered regularly, a senior seminar just on Othello, and when this didn’t satiate my appetite, I designed an independent study for myself in which I was allowed the opportunity to read every play I hadn’t read in his body of work and discuss them in weekly, one-on-one sessions with my professor. Best class ever? I think yes!
My point is my exposure to reading plays has been almost exclusively Shakespearean.
I didn’t realize it, but this has very much affected my expectations for what the text of a play will include. However, this became instantly clear to me when I picked up Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
To be clear, I never expected every play to have the same language found in Shakespeare plays; I understand that aren’t written in the Early Modern era are not going to have early modern language (give me some credit). Instead, what took me aback from the first lines of Death of Salesman is the complexity, not of the lines, but of what comes in between the lines.
I’ve gotten so used to reading plays with Shakespeare’s famous minimalist approach to stage directions and setting descriptions that I forgot that isn’t the standard. Frankly, I was pretty annoyed with the detail in Miller’s directions and descriptions. While I’m sure the details made it easier to make Miller’s imagined world a reality, his writing felt much more restrictive. By limiting his stage directions and scene settings to things like “exits” or “Street in Verona,” Shakespeare allows his actors and directors much more freedom and opportunity for creativity; they aren’t limited with who they can cast or how the set must be designed or how a line must be said.
Admittedly, the minimalist approach may not have always been a choice. Shakespeare was much more limited in what he could do given the technological parameters of the stage for which he wrote. It was kind of fun to see the things Miller could do with the numerous lighting and sound options available to him, like creating simultaneous scenes in the past and present or using a particular song to associate with a character in his youth versus in adulthood. All these complex time shifts in and out of the past are probably only possible with detailed stage directions and perhaps if Shakespeare had access to the lights and sounds to do it, he would have also made his directions more specific.
Aside from these Shakespeare-lover biases, the play itself was rather interesting. It’s a sad look at the life of a poor salesman, Willy Loman, who has worked himself to the bone his whole life only to be screwed over by his company in the end. It shows how he’s become estranged from his sons and is a bleak look at what happens when he can’t let go of his delusional hopes from them. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the story would be sad, given that the title tells you that the main character will die, but what did surprise me was that I actually felt sad. For most of the play, I was thoroughly irritated with Willy Loman. I was frustrated with how stupidly he lived his life, how he wouldn’t listen to his sons, and how he was literally living in the past – through flashbacks. Yet, in the end, when he was gone, I found myself moved in spite of my dislike for him.
I’d very much like to see a performance of this now that I’ve read it as I’m sure it’s much easier to understand the time shifts when they are acted out and I would hope that an actor would be able to evoke the sympathetic qualities in Willy Loman that I couldn’t find until the end.