As I considered second semester with my seniors, I knew I wanted to work in a piece of drama. I looked at my options, considering my clientele: mainly boys, unliterary by attitude and choice, rough around the edges, but good natured and goofy. What came to my mind? Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Why? Even I wasn’t sure. This play is challenging to say the least, entirely serious, and focused on the plight of a man the age of many of my student’s grandfathers. It seemed like a potentially disastrous choice. Still, having read the play as a teenager and using it as a set/costume design case study in a college theatrical design class, I thought I might be able to translate my own deep admiration for this show. One of my colleagues called me “very brave” for attempting Salesman with my kids, another said, “I think they might really relate to it.” I forged ahead.
In my preparations, I came across a fantastic (yet further intimidating) column by Shannon Reed from Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, wittily entitled “Miller Time: Teaching ‘Death of a Salesman.’“ The first paragraph made me smile while second guessing my choice: “Teachers of America, before you teach Arthur Miller’s classic, you should know… your students will not understand this play. If you have any choice in the matter — any choice at all — you should choose The Crucible.” Reed goes on to give her tips for teachers who decide to attempt it despite the inital warning. Among these: “Of course, nothing’s all right in this family, nothing much at all. Your students are going to understand what’s happening so much more if you take the time to explain this to them before you begin. Arthur Miller doesn’t have time to show you a lifetime of lies and secrets in the Loman family, so he relies on innuendo, references and flashbacks. These work together to help us understand just how ordinary, and how deeply troubled, this family is.” That really hit home, and rebolstered my desire to teach this play–because we’ve all had to navigate the tricky web of human relationships, whether we’re literary or not. We’ve all found trouble at home at some point. How we deal with it can make our lives what they are, and that struggle is so evident and fresh in the Loman household. I was confident that my kids could relate, even from half a century after Willy Loman’s time.
I started out, as Reed suggests in her column, teaching my students about Miller’s structure–how time bleeds from present to flashback to hallucination and back. I also straight out told them that Death of a Salesman is about, as I put it, “broken things.” A broken home, a broken mind, a broken man. Part of our job as readers, I told them, is to figure out when, why, and how these things began to break. It seemed simple enough. So we began. We read every day in class, with students reading and acting parts in front of the class, complete with blocking. Immediately, they were fascinated and puzzled by Willy. “This guy’s just completely crazy!” they cried. “He’s just babbling nonsense.” Willy is, indeed, crazy. But, as I reminded my students, his craziness has a sorrowful logic to it, one that takes the whole play to unravel.
I found myself thanking fate for the goofy, outgoing personalities in the room, because they made strong readers and actors. Somehow, a seriousness and concentration came over them when they stood up to play a role (which they liked to do, since there was often an opportunity to scream out “goddamnit!”). As very true-feeling interactions played out between husband and wife, father and sons, and the two brothers, I saw eyes perking up. They may not have grasped the meaning of words like “saccharine”, but my students had seen these characters before… And they (as well as I) could ably relate to the ideas of financial uncertaintly and identity searching.
We did all kinds of things to build understanding of the text in addition to reading and discussion. Students did inferencing about what makes the characters’ relationships tick, identified the dreams and delusions of characters, had debates over the most crucial lines in an act, and practiced making predictions based on knowledge of characters. As their skills grew, I gave more demanding workshops: relating the idea of the American Dream to the modern economic situation and social justice issues; explaining the play as an example of Greek tragedy and detailing Willy’s traits as a classical tragic hero; creating a symbolic road map for Willy that visually displayed understanding of the motif of Willy’s vehicle/the road; psychoanalyzing Willy to find the triggers for his episodes; and comparatively analyzing the play alongside the song “All Time Low” by Middle Class Rut. I made these kids work hard. But they kept coming back for more. Students were bringing me poems they had written in their spare time about the death of the American Dream. Arthur Miller, you reach out and touch us still.
For our final project, each student wrote a eulogy for Willy, either in the voice of a character or as themselves. On the last day of the unit, my class assembled in somber black, with a portrait of Willy displayed in the front of the classroom, and delivered their eulogies at a mock funeral (complete with doughnuts supplied by me in honor of their participation in such a strange English class). Creepy? Perhaps. Cool? Very. Frankly, I was blown away at the writing produced–my students said what they had to say with grace. And though the eulogies were for a fictional character, I could hear echoes of real emotions coming through. It was one of those sacred moments where literature became real, and we all were part of it, if only for fifty minutes.
I had the great fortune to follow up our unit with a class field trip to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to see their outstanding rendition of the show, with Lee E. Ernst as a dynamic Willy. As I pondered the show, I was confronted anew with what a truly difficult piece this is… difficult to act, difficult to understand, difficult to grapple with. As I watched my students in the dark, hands thoughtfully as their mouths, I could only shrug in admiration. I’m thankful for this special text, the heart of which took years to fully creep up and surprise me. Teachers, have no fear of tackling Death of a Salesman–with the right approach, it’s definitely still Miller time.