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Setting, Costume, and Color in “Death of Salesman” June 2, 2010

Filed under: literature,movie review,school,teaching — youmakemehappy @ 5:10 pm

Abstract: Dustin Hoffman version of Death of a Salesman.  I look at the costumes, the set construction, and the color of each within the film version and see how each helps the audience understand the characters of the play, specifically Willy.  This was created for a class in modern drama.  I did no research for this paper in either the development of my ideas or for support of those ideas.

Setting, Costume, and Color in Death of a Salesman

In Arthur Miller’s play, the set of Death of a Salesman is designed to be transparent; the lack of walls allows the characters of  Willy Loman’s memories to walk in and out of the house without regards to their location on the stage.  This convention was not entirely followed when Volker Schlӧndorff created the film adaptation.  The film set is comprised of a “real” house, but one that is not complete.  The walls do not always connect, allowing the audience to see straight through to the other buildings, or when the camera is positioned outside, to see the characters on the inside of the house.  Even the ceiling and roof is completely missing in one shot.  The background for the entire movie is set against a backdrop.  Schlӧndorff utilizes the these gaps to not only give a nod to the film’s theater roots but to help tells his version of the story.  Schlӧndorff, in addition, uses props, color schemes, and costume to aid in character development.

The set itself, as already discussed, is not completely put together.  It is generally at the corners of the walls that the gaps occurs.  Likewise, it is the stories of Willy’s life, the stories he tells to make himself seem important, that never quite match up to his real life.  The backyard, which is nothing but dirt, evidence of the lack of growth in Willy’s life, is enclosed with a incomplete fence.  During Willy’s first memory he sits down at the table outside to talk to Biff and Happy.  The camera is positioned directly in front of Willy.  The audience sees Willy sitting in front of the only gap in the boarded fence line – the gap that looks over the cemetery.  This positioning is a foreshadowing of Willy’s life.  Reminiscing on his past, pining for a bright future his sons,  particularly Biff, will have will lead him to his early death.  The image of Willy in front of the cemetery also reflects the futility of trying to relive the past.

The sets’ color schemes are also important to Willy’s life.  The Woman of Willy’s past is connected with the color red.  The hotel room walls are red, and the floor is red and black.  The red in this scene connects to the sexual nature of the relationship between Willy and the Woman.  The color of the room connects to the red of the restaurant as well.  The restaurant has the same shade of red for the walls and the floor is the same red and black checkered pattern.  Because the audience is already aware of the sexual quality of red in the movie, the audience is cued for something sexual in nature to occur.  Hap picks up the prostitute that has come into the restaurant and has her call in a friend for Biff.  (Hap’s over eager sexual drive is marked in the very first scene by his discussion of his sexual conquests while he is wearing a red house robe.)  The laughter of the prostitutes eventually merge into the laughter of the Woman from Willy’s past and it is in this scene, the merging of all the red, that the audience is given the reason for Biff and Willy’s falling out – Biff finds the Woman in Willy’s hotel room.

White is also an important color in the movie.  The kitchen of his house, a symbol of his home life, is almost completely white.  The only color coming from the dark wood chairs and the black and white checkered floor.  But, the white that generally symbolizes purity or wholesomeness is faded and old.  Like his hope to gain the American dream of material success, the kitchen, as well as the rest of the house, has long ago faded.  The color white is used several more times as either set/lighting or as costume colors on a character to symbolize a combination of regret and loss of hope. The Woman and Ben both wear all white.  Ben is in a near constant state of enshrined in light.  In Harold’s office, Ben’s face is framed with the soft white windows which mimics the other-worldly light.  Willy regrets not going with Ben to Alaska and so always remembers Ben as just about to leave, asking Willy to go with him.  Willy realizes, either consciously or unconsciously, that he will never have another opportunity to succeed in the say he could have had he gone with Ben.  Willy’s conscience is nagged by the Woman not only because he betrayed Linda, but also because due to Biff finding out about the affair, he has lost the respect of his eldest son.

For a closing remark I want to switch briefly to Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy at the end of the movie and its connection with color.  Willy seemingly finally decides to take his life in order to give Biff a financial chance at achieving success.  Hoffman portrays Willy as excited and hopeful about the prospect of his son succeeding, but the director chooses to fade the screen to white as the sound of the car crash is heard, accompanied by distraught screams from Willy’s family.  With Willy finally following Ben into the white light, a giving into the regret of not following Ben, and the audience being blinded by the color that for Willy is connected to despair and regret, one has to ask was Hoffman’s portrayal accurate?  Does Willy feel a sense of hope or was his suicide really an act of despair, a final realization that the only help he can be to his family is by causing his own death?


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