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Free Barron's Booknotes-Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller-Free Book Notes
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ACT I (continued)

At this point a remarkable thing happens on stage. Biff and Happy, who only moments before were in bed upstairs, appear from the side of the stage dressed as teenagers, apparently fresh from waxing the car.

In the original 1949 production, and in later ones, great care was taken to make this transformation as magical as possible. Special beds with trapdoors or elevators were invented so that as soon as their conversation upstairs ended and the lights went down in their room, the actors, without being seen, could get offstage and change their costumes as Willy began talking. When the same actors walk into Willy's scene as teenagers, we are taken completely by surprise, and we can't understand how the trick was done. The effect of this staging device is to make us realize how abrupt are the shifts in Willy's mind between the present and the past. The appearance of Biff and Happy as they looked in the past gives these recalled scenes as much reality to us, the audience, as they have for Willy.

The stage directions tell us that Happy is carrying a pail of water and Biff is wearing an athletic sweater and carrying a football. Willy gives them the surprise, a punching bag he brought home with him on his return from a selling trip. The boys are ecstatic, especially when they see that it has a famous pro's signature on it. Happy, who is two years younger than Biff and anxious to please both him and their father, is hopping around; he is the kid brother, always trying to get his share of attention. He lies on his back now and pedals his feet in the air, showing how he's training to get in shape. Sports and competition-that key word again-are central in this family.

Biff shows off his new football. When Willy asks where he got it, Biff evades the question by saying the coach told him to practice his passing. "That so? And he gave you the ball, heh?" says Willy. With a laugh of guilt mixed with pride, Biff confesses that he "borrowed" it from the locker room. Laughing with him, Willy tells him to return it. We see that his attitude toward the theft, though he says Biff was wrong to do it, is a little bit indulgent and conspiratorial. Biff is his favorite son who can do no wrong.

Happy, jealous of the attention Biff is getting, says to Biff, "I told you he wouldn't like it!" But Willy defends him, saying, "He's gotta practice with a regulation ball, doesn't he? Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative!" This is the kind of justification Willy is good at: twisting something bad into something good.

Willy begins telling the boys stories of his selling trip to New England. He says he had coffee with the mayor of Providence and "sold a nice bill" in Waterbury. He boasts about how popular he is: "They know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people." He promises to take them up there this summer.

He brags that someday he'll have his own sales business, like their neighbor, "Uncle" Charley-but bigger and better than his, "Because Charley is not liked. He's liked, but he's not-well liked." This is a recurring idea; we must remember it. It is Willy's way of measuring success: "well liked" enough to make your fortune by it.

We learn that Biff has been made captain of the football team and that he'll be playing in a big game on Saturday. Taking Willy's hand he says, "...just for you, I'm going to break through for a touchdown." Biff ignores Happy's protest that he's supposed to pass, not make points. But when we hear that, we realize that Biff is planning to use the game to his own advantage, that like his father he makes up his own rules to suit his needs.

Charley's son, Bernard, a studious, scrawny boy, comes on stage, whining that Biff is supposed to be studying with him today. Their class will take the Regents exam next week, and the results will determine who gets college scholarships. When Happy starts boxing with Bernard, Bernard fights back with the information that he overheard their math teacher threatening to flunk Biff. Willy angrily reminds Bernard that with sports scholarships offered by three universities, the high school wouldn't dare flunk him. "Don't be a pest, Bernard!" says Willy, and adds to his boys, "What an anemic!"

All the Lomans are in the habit of making fun of Bernard. He lacks the flashiness, the rugged physique, and the "gift for gab"- the qualities of ideal manliness according to Willy. "Bernard is not well liked, is he?" Willy asks after he's gone. Biff answers, "He's liked, but he's not well liked." We recognize that line from Willy's description of Bernard's father, Charley.

Willy insists on thinking of himself and his sons, especially Biff, as "well liked," and therefore successful because they can make people do anything for them. Ironically, we will soon see that studious Bernard and hard-working Charley are the ones who achieve real success in the end, not only because they are smart, but because unlike Willy they know where their strengths lie.

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