Notes on Ferguson’s Set Design in Armfield’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Teaching student Sean gives the rundown on how the latest Melbourne production of 'Death of a Salesman' provides a vision for rethinking education's role in society.


Tired of all the name-dropping of “pragmatism” in the field of education research, I cherish the luxury of a brief retreat to a piece of theatre, a slice of reality that is presented in an undemocratic and authoritative form where the audience must not taint the world with more human action. This experience is to discard what most John Dewey references in any journal of education feels to me: buzzy, slimy, complicit and substanceless. Its vision of student-centrism has become increasingly extreme that one wonders in reality, the classroom, or to use a concept that is “updated,” the learning environment, turns into a discursive and self-justified group malingering backed by self-perpetuating wealth. Taking no consideration of the fact that students, or should I say learners, and especially those of lesser privileged background, are besieged watertight with sensualist temptations after the lesson where the real learning ought to but seldom take place.

Moving on to theatre, whoever is watching across the stage does not need language. Harmonised by silence and attention, the moment they sit down they are steered into being one. They watch, again and again, how characters on stage externalise the internal and internalise the external using language, culminating in the precept that after the curtain falls, we are all a little more thoughtful when wielding our tongue. Gazing through the material interpretation of Dale Ferguson, a theatre set designer, in Australian theatre director Neil Armfield’s rendering of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Albert Camus’ words are ever more true: theatre is a place of truth. Sadly, what we can add is that it is also a place where people rarely learn.

So, to rejuvenate learning that actually involves meaningful thinking and communal action, I propose we tentatively scratch some ideas of Hegelianism to be critical of the inherent Americanness of pragmatism. That is, to not misunderstand John Dewey so that the obsession of economic growth is loosen. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the perfect play for this discussion since it deals poignantly with the American dream. Our theoretical premise for this discussion, of which voiced by Stephen Houlgate, a philosopher, of BBC4’s In Our Time - Hegel’s Philosophy of History:

If one clings to life, one will lose it, and if one is ready to lose life, one will gain it. In other words, if one insists on a particular concept it will turn it into its opposite.

Democratic student-centred pedagogy seems futile as it is situated under the ever-expanding flog of ruthless “survival of the fittest” individualism. In education, the student is often led to perform inauthentically when building on each other’s ideas in the group discussion. One wonders why so many potential opportunities for deep group thinking always turn into rambling chit-chat. Pragmatism sets out to spur social change and yet many students are paralysed; those who act seem to dream ever more fanatically in the endless economic growth. American commercial colonisation has prioritised what is taught at the expense of how it is taught. Education for profit is devoid of humanism.

What is brilliantly illustrative about Death of a Salesman’s set design is that the whole stage is occupied with a brutalistic metal structure. It resembles an audience stand in a community baseball game where the characters that are not in the scene are facing directly at the theatre audience. Paradoxically appropriating the role of the actual viewer, those who are temporarily not needed in the scene are watching, like us below, the story to unfold. This is a revolutionary artistic message: we are all accomplice​s​ of every wrong in our society and instead of systematically and concretely doing something to help, most of the time we indulge in cathartic watching for pleasure. Perhaps this metallic structure is the ultimate culprit. What could it possibly be symbolising?

Photography: Jeff Busby  Some say the first thing when arriving in America is to leave America. Indeed, the ideological foundation of America is capitalist venture schemes that thrive in getting rich quickly. Arthur’s protagonist, Willy, is plagued by such vision. Importantly, Ben, the character that symbolises the American dream, does not sit on the metal structure throughout the play and enters the scene always obliquely. Willy is so taken with Ben inasmuch as he is caught between past and present. There is literally no future except in Willy’s words that do not manifest. Willy is always reminiscing about past venturistic glory and troubled with his disillusioned reality. 

 Biff, Willy’s first born, had an Ivy League athletic future ahead of him. However, it came to naught when he discovered that his father cheated on his mother when he was on business trips. Biff idolised Willy to the point that when the dreamer's big words did not match with actions, his internalised version of his father, which used to be his drive, turns into a knife inside of his psyche. In the scene where the son busts his father for having an affair, all the characters are behind on the structure, like us, watching. One might imagine when Willy is indulging in extra-marital sex, he is not truly enjoying it. He is but negatively filling a desire that is taught by the society, as Hegel would perhaps say.

 Reality has become so unstable it becomes fantasy and when fantasy has become so unstable it becomes reality; this distinction is characteristically human, and the drive to fulfil this distinction is a human construction and America is the loudest advertiser of this manipulated reality. This is wrong: reality should encompass our fantasies and the American conception of freedom leads to spite, death and disaster. This is exemplified at the end of the play when Willy has killed himself, his first-born is leaving and the second-born decides to immerse himself even deeper in the American dream. In the end, Linda, Willy’s wife, in the play’s requiem, soliloquises “we are finally free.”

We have been watching each other, imitating others and devising new ways to reenact this tragedy for almost a hundred years. The blurring of viewer and the viewed, the actor and the acted, as well as what is staged and the real is the path towards Camus’ truth. What is true is never that which has cash value; one might even argue that democracy will not work until it has gotten rid of its profit-driven structure. This structure needs to be starved to oblivion by less and less participation from us, and education can help not by mere customer-centredness but by having its learning environment being radically inclusive so that it will never be rich kids getting together thinking of more ways to get even richer.

Neil Armfield’s production of Death of a Salesman finished its run on 15 October 2023.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

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