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When Arthur Miller began reading plays in college, Greek tragedies made a profound impression on him. He says that he was drawn to the Greeks "for their magnificent form, the symmetry." While he claims he barely understood the characters or comprehended the stories, he recognized the classic construction. "That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in."
As soon as Death of a Salesman opened, critics began writing about its relation to Greek tragedy, usually pointing out that Willy doesn't qualify as a tragic hero. Without mentioning his critics, Miller replied with an essay titled "Tragedy and the Common Man." Death of a Salesman does have a shattering emotional impact that corresponds to that of a Greek tragedy. There are some other similarities-the inevitable movement toward death of the protagonist (or central character) with growing self-awareness, the single story without subplots, the unity of time (Death of a Salesman takes place within the course of about twenty-four hours) but they are of limited significance.
More important for an understanding of the form of Death of a Salesman is a familiarity with German expressionism. Expressionism sought to depict the inner life of characters. It went further than realism or naturalism, which traced the lineal development of a story through external details of environment. Expressionism used symbols to evoke the unseen and the unconscious, and so expressionist plays were "cool" in their approach: objective, stylized, impersonal. Miller took the form and made it "warm" and humane. He later wrote that Death of a Salesman "desired the audience to forget it was in a theater even as it broke the bounds, I believe, of a long convention of realism. Its expressionistic elements were consciously used as such, but since the approach to Willy Loman's characterization was consistently and rigorously subjective, the audience would not ever be aware-if I could help it-that they were witnessing the use of a technique which until then created only coldness, objectivity, and a highly stylized sort of play."
The incidents from the past that Willy recalls in the present are an "expression," or dramatization, of what's going on inside Willy's mind. An observer in the present would simply see Willy talking, mumbling to himself. Our witnessing those recollected episodes lets us experience Willy's process of thought.