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Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman


by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman Act One Summary

  • Let’s pretend we’re watching this play. We see a nice little two-bedroom house, probably only one bathroom, but that’s OK.
  • We hear some nice flute-like music and feel like we’re entering Fantasia.
  • Yet instead of dancing hippos, Willy Loman, an old, worn-out salesman, enters. He’s talking to himself, and this just can’t be good.
  • Willy’s back from a trip and carrying some bags. It’s late at night, and he definitely should be in bed.
  • Inside, Linda, Willy’s wife, is surprised to see him—he is supposed to be gone for several days on a business trip.
  • Her husband explains that he kept forgetting he was driving (scary). Since his mind was totally not on the road (and frequently his car wasn’t either), he headed home.
  • Linda, ignoring the fact that Willy has been talking with imaginary people and driving off roads, recommends that he ask his boss to transfer him to a local office job.

(Click the summary infographic to download.)

  • Willy insists that he’s vital as a traveling salesman, but eventually agrees. He’s sure that his boss, Howard, loves him enough to give him the local NY gig.
  • Willy and Linda chat about their grown sons, Biff and Happy, who happen to be sleeping upstairs.
  • Biff has just come home from the West, where he was working as a farmhand.
  • Willy is mad at Biff. The father-and-son duo had yet another fight that morning, primarily because Willy can’t handle the fact that his 34-year-old son isn’t able to hold down a real job, you know, the kind with suits and fluorescent lights.
  • He concludes that Biff must be lazy.
  • Willy then declares his son is hard-working hot stuff (notice how he changed his mind about the lazy part?). He can’t understand why, in the greatest country ever (a.k.a. America), his son can’t get his life together. Clearly (to Willy), Biff is wasting his life in order to spite his old man.

(Click the summary infographic to download.)

  • Willy reminisces, in a rather sad and I-want-to-live-through-you-vicariously kind of way, about what a hotshot Biff was in high school.
  • Willy and Linda get to bickering about cheese and population growth (no, we weren’t aware of any correlation between the two either).
  • Biff and Happy are now awake (upstairs) listening to their dad’s odd mutterings. They’re worried about his sanity. We are, too.
  • The brothers have a heart-to-heart conversation complete with reminiscing about their past. Biff, the sensitive one, tells Happy (the happy one?) that he’s upset about his fight with their dad.
  • Happy thinks Willy is anxious about Biff’s aimlessness; he wants the low-down on what Biff is doing with his life.
  • Biff tells his brother that he’s unhappy, hates the competitive world of business, and thinks farm work is better. (He likes acting strong and being shirtless, which he just can’t do in an office.)
  • AND YET—he can’t keep even a farming job. This guy is having a serious internal battle.
  • Happy’s name turns out not to fit him at all. He’s lonely despite having a decent job and endless women at his disposal.
  • Biff and Happy fantasize about moving to the West together and being real men with a ranch and cattle and sweating in the sun while working with their hands.
  • Biff seems ready to head for a ranch, but Happy won’t let go of his pursuit of wealth.
  • Like so many other brothers, these two start chatting about ladies. Both want to settle down with someone, but Happy is a player and can’t stick to one woman. He’s super-competitive and chases his friends’ girls just for fun.
  • Since the ranch idea is not working out, Biff says he’ll talk to this guy he used to work for named Bill Oliver. Biff was a salesman in Oliver’s sporting goods business way back when and thinks he made a good impression. He’s hoping Oliver will give him a loan so that he and Happy can start a business together.
  • Happy thinks this is the best idea ever. With big dreams in mind, the brothers go back to sleep.
  • Cut to downstairs, where Willy is still chatting with imaginary people.
  • In his head, Willy relives the high school days of his sons.
  • Said high school days go something like this:
  • Biff and Happy are washing their dad’s car, hoping to impress him.
  • The macho boys and their dad sit around and talk about how much everybody loves them and how popular they are.
  • Biff says he’s "borrowed" (clearly stole) a football in order to practice his game (he’s a football star and also, it would seem, a kleptomaniac). Laughing, Willy tells him he should return it (good parenting move). But neither father nor son takes the stealing seriously.
  • The father starts going off about how great America is and how everyone busts out the red carpet in the New England towns where he travels for business.
  • He’s bragging and overdoing it here.
  • Still in the flashback, Linda enters with some laundry, which Willy makes the boys help her with. Biff gets his gang of fawning friends to help out, too.
  • Willy hasn’t had enough of bragging about himself yet, so he starts telling his wife about how "well liked" he is and how he made a killing on his recent trip.
  • Willy, who actually made $70 in commissions, tells Linda it was $212.
  • Sadly, when they add up the math, Linda finds that, even with the self-delusion and imaginary income, they’re still in debt.
  • In a sudden (rare) moment of accurate self-reflection, Willy says people just don’t like him very muchbut he blames his failure on being ugly and fat.
  • Linda assures him that everything will be fine.
  • No, wait, this is a flashback. We already know that "fine" never comes to pass.
  • Now Willy’s mind flashes to a woman who is not Linda by any stretch of the imagination.
  • The woman is putting her clothes on amid some sexually suggestive jokes.
  • Willy has given her some stockings (remember these stockings for a little while longer).
  • Back to the other flashback (with his wife and the boys and the laundry). Willy promises to make everything up to Linda.
  • Linda acts like a loving angel, obviously unaware that her husband is cheating on her.
  • Willy notices Linda mending her stocking. She responds that new ones are too expensive to buy (apparently too expensive to buy for wives, but not for mistresses).
  • Willy is thinking along the same lines as we are, and guiltily snaps at Linda, telling her not to mend the stockings in front of him.
  • We then get another flashback to the time when Biff is in high school. (If you’re a little confused at all of these flashbacks, just imagine how Willy is feeling.)
  • Bernard, the son of Willy’s neighbor Charley, comes running in, shouting that Biff is going to fail math.
  • Being the model parent that he is, Willy tells Bernard to give Biff the answers to the test and get lost.
  • Linda is worried about her son failing math, but her husband brushes off her concern with assurances that Biff’s charm will carry him through.
  • So that was a crazy trip, and now we’re back to real time.
  • Willy snaps out of his daydream and finds Happy.
  • Willy’s thinking is disjointed. He’s now complaining about how he was an idiot not to go to Alaska with his brother, Ben, when he was a young man. Ben apparently got rich on his adventures.
  • Happy is unable to help his hallucinating father.
  • Charley, the neighbor, comes into the kitchen. He’s heard noises and wants to make sure everything’s OK (remember, it’s still late at night).
  • Charley knows Willy’s financial situation and kindly offers Willy a job. Offended, Willy says he already has a job (big mistake).
  • Charley advises Willy to stop putting so much pressure on Biff. Offended again (as usual), Willy tells Charley to screw off.
  • Ben enters the stage (not the real Ben, though—this is an imaginary Ben that Charley can’t see).
  • Willy talks aloud with imaginary Ben. Charley, still sitting in the kitchen, has no idea what’s going on (and is in all likelihood thinking of retracting the job offer).
  • Now Willy converses with the imaginary Ben and the real Charley at the same time.
  • He informs Charley that Ben recently died.
  • Back in Willy’s mind, Ben is rushing out the door to catch a train. He repeatedly urges Willy to go with him to Alaska.
  • Back in real life, Charley, irritated and confused to no end, storms out.
  • Back in Willy’s mind, Willy asks Ben how he made so much money in Alaska.
  • Linda (an imaginary version of her) enters and greets Ben.
  • Now we get a bit more background on Willy. Turns out, his father abandoned him and Ben when they were kids.
  • So the deal with Alaska was that Ben tried to follow their dad there. Ben’s no genius (or migratory bird) and due to his sketchy sense of geography, ended up in Africa instead.
  • There (in Africa), Ben struck it big in diamonds.
  • Now more craziness ensues when imaginary young Biff and Happy enter. Willy tells the boys that Uncle Ben’s success is proof that great dreams can come true.
  • Imaginary Ben has to go catch his train, but tells Willy and the boys that his father (the boys’ grandfather) used to play the flute. He also used to drive Willy and Ben around the country by wagon and sell his inventions along the way.
  • Predictably, Willy brags to Ben about how well he has raised his sons.
  • Showing off his son, Willy pushes Biff to start a fistfight with his Uncle Ben. This is weird.
  • Ben wins (unfairly), saying that in order to survive, you must cheat in fights with strangers. What a great piece of wisdom.
  • Poor Willy, looking for approval and trying to keep Ben around, starts going off about how even though he’s a city slicker and a salesman, he is still a manly man (think loincloths and hunting). Willy sends his sons to steal lumber (!) so they can show their uncle how manly they are.
  • Here comes more confusion. You just met real Charley, but now enters imaginary Charley.
  • Imaginary Charley enters the kitchen just as young Happy and Biff run off to steal some wood for a building project.
  • Charley warns Willy that he’s got to stop them from stealing or they’ll get in big fat trouble (like jail).
  • Everyone erupts into a shouting match and Willy insults Charley’s manliness.
  • Everyone leaves the stage except Ben and Willy.
  • Willy confesses that he’s scared he’s not raising his boys well and begs Ben to stay and tell him stories about their father. But Ben’s not so nice (if you hadn’t noticed) and he leaves.
  • So Willy’s been chatting and fighting with lots of imaginary figures tonight, but we think that’s just about it for delusions, at least for the time being, because here comes real Linda.
  • Now we’re back in real time. Linda wants to know what on earth is going on.
  • Willy wanders outside, insisting he needs a walk.
  • Real Biff and Happy come into the kitchen, freaked out. Their mom says that Willy’s behavior is worse when Biff is around. She tells Biff to stop drifting and to show his father some respect.
  • Things heat up. Linda tells Biff to stay away from his father. Biff retorts that his father treats her terribly, and calls Willy crazy.
  • Linda, deeply offended, responds that her husband is simply exhausted. (Yes, she’s clearly deluding herself.)
  • Now she admits that Willy’s boss cut his salary and they’re struggling financially. Their dad has been borrowing money from Charley every week to pay the bills.
  • Linda accuses her sons of being ungrateful and oblivious.
  • Biff responds that Willy’s a fake but won’t explain why.
  • To smooth out the situation, Biff tells Linda he’ll get a job and give them half his paycheck.
  • As if things were not bad enough, Linda announces that Willy’s been trying to kill himself in car "accidents." Also, she’s found a short length of rubber pipe attached to the fuse box (it seems he was trying to gas himself).
  • Linda tells Biff that Willy’s life is in his hands, so he must be careful.
  • Biff says he’ll straighten out, but he just wasn’t made to work in the business world.
  • Willy walks in. Almost immediately, he and Biff begin to argue.
  • Happy, the peacemaker, interrupts and says that Biff is going to see Bill Oliver the following morning to get a business loan.
  • Willy is all happy and perky for about two seconds before father and son are at it again.
  • Happy strikes again, trying to make the situation... happy. He tells his dad that he and Biff are thinking of starting a sporting goods line in Florida.
  • Excitedly, Willy starts telling Biff how to behave around Oliver, who is in the sporting goods business. He acts as if they’ve already sealed a million-dollar deal.
  • Somehow angered again, Willy storms upstairs. Linda and the boys follow him. The boys say goodnight and are lectured about their greatness.
  • Biff wanders downstairs alone while Linda desperately tries to sing Willy to sleep.

(Click the summary infographic to download.)

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