The Death of a Salesman: What’s in a name?

Death of a Salesman: what's in a name blog

I am not sure about you, but I  am constantly curious about how plays get their titles, as some appear to be quite random; think of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or A Streetcar Named Desire or Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano.

Have your students ever asked you why Miller called his play ‘Death of a Salesman’?

If they have, it’s a good question, and certainly worth exploring in a lesson.

We know that Miller’s original title for the play was ‘The Inside of his Head’.

1) Ask your students to consider why this title might have been appropriate.

They might come up with some of the following ideas:

  • to reflect the amount of the action that actually takes place in Willy’s mind, rather than in ‘real life’ or ‘real time’
  • to suggest that the inside of Willy’s head is like a ‘parallel universe’ to the one inhabited by the rest of his family and that Willy ‘sees things’ differently from them
  • to suggest that the contents of ‘the inside’ of Willy’s head – his mind- could be the subject of psychological analysis

All of these suggestions could feed into a  productive discussion about the play, its structure and meaning.

But Miller changed his original title to Death of a Salesman.

2) Consider and discuss the impersonal aspects of both of the titles:

  • The Inside of his Head – but whose head, exactly??
  • Death of a Salesman – but which salesman, exactly?

You could think about:

  • What is the impact of the word ‘death’ in the play’s ‘new’ title:
  • Does the word ‘death’ help Miller to signal that this is, in fact, a tragic play, in a way that the earlier title didn’t?
  • Does the reference to ‘a Salesman’ lead you expect a play that is largely concerned with selling goods; in other words, not a play about ‘humanity’ but about financial transactions?

3) Why did Miller focus on ‘the salesman’ aspect of Willy, who is the play’s protagonist (whatever its title).

You might ask your students to consider all of the different roles in Willy’s fictional ‘life’ that Miller depicts Willy Loman fulfilling.

They may be surprised to have to reach the conclusion that Miller never shows Willy Loman, on stage, being a salesman. Miller only shows Willy reminiscing about his work as a travelling salesman, about his popularity with buyers or about how much he earned ‘in the good old days’.

We see Willy first as a husband, returning home late at night after a troubling ‘incident’ on the road. Miller shows an exhausted, sixty year old man whose wife fears that he is simply getting too old and ‘distracted’ to continue as a  ‘travelling’ salesman.

Then we see him as a father to his two grown-up sons.

We see him as a grumpy and resentful neighbour to Charlie.

In the sequences that take place ‘inside his head’, we see Willy as a younger hero-worshipping brother to Ben, the adventurer and risk-taker that he wishes he had emulated.

We see him as an affectionate father to his younger sons and something of a teasing, ‘Uncle’ figure (although some might describe him as ‘bully’) to Charley’s son, Bernard.

Later, also in his head,  we see Willy as a ‘lover’, with his mistress, in a role that somewhat diminishes him, in the eyes of the audience as well as of Biff.

In Act 2, in ‘real’ time, Miller shows him as a desperate employee of Howard Wagner, begging to be kept on at the firm where he has been employed as a salesman for forty years, now reduced to being paid on ‘commission only’ and clearly not able to survive on what he can earn through his dwindling sales.

We also see him as a customer at ‘Frank’s Chop House’ where he is abandoned by his grown-up sons in the restaurant washroom and finally relives the moment, inside his head, when Biff discovers his father’s infidelity and calls him a ‘phoney little fake’ destroying his illusions and  ending forever the father/son relationship between him and Biff that had been the mainstay of his ‘existence’ up to this point

All of this leads to the question:

Why does Miller choose to call the play, Death of a Salesman rather than ‘Death of a Husband’ or of a Father/Brother/Neighbour/Lover?

That would make a useful written assignment title to set your students after these class discussions.

Alternatively, your students could suggest their own title for the play. You might find that their ideas demonstrate that they have tuned in to the deeper meanings of the play more sensitively than you previously thought!

Death of Salesman by Arthur Miller

Oxford Playscripts: Death of A Salesman. With the clearest and most accessible design, together with supporting activities, biography and contextual information targeting exactly the right level, this edition provides comprehensive, relevant and engaging support for students.