Death of A Salesman: It Is About A Family In Brooklyn

Every day, in some part of the world, an Arthur Miller play is performed. In the nearly 60 years since its first production, Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman has become a classic, a staple of school anthologies of American literature and of acting companies’ repertoires. It has received worldwide productions, whether as a study of parent-child relationships, as in its landmark 1976 production directed by Arthur Miller in Beijing, or as a critique of Western capitalism, and has been filmed once for television and twice as a feature film.

The enduring appeal of the play seems to lie in the fact that Miller tapped into the hopes and fears of not only an American but a global public; Universal human questions about the nature of happiness and success, of aging and of family responsibility, of fathers and sons, of the impossibility of the American Dream, and the power of hope and dreams to both enrich and destroy our lives. Death of A Salesman has taken on an almost mythic quality, something out of Greek mythology, and the characters in the play have become iconic representations of America, of capitalism, and of despair. The play has become a kind of American Hamlet, or, as one critic puts it, “the theatrical equivalent of the great AMERICAN novel,” idealized and canonized as the pinnacle of American dramatic form and skill, and nearing perfection in its ability to speak to a uniquely American life…a uniquely American life that has, since the play’s first performance in 1949, become an almost global way of life. Selling, buying, getting ahead, upward mobility, potential and possibility, and earning money…

Many critics, in fact, most, hail the main character of Willy Loman as a kind of transcontinental, trans-cultural “everyman,” whose struggles to attain his dreams of success resonate within us all. Some critics say that Miller’s play puts the political and sociological question of how the capitalist American Dream myth impacts an ordinary family at the center of the piece. As our world becomes increasingly affected by American culture, this is a question that is becoming more and more relevant to a global audience, and, to be honest, is the focal point of most international critiques of the work. These qualities have confirmed the play’s place in the canon of ‘classic literature’ and ensured that since its premiere, there has never been a time when Death of a Salesman was not being performed somewhere in the world by some company as an example of GREAT DRAMATIC LITERATURE! (echo, echo, echo….)

This is Death of A Salesman: it is the perfect American play, and it has become so big, so important, that it is now as much a part of the DRAMATIC FABRIC of American theatre as Shakespeare is to British Theatre.

Death of a Salesman is so integral a part of our theatrical lives that we often forget just how radical a departure it was, just how much of an experiment it was, when it debuted 59 years ago. Miller did a bold thing, summoning Willy’s dreams about the past to the stage to intermingle with his miserable present, and this dramatic tactic was unfamiliar to American audiences, and not particularly familiar to Miller. The play is also a radical departure from traditional dramatic conceptions of “tragedy” as Willy Loman is, indeed, an everyman, but not one of a particularly grand kind in any way, and the world in which Loman operates is almost completely bereft of a moral order. The play truly is a great work, a visionary work, and that very quality makes it incredibly difficult to stage!

From my perspective, the greatest challenge in producing and directing this show comes from the fact that it is so well known and admired! The play is MEANINGFUL. The play is EPIC. The play is A GREAT WORK OF DRAMA…(echo echo echo). We all know it: the play won tons of awards, it has been performed a billion times, it is in every single “great American plays” anthology ever written, every student of English and Drama studies or reads (or is at least assigned it) and, as trained actors, academics and dramatic critics, we all come to the play with 60 years of criticism, debate, discussion and perspective clouding our opinions!

Here is what one critic said after a review of the last 20 years of performances of Death of A Salesman: “If there’s something that typifies productions of Arthur Miller’s most famous play, it’s either slippage—a lack of focus on the true living characters who exist only in this play at this time—or too much focus; exclusively on the lead role, or on some social or psychological conception of “What It All Means,” leaving out the simple fact that this is a real story of a real family, a story that is at once intimate in it’s narrative and sprawling in implication.”

This story is not about WILLY LOMAN as a symbol. It’s not about all broken relationships between a father and son in the history of broken relationships, nor is it about career choices of the middle-class. It is not just a critique of American capitalism, nor is it an examination of the change wrought in America’s nuclear family by changes in industrial modes of production. It is not about that. It may MEAN that to some people, but these should not impact a theatre’s choices in performance.

This is a story about a family in Brooklyn.

Just that: a story about a family in Brooklyn.

Audiences and critics can make of that what they will, but for our actors, for this show, it will be a story about a family in Brooklyn.

I believe three things about this show:

First, I believe that it is immediate and intimate. It is about these specific people at this specific time. In this way, our work must be focused on Acting 101 techniques; character analysis in the most basic and, to be honest, informative ways. Our actors may be doing some meta analysis of the play in their own time, but on stage they will be thinking about character, relationship, stakes, plot, objectives, reactions and emotional truth. The end.

Second, I believe that any “statement” about the meaning of the show will be made clear to our audience through our collaborative work as actors and directors.

Third, I believe that everything we need to know to make this show a clean, clear, honest and profoundly moving theatrical experience is in the text and in the skill of our performers. We don’t need anything else. Nothing else. We could do this in jeans and t-shirts on an empty stage with the work lights and it would be a success, because the power of this play, the force of the play, is in how the words are spoken and how they are heard.

We must not give in to the greatness of the play, the place of the play within the canon of great American drama. We must not cloud it with our own sense of history and grandeur, with our own perspectives of heady motivation and condensed thematic analysis. We must not.

No one we know lives in that world. My father doesn’t live in that world, my mother doesn’t live in a world rife with theoretical possibilities, my brother’s dreams and hopes are not consciously grounded in esoteric conceptions of American upper-class mobility. No one real lives in that world, and if there is one thing I know about the Loman family, they are real.

This is a play about a family in Brooklyn. We are going to tell that story.