Death of a Salesman

Certain Private Conversations
In two acts and a Requiem
by Arthur Miller

First Performance: 10 February 1949

Study Questions: Act One

Place: Willy and Linda Loman's Home in Queens, New York
Time: Moments in Willy's Life from 1928-1945:  Chronology

Acting Scenes

  1. Willy and Linda (pp. 11-18)
  2. Biff and Happy (pp. 19-27)
  3. Willy, Biff and Happy (pp. 29-32)
  4. Willy, Linda, the Woman, Bernard (pp. 37-40)
  5. Willy, Charley, Ben (pp. 42-47)
  6. Linda, Biff, Happy (pp. 52-61)
  7. Willy, Biff, Linda, Happy (pp. 61-69)

pp. 11-19 Willy, Linda (Acting Scene: Willy and Linda (pp. 11-18))

  • Read the stage directions carefully. What effect does Miller want his set designer to achieve? From whose perspective do we see reality? (Mielziner Rendering) (11-12)
  • What time is it when Willy gets home? What are your first impressions of Willie Loman?  (What sound effect do we hear until Linda calls out to Willy?)
  • Why did Willy come home instead of making his sales trip? What detail in Willy’s explanation of his concentration problem shows just how close to the edge he has come? (14)
  • Why do you figure that Howard has not given Willy a New York job?(14)
  • What had Willy and Biff been fighting about the day before? (15) This has been Biff's first day home in years. Where has he been? Why did he come home? (15-16)
  • How does Willy treat Linda? What has happened over the years to the neighborhood in which Willy and Linda have lived? (17)
  • How does Miller tag the scene? Towards what year do Willy's musings always gravitate? WHY? (18-19)

pp. 19-27 Happy, Biff (Acting Scene: Biff and Happy (pp. 19-27)) 

  • Note how Miller dissolves scenes into one another seamlessly. Why has he chosen to construct his play in this manner?(19)
  • Read the stage direction carefully. How does Miller characterize Biff and Happy? How old are they(19)
  • How do Biff and Happy talk about women? (20-21) Do you believe them?
  • What is Willy muttering about down in the kitchen? Who is he talking to? Does Biff know what is going on? (21-22)
  • What has Biff's employment career been like? What does he think of his father's job? What does he really enjoy doing? Biff thinks he is a failure. Is he? (22-23)
  • How has Happy's career been going? Why has he become a womanizer? Why does he take bribes? Is he ‘happy’? (23-25)
  • What chance does Biff have of getting a seven or eight thousand dollar loan from Bill Oliver? Why? (26-27)
  • What is Happy’s chief concern about his father’s increasingly strange behavior? What does Biff know that he’s not telling? (26-27)

pp. 27-41 Willy, Young Biff, Young Happy, Young Bernard, Young Linda, The Woman (Acting Scene: Willy, Biff and Happy (pp. 29-32))

  • Describe the scene change that takes place magically as Willy's mind time travels. (27) (VIDEO)
    What year has Willy wandered off to? Why that year? (Chronology) How old are Biff and Happy?
  • What is Willy's advice to Biff about girls? Is it good advice? (27-28)
  • What surprise has Willy brought home for his boys?
  • What is Willy’s reaction when he finds out that Biff stole the football? (29-30)
  • What is Willy’s dream?  How does he plan to achieve this dream? (30-31)
  • How important is football to Willy and Biff's relationship? Why? (31-32)
  • What does Bernard tell Biff about Mr. Birnbaum? What is Willy’s reaction to this news?
    What is Willy’s theory of business success? (33) Is he right?
  • How well are Willy's sales really going? How much money did he make on the trip? How much does he need to make by the 15th of the month? (35)
  • Why is it that Willy works harder than other salesmen but does not make as much money?(36-37)
  • Where does Willy’s mind travel when Linda tells him, “You’re the handsomest man in the world”? Why is Willy cheating on Linda? Why does he get so angry at Linda when he notices that she is darning her stockings? (37-39)
  • What is happening to Willy's mind at the end of the scene (as his mind flits from Bernard to Linda to Biff to the Woman)? Is there a way out of his approaching crisis? (Remember the year is 1945 not 1928.) (39-40)

pp. 41-52 Willy, Happy, Charley, Uncle Ben, Young Linda, Young Biff, Young Happy, Young Charley (Acting Scene: Willy, Linda, the Woman, Bernard (pp. 37-40))

  • Willy's mind keeps racing even after Happy comes downstairs to calm him down and take him to bed. How did Willy’s brother Ben make his fortune? Would Happy be able to support Willy if he retired?(41)
  • Why has Charley come over in his pajamas in the middle of the night? Describe Willie and Charley’s relationship. Why won’t Willy take Charley’s job offer? What is Charley’s advice about Biff? Why does Willy think Charley is 'disgusting'? (42-47) (VIDEO)
  • The entrance of Ben indicates what about Willy’s state of mind? How has the legend of Ben influenced Willy throughout his all his life? How does Willy appear to Charley when he starts conversing with Ben? 
  • When did Ben last come to visit Willy and Linda? (Did he ever visit again?) How old was Willy when Ben left for Alaska? (Although Willy blames himself, is there any way he could he have gone with him?) 
  • What did Willy's father do for a living? How old was Willy when his father deserted his family? (47-48) Chronology (NOTE: How does Miller connect Willy with Huck and Gatsby? When is Biff happiest?) 
  • What is the great lesson Ben teaches Biff when they box together? (49) How has Willy been able to afford the work he has done on the house? (50-51)
  • What happens to Willy's mind as Ben exits? (50-52)

pp. 52-69  Willy, Linda, Biff, Happy  (Acting Scene: Linda, Biff, Happy (pp. 52-61)) (Acting Scene: Willy, Biff, Linda, Happy (pp. 61-69))

  • The scene shifts back to the present and Willy is now wandering in his backyard when Linda comes to bring him to bed.
  • What did Willy do with the diamond watch fob that Ben gave him? In what year did that happen? Chronology
  • How long has Willy been sick? Why is Linda so angry with Biff?  Explain why Biff’s visits home set Willy off. What ultimatum does Linda give Biff? Why does she insist that he deserves respect despite his problems? Why won’t Biff make it up with his father? (53-58)
  • What has happened to Willy at work? Does he deserve it? (What would you do if you were Willy's boss?) Who has been keeping Willy afloat? (56-57).
  • How does Linda know for sure that Willy has tried to kill himself? Why hasn’t she confronted him? (58-59)
  • What is Linda asking Biff to do? Can he do what she asks? Why does he struggle so in office environments? What does Biff think Willy should be doing for a living? Why would Willy never do that? (60-61)
  • What news from Biff finally calms Willy down and lest him go to sleep? Describe Happy’s million dollar idea. How much money will they need? What chance does it have of working? Who realizes that? (63-64)
  • Imagine the stage picture at the end of the act. What is Miller’s intention? (68-69)