By Tom Creamer (1998) with an intro by Neena Arndt (2020)
This article originally appeared in the Goodman’s OnStage Magazine in September 1998
Twenty years ago, Robert Falls’ stage production of Arthur Miller’s masterwork Death of a Salesman roared onto the screen in an exclusive capture for Showtime. Today, as we are treated to the first viewing since its auspicious small-screen debut, the play’s central questions around success and failure in our country—who is the American Dream for?—have never felt more timely.
Falls’ Tony Award-winning triumph, which originated at the Goodman in 1998 before transferring to Broadway the following year, marked the last major revival during Miller’s lifetime. The production won four Tony Awards; Falls, Brian Dennehy (Willy) and Elizabeth Franz (Linda) all received honors, and the production was named Best Revival of a Play. Since then, Philip Seymour Hoffman took his turn at playing Willy in a 2012 Broadway revival, and Wendell Pierce took on the part in 2019 at London’s Young Vic Theater. As a Black man surrounded by white colleagues in mid-century America, Pierce’s Willy at once faced complex systemic obstacles other Willys hadn’t, and expanded Miller’s idea of who strives for the American dream, without changing a word of text.
Miller died in 2005, a year after his last play, Finishing the Picture, premiered at the Goodman. But Death of a Salesman retains its finger-on-the-pulse feeling in 2020, as we continue to dissect the question of what it means to thrive in this nation.
Neena Arndt, October 2020
In his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller writes that the trigger for Death of a Salesman was a chance encounter with a relative in 1947 outside Boston’s Colonial Theatre where his play All My Sons was trying out prior to its Broadway opening. Miller’s uncle Manny was a salesman, full of bravado, prone to making outlandish claims. He imagined his two sons, Buddy and Abby, to be in a perpetual competition with the world, especially with their cousin Arthur. Seeing his nephew’s name on the marquee must have impressed Manny. When Miller met him coming out of the theater he saw that Manny had been weeping.
I could see the grim hotel room behind him, the long trip up from New York in his little car, the hopeless hope of the day’s business. Without so much as acknowledging my greeting, he said, “Buddy is doing very well.” …I thought I knew what he was thinking: that he had lost the contest between his sons and me. An enormous welling sorrow formed in my belly as I watched him merge into the crowd outside.
Other elements of Miller’s life informed the writing of the play as well: his father’s business failure, his growing up in Brooklyn where he played high school football and his love of working with his hands—which he shared with his creation, Willy Loman. But Miller was also interested in exploring time onstage and in finding a form that could contain simultaneously past and present. With All My Sons, Miller had written a well-made play that proceeded linearly, with each action leading to the next in a natural way. With Salesman he would try something different. An early working title was “The Inside of His Head”—the image is of a mind buzzing with contradictions, in the present one instant, in the past the next, effortlessly alive in each. In Timebends he wrote, “I had known all along that this play could not be encompassed by conventional realism, and for one integral reason: in Willy the past was as alive as what was happening at the moment, sometimes even crashing in to overwhelm his mind.” The possibility, indeed, the necessity, of the past informing the present has been a compelling subject for Miller. He has explored it in many of his plays; the title of his autobiography underlines his fascination. To portray Willy Loman, Miller created a form that could make the past as vivid as the present.
Miller had bought land in Connecticut with his earnings from All My Sons. In the spring of 1948, having worked through his new play in his head, he bought a load of lumber and built himself a ten by twelve foot writing studio on his property. When the roof was on, he sat down to write and produced a draft of the first act in a day and night long session at his desk. It would take six weeks to complete the play. He gave the script to Elia Kazan, who had directed All My Sons. After two days Kazan called Miller. “My God, it’s so sad,” he said. Miller answered, “It’s supposed to be.” Kazan was stunned by the play and immediately decided to do it. The summer and fall of 1948 were consumed with getting producers for the play (several of whom thought the play’s title much too grim for Broadway), with casting and with the design process. Jo Mielziner was brought on to create the set. Needing to accommodate the fluidity of the time shifts in Miller’s script, Mielziner used the Lomans’ frame house, squeezed between apartment buildings on either side, as his central image. But the walls were only sketched in, making them seem solid at times and transparent at others, allowing the scenes from Willy’s past to flow through the set. Mielziner’s set was a landmark of stage design and remains one of the most notable ever built.
Rehearsals began on December 27 in New York, with Lee J. Cobb (still in his thirties) as Willy and Mildred Dunnock as Willy’s wife, Linda. The play premiered in Philadelphia on January 22, 1949 and had its New York opening on February 10. It was an immediate triumph, with the critics deeply appreciative of Miller’s achievement. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote “It is so simple in style and so inevitable in theme that it scarcely seems like a thing written and acted. For Mr. Miller has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theatre.” Death of a Salesman won a Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Circle Award as well as a Tony. The script was a best-seller and became the only play ever chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection.
There have been many important productions of Death of a Salesman during its seventy-year life. Six months after the original production opened, Elia Kazan directed Paul Muni as Willy Loman in London. The spirit of McCarthyism followed the play to Dublin in 1951, where the play it was picketed by Catholic and anti-Communist demonstrators angry that anything by Miller should be allowed to play there. The production was well-received, however.
In America the play received hundreds of productions in regional and community theaters, one of the most notable being one starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the Guthrie Theater’s inaugural season in 1963. But Miller did not allow a revival of the play in the New York area until 1974, when he allowed George C. Scott to direct it in Philadelphia with Martin Balsam as Willy; Miller disagreed with Scott’s handling of the play and took over the direction himself. A year later Miller allowed Scott to tackle the play again, but this time Scott would also play Willy. A controversy arose over Scott’s casting Black actors in the roles of Willy’s neighbors, Charley and his son, Bernard. Miller felt that casting just these two roles as Black distorted Willy’s character in making him seem way ahead of his time by having Black neighbors in a 1930s Brooklyn neighborhood. Three years earlier, however, Baltimore Center Stage, with Miller’s approval, produced an all-black production that starred Richard Ward as Willy and included the young Howard Rollins as Stanley.
Steppenwolf Theater presented Death of a Salesman in 1980 with Mike Nussbaum as Willy, Mary Seibel as Linda, John Mahoney as Charley, Terry Kinney as Happy, and John Malkovich as Biff. Malkovich went on to join the cast of the 1984 Broadway revival as Biff, playing against Dustin Hoffman’s Willy. This production, and the brilliant 1985 television version directed by Volker Schlondorff with the same company, has been the most important revival in the United States. Hoffman’s Willy went against the image of Lee J. Cobb’s big, burly rendition. Hoffman was literally Miller’s “little man”, a terrier making a big noise, and much closer physically to how Miller had originally seen the role. As important was the portrayal of the sons, as played by Malkovich and Stephen Lang as Happy. Their strong playing highlighted the generational conflict in the play and moved the father-son struggle closer to the heart of Willy’s tragedy.
Other media productions include a 1966 David Susskind television presentation reuniting Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, and a recording made that year of Cobb and Dunnock with Dustin Hoffman as Bernard. In 1951 Columbia pictures released a film version. Miller detested Fredric March’s Willy—March played him as a madman, thereby undermining any possibility of tragedy in the story. In an additional insult to Miller, Columbia, paranoid with the Red Scare winds blowing at the time, made a short film intended to accompany showings of Death of a Salesman. The short featured college professors assuring the audience that Willy Loman was an aberration, that the job of salesman was a healthy manifestation of the American spirit—in effect to ignore the message of the play. The stink Miller made was enough to scotch the plans to distribute the short.
Miller himself directed a production at the People’s Art Theater in Beijing in 1983. The production is chronicled in Miller’s book, Salesman in Beijing, an edited journal he kept during his time in China. The book is fascinating first of all for its look at Chinese artists emerging from the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and taking a daring chance with an American play remote from their culture—the Chinese economy had nothing comparable to a traveling salesman, for example. But the book is also wonderful commentary from the playwright himself on his masterpiece, as the thirty years since its writing and the cultural dislocation of China throw the play’s ideas and themes into high relief.