Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Stage Directions


Miller provides stage directions to help a production team enact the play. In addition, the stage directions convey important information regarding the creation of theme and meaning within the play. Stage directions regarding music, physical setting, lighting, and characters work together to create the dreamlike quality of the play, particularly the bleeding between the memory portions and the present reality portions. Repeatedly, the playwright uses music and sound to provide signals for the audience, indicating emotional shifts in mood and tone and movement through time.


The play begins and ends with music, and the playwright indicates different qualities of music to represent different characters and moods. For example, the play begins with music played on a flute. The directions explain that the music is "small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon." Within these directions, the playwright sets the mood. Although the setting is a crowded city, the first impression the audience gets is suggestive of the natural environment, a theme that returns again and again throughout the play. The flute signals a sense of longing for something unreachable.

At the beginning of Act 2, the music has a different quality, "gay and bright," suggesting an optimistic mood: with a new day, things might work out. The music provides a sense of hope regarding a resolution to the family's ongoing sadness and conflict.

Whenever Uncle Ben appears on stage, he has a specific accompanying melody, and the laughter of Willy's lover precedes her presence throughout the play, giving the audience constant sound clues regarding movement in time. Even Willy's death is presented to the audience through sound, making Willy's death a sensory experience. The "music crashes down in a frenzy of sound," which then becomes the sound of only "a single cello string."

Physical Setting

Arthur Miller's description of the physical setting serves a larger purpose than mere instructions for the builders of a stage set. From the first page of the play, Miller uses his descriptions to paint a picture of the literal and figurative "fragile-seeming home" where the "air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality." Miller presents the brokenness of the family, their futile dreams, and the reality that rises around and crowds the family.

To further convey the dreamlike quality of the play—and to reveal how Willy is losing his grip on reality—Miller states in the stage directions that the setting is "wholly or, in some places, partially transparent." Neither Willy nor the audience ever knows for sure what is concrete and what is illusion.


Lighting effects and various colors provide the audience with signals regarding theme and mood. The Lomans' "fragile-seeming home" is cast in the "blue light of the sky," while the large apartment buildings that crowd and smother the Lomans' home are shown in "an angry glow of orange." The playwright uses these contrasting colors to suggest that the Lomans are somehow separate and distant from the rest of their environment. Thus, he creates an early sympathy for his characters. How can a family surviving in such a small and fragile home compete against the larger forces of the modern urban landscape around them?

Miller also uses lighting effects such as leaves to cast impressions over the stage. The leaves come and go and support both the dreamlike quality and theme of nature versus man-made environment. In one section, the stage directions state that "the light of green leaves stains the house, which holds the air of night and a dream," drawing a clear connection between light and image and mood and theme.


Playwrights typically use dialogue and actions to develop the characterization within a play. Miller's stage directions are unique because they include details about the inner qualities of characters rather than focusing only on the physical details of their appearances. For example, when Miller describes Linda Loman at the beginning of Act 1, he reveals the nature of her love for her husband: "she more than loves him, she admires him."

Miller also employs the stage directions to give insight into the characters of Happy and Biff. Biff "bears a worn air and seems less self-assured" with dreams that "are stronger and less acceptable" than his brother's. The stage directions indicate that Happy is lost but seems more content because "he has never allowed himself to turn his face toward defeat." These directions help the actors playing Biff and Happy to understand Biff's inner conflict and Happy's self-delusion, understandings that will inform their portrayals of these characters throughout the play.

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