A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises. Before us is the Salesman’s house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange.
The first sentences of the play are stage directions. The author specifies audio and visual details that present two elements of the American Dream: open horizons and home ownership. The house represents the fulfillment of an ordinary American’s dream to have a home and land of one’s own. The set design and lighting directions call for a stark contrast between the house and the surrounding buildings. Even before the characters enter and speak, the audience understands that the Salesman’s house—one family’s American Dream—is under threat.
[BIFF:] Sure, maybe we could buy a ranch. Raise cattle, use our muscles. Men built like we are should be working out in the open. HAPPY, avidly: The Loman Brothers, eh?
Biff and Happy, the two grown sons of Willy and Linda Loman, are visiting their parents and sleeping in their old bedroom. As they try to fall asleep, Biff shares with Happy his own version of the American Dream—owning a ranch out West. Happy’s reference to the Loman Brothers suggests that the dream of owning a ranch is a fantasy from western movies. The scene shows that both boys have learned their father’s optimism about America, as well as his tendency to create unrealistic expectations.
What’s the mystery? The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, at the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich! The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress!
Willy Loman is talking to his son Happy about Ben, Willy’s older brother. Ben, Willy’s hero, fulfilled the American Dream by going to Africa and striking it rich in diamonds. Willy describes Ben as a masterful man, ready to take risks and work hard toward his goal—a perfect role model for Willy’s sons. But although a real actor plays him onstage, Ben is a figment of Willy’s memories and fantasies. Ben’s success, real or imagined, allows Willy to express hopeful belief in opportunity, hard work, and success even as he is confronting his own failure.
All right, boy. I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream to have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this where I’m gonna win it for him.
Happy Loman is talking to his brother Biff as they stand at their father’s graveside at the end of the play. In his grief and guilt over his father’s death, Happy is reaffirming his father’s values—the belief in the American Dream. Happy is also recognizing the heroic quality of his father’s struggle to succeed. The audience has already seen considerable evidence that Happy is no more likely to succeed than his father, largely because of false assumptions and fantasies about what it takes to be a success.