Making Willy Loman
Fifty years ago, Arthur Miller took American theatre into new territory. A
look at his personal notebook reveals how he did it.
By John Lahr
Originally published in The New Yorker, January 25, 1999
On a crisp April weekend in 1948, Arthur Miller, then only thirty-three and
enjoying the first flush of fame after the Broadway success the previous year
of All My Sons, waved goodbye to his first wife, Mary, and their two
young kids, in Brooklyn, and set off for Roxbury, Connecticut, where he
intended to build a cabin on a hillock just behind a Colonial house he had
recently purchased for the family, which stood at the aptly named crossroads
of Tophet (another name for Hell) and Gold Mine.
"It was a purely instinctive act," Miller, who long ago traded up
from that first forty-four-acre-property to a four-hundred-acre spread on
Painter Hill, a few miles down the road, told me recently. ''I had never
built a building in my life."
Miller had a play in mind, too; his impulse for the cabin was "to sit in
the middle of it, and shut the door, and let things happen." All Miller
knew about his new play was that it would be centered on a traveling salesman
who would die at the end and that two of the lines were "Willy?"
"It's all right. I came back"-- words that to Miller spoke
"the whole disaster in a nutshell." He says, ''I mean, imagine a
salesman who can't get past Yonkers. It's the end of the world. It's like an
actor saying 'It's all right. I can't speak.'" As he worked away on his
cabin, he repeated the play's two lines like a kind of mantra. ''I kept
saying, 'As soon as I get the roof on and the windows in, I’m gonna start
this thing,'" he recalls. "And I indeed I started on a morning in
spring. Everything was starting to bud. Beautiful weather."
Miller had fashioned a desk out of an old door. As he sat down to it his
tools and nails were still stashed in a corner of the studio, which was as
yet unpainted and smelled of raw wood. ''I started in the morning, went
through the day, then had dinner, and then I went back there and worked
till-- I don't know-- one or two o'clock in the morning," he says.
"It sort of unveiled itself. I was the stenographer. I could hear them.
I could hear them, literally." When Miller finally lay down to sleep
that first night, he realized he'd been crying. "My eyes still burned
and my throat was sore from talking it all out and shouting and
laughing," he later wrote in his autobiography, "Timebends." In one day, he had produced, almost
intact, the first act of Death of a Salesman, which has since sold
about eleven million copies, making it probably the most successful modern
play ever published. The show, which is being put on somewhere in the world
almost every day of the year, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary next month
with a Broadway revival from Chicago's Goodman Theatre, directed by Robert
Falls and starring Brian Dennehy as the fanatical
and frazzled drummer Willy Loman.
"He didn't write Death of a Salesman; he released it," the
play's original director, Elia Kazan, said in his
auto biography, "A Life." "It was there inside him, stored up
waiting to be turned loose." To Miller, there was a "dream's
quality in my memory of the writing and the day or two that followed its completion."
In his notebook for Death of a Salesman-- a sixty-six page document
chronicling the play's creation, which is kept with his papers at the
University of Texas at Austin-- he wrote, "He who understands everything
about his subject cannot write it. I write as much to discover as to
explain." After that first day of inspiration, it took Miller six weeks
to call forth the second act and to make Willy remember enough "so he
would kill himself." The form of the play-- where past and present
coalesce in a lyrical dramatic arc-- was one that Miller felt he'd been
"searching for since the beginning of my writing life." Death of
a Salesman seems to spill out of Willy's panic-stricken, protean
imagination, and not out of a playwright's detached viewpoint. "The play
is written from the sidewalk instead of from a skyscraper," Miller says
of its first-person urgency. But, ironically, it was from the deck of a
skyscraper that Miller contemplated beginning his drama, in a kind of
Shakespearean foreshadowing of Willy's suicidal delirium. The notebook's
first entry reads:
Scene l - Atop Empire State. 2 guards. "Who will
die today? It's that kind of day. . . fog, and
poor visibility. They like to jump into a cloud. Who will it be
As Miller navigated his way through the rush of characters and plot ideas,
the notebook acted as ballast. "In every scene remember his size,
ugliness," Miller reminds himself about Loman
on its second page. "Remember his own attitude.
Remember pity." He analyzes his characters' motives. "Willy wants
his sons to destroy his failure," he writes, and on a later page,
"Willy resents Linda's unbroken, patient forgiveness (knowing there must
be great hidden hatred for him in her heart)." In Miller's notebook, characters
emerge sound and fully formed. For instance, of Willy's idealized elder son,
Biff, who is a lost soul fallen from his high-school glory and full of hate
for his father, he writes, "Biff is traveled, oppressed by guilt of
failure, of not making money although a kind of indolence pleases him: an
easygoing way of life…Truthfully, Biff is not really bright enough to make a
businessman. Wants everything too fast." Miller also talks to himself
about the emotional stakes and the trajectory of scenes:
Have it happen that Willy’s life is in Biff's hands--
aside from succeeding. There is Willy's guilt to Biff re: The Woman. But is
that retrievable? There is Biff's disdain for Willy's character, his false
aims, his pretense and these Biff cannot finally
give up or alter. Discover the link between Biff’s work views and his
Although the notebook begins with a series of choppy asides and outlines, it
soon becomes an expansive, exact handwritten log of Miller's contact with his
inner voices. For instance, it reveals the development of Charley, Loman's benevolent next-door neighbor, whose laconic
evenhandedness was, in Miller's eyes, partly a projection of his own father.
Charley speaks poignantly to Biff at Willy's graveside ("Nobody dast blame this man"); what appears in the last
scene as a taut and memorable nine-line speech, a kind of eulogy, was mined
from words (here indicated in italics) that were part of a much longer
improvisation in the notebook:
A salesman doesn't build anything, he don’t put a bolt
to a nut or a seed in the ground. A man who doesn't build anything must be
liked. He must he cheerful on bad days. Even calamities mustn't break
through. 'Cause one thing, he has got to be liked. He don't
tell you the law or give you medicine. So there's no rock bottom to your
life. All you know is that on good days or bad, you gotta
come in cheerful. No calamity must be permitted to break through, 'Cause
one thing, always, you’re a man who’s gotta be
believed. You’re way out there riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when
they start not smilin' back, the sky falls in.
And then you get a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. 'Cause
there’s no rock bottom to your life.
Here, as in all his notes for the play, Miller's passion and his flow are
apparent in the surprising absence of cross-outs; the pages exude a startling
alertness. He is listening not just to the voices of his characters but to
the charmed country silence around him, which seems to define his creative
state of grace:
Roxbury - At night the insects softly thumping the
screens like a blind man pushing with his fingers in the dark . . . The
crickets, frogs, whippoorwills altogether, a
scream from the breast of the earth when everyone is gone. The evening sky,
faded gray, like the sea pressing up against the windows, or an opaque gray
screen. (Through which someone is looking in at me?)
On a bright-blue December afternoon last year, Miller, now eighty-three,
returned to the cabin with his third wife, the photographer Inge Morath. Although she has
lived with Miller for more than three decades, only one mile away from the
"Salesman" studio, she had never seen the place. "The main
house was occupied by people I didn't know. They were sort of engineer
people. Very antipathetic," Miller said, swinging his red Volkswagen
into the driveway of the new, friendly writer-owners. In a tan windbreaker
and a baseball cap, he looked as rough-hewn and handy as any local farmer.
(The dining room tables and chairs in his current, cluttered 1782 farmhouse
are Miller's handiwork, produced in his carpentry workshop.) After a cursory
inspection of his old home, Miller, who is six feet three and stoops a little
now, set off toward the cabin, up a steep hump that sits a few hundred paces
from the back of the house. "In those days, I didn't think this hill was
quite as steep," he said.
The cabin, a white clapboard construction in somewhat urgent need of a new
coat of paint, stood just over the top of the rise, facing west, toward a
thicket of birch trees and a field. "Oh, it will last as long as it's
painted," Miller said, inspecting what he had wrought. "See, if a
building has a sound roof, that's it, you'll keep it."
"I didn't know it was so tiny," Morath
said. She snapped off a few photos, then waved her
husband into the foreground for a picture before we all crowded into what
proved to be a single high-ceilinged room. Except for a newly installed
fluorescent light and some red linoleum that had been fitted over the
floorboards, what Miller saw was what he'd built. He stepped outside to see
if the cabin had been wired for electricity. (It had.) He inspected the three
cinder blocks on which it was securely perched against the side of the hill.
''I did the concrete," he recalled. Leaving, he turned to take a last
look. "I learned a lot doing it," he said. "The big problem
was getting the rafters of the roof up there alone. I finally built it on the
ground and then swung them up." He added, "It's a bit like
playwriting, you know. You get to a certain point,
you gotta squeeze your way out of it."
Where does the alchemy of a great play begin? The seeds of Death of a
Salesman were planted decades before Miller stepped into his cabin.
"Selling was in the air through my boyhood," says Miller, whose
father, Isidore, was the salesman-turned-owner of
the Miltex Coat and Suit Company, which was a
thriving enough business to provide the family with a spacious apartment on
110th Street in Harlem, a country bungalow, and a limousine and driver.
"The whole idea of selling successfully was very important." Just
as Miller was entering his teens, however, his father's business was wiped
out by the Depression. Isidore's response was
silence and sleep ("My father had trouble staying awake"); his
son's response was anger. ''I had never raised my voice against my father,
nor did he against me, then or ever," wrote Miller, who had to postpone
going to college for two years-- until 1934-- because "nobody was in
possession of the fare." "As I knew perfectly well, it was not he
who angered me, only his failure to cope with his fortune's collapse,"
Miller went on in his autobiography. "Thus I had two fathers, the real
one and the metaphoric, and the latter I resented because he did not know how
to win out over the general collapse."
Death of a Salesman is a lightning rod both for a father's
bewilderment ("What's the secret?" Willy asks various characters)
and for a son's fury at parental powerlessness ("You fake! You phony
little fake!" Biff tells Willy when they finally square off, in Act II).
After the play's success, Miller's mother, Augusta, found an early manuscript
called "In Memoriam," a forgotten autobiographical fragment that
Miller had written when he was about seventeen. The piece, which was
published in these pages in 1995, is about a Miltex
salesman called Schoenzeit, who had once asked
Miller for subway fare when Miller was helping him carry samples to an uptown
buyer. The real Schoenzeit killed himself the next
day by throwing himself in front of the E train; the character's
"dejected soul"-- a case of exhaustion masquerading as gaiety-- is
the first sighting of what would become Willy Loman.
"His emotions were displayed at the wrong times always, and he knew when
to laugh," Miller wrote. In 1952, Miller, rummaging through his papers,
found a 1937 notebook in which he had made embryonic sketches of Willy, Biff,
and Willy's second son, Happy. "It was the same family," he says of
the twenty pages of realistic dialogue. "But I was unable in that
straightforward, realistic form to contain what I thought of as the man's
poetry-- that is, the zigzag shots of his mind." He adds, ''I blotted it
Every masterpiece is a story of accident and accomplishment. Of all the
historical and personal forces that fed the making of Death of a Salesman,
none was more important than a moment in 1947 when Miller's uncle Manny
Newman accosted him in the lobby of the Colonial Theatre in Boston after a
matinee of All My Sons. "People regarded him as a kind of
strange, completely untruthful personality," Miller says of Newman, a
salesman and a notorious fabulist, who within the year would commit suicide.
''I thought of him as a kind of wonderful inventor. There was something in
him which was terribly moving, because his suffering
was right on his skin, you see. He was the ultimate climber up the ladder who
was constantly being stepped on by those climbing past him. My empathy for
him was immense. I mean, how could he possibly have succeeded? There was no
way." According to Miller, Newman was "cute and ugly, a bantam with
a lisp. Very charming." He and his family, including two sons, Abby and
Buddy, lived modestly in Brooklyn. "It was a house without irony,
trembling with resolutions and shouts of victories that had not yet taken place
but surely would tomorrow," Miller recalled in "Timebends."
Newman was fiercely, wackily competitive; even when Miller was a child, in
the few hours he spent in Newman's presence his uncle drew him into some kind
of imaginary contest "which never stopped in his mind." Miller, who
was ungainly as a boy, was often compared unfavorably with his cousins, and
whenever he visited them, he said, ''I always had to expect some kind of
insinuation of my entire life's probable failure."
When Newman approached Miller after that matinee, he had not seen his nephew
for more than a decade. He had tears in his eyes, but instead of
complimenting the playwright, he told Miller, "Buddy is doing very
well." Miller says now, "He had simply picked up the conversation
from fifteen years before. That element of competitiveness-- his son
competing with me-- was so alive in his head that there was no gate to keep
it from his mouth. He was living in two places at the same time." Miller
continues, "So everything is in the present. For him to say 'Buddy is
doing very well'-- there are no boundaries. It's all now. It's all now. And
that to me was wonderful."
At the time, Miller was absorbed in the tryout of All My Sons and had
"not the slightest interest in writing about a salesman." Until All
My Sons, Miller's plays had not been naturalistic in style; he had
"resolved to write a play that could be put on," and had "put
two years into All My Sons to be sure that I believed every page of
it." But Miller found naturalism, with its chronological exposition,
"not sensuous enough" as a style; he began to imagine a kind of
play where, as in Greek drama, issues were confronted head on, and where the
transitions between scenes were pointed rather than disguised. The success of
All My Sons emboldened him. ''I could now move into unknown
territory," Miller says. "And that unknown territory was basically
that we're thinking on several planes at the same time. I wanted to find a
way to try to make everything happen at once." In his introduction to
the fiftieth anniversary edition of Death of a Salesman, Miller
writes, "The play had to move forward not by following a narrow discreet
line, but as a phalanx." He continues, "There was no model I could
adapt for this play, no past history for the kind of work I felt it could
become." The notebook for the play shows Miller formulating a philosophy
for the kind of Cubist stage pictures that would become his new style:
Life is formless - its interconnections are cancelled by
lapses of time, by events occurring in separate places, by the hiatus of
memory. We live in the world made by man and the past. Art suggests or
makes the interconnection palpable. Form is the tension of these
interconnections: man with man, man with the past and present environment.
The drama at its best is a mass experience of this tension.
At first, the Manny Newman encounter inspired in Miller only the intimation
of a new, slashing sense of dramatic form. The play's structure is embedded
in the structure of Loman's turbulent mind, which, Miller
says, destroys the boundaries between then and now. As a result, "there
are no flashbacks, strictly speaking, in Death of a Salesman," he
says. "It's always moving forward." In this way, Miller jettisoned
what he calls "the daylight continuity" of naturalism for the more
fluid dark logic of dreams. "In a dream you don't have transitional
material," Miller says. "The dream starts where it starts to mean
something." He continues, ''I wanted to start every scene at the last
possible instant, no matter where that instant happened to be." He
picked up a copy of his play and read me its first beats: "
'Willy?' 'It's all right. I came back.' 'Why? What happened? Did
something happen, Willy?' 'No, nothing happened.'" He added, "We're
into the thing in three lines." His new structure jump-started both the
scenes and the stage language, whose intensity Miller called "emergency
speech"-- an "unashamedly open" idiom that replaced "the
crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the natural." Willy dies without
a secret; the play's structure, with its crosscutting between heightened
moments, encouraged the idea of revelation. The audience response that Miller
wanted to incite, he said, "was not 'What happens next and why?' so much
as 'Oh, God, of course.'"
When, early in 1948, Miller visited his cousin Abby Newman to talk about the
blighted life of his late father, Miller himself had just such an epiphany.
Newman told Miller, "He wanted a business for us. So we could all work
together. A business for the boys." Miller, who repeated Newman's words
in the play, wrote in his autobiography, "This conventional, mundane
wish was a shot of electricity that switched all the random iron filings in
my mind in one direction. A hopelessly, distracted Manny was transformed into
a man with a purpose: he had been trying to make a gift that would crown all
those striving years; all those lies he told, all his imaginings and crazy
exaggerations, even the almost military discipline he had laid on his boys,
were in this instant given form and point. I suddenly understood him with my
Willy Loman is a salesman,
but we're never told what product he lugs around in his two large sample
cases. Once, a theatregoer buttonholed Miller and put the question to him:
"What's he selling? You never say what he's selling." Miller
quipped, "Well, himself. That's who's in the valise." Miller adds,
"You sell yourself. You sell the goods. You become the commodity."
Willy's house echoes with exhortations to his two floundering sons about the
presentation of self ("The man who creates personal interest is the man
who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want") and the imperialism
of self ("Lick the world. You guys together could absolutely lick the
civilized world"). In his notebook Miller writes, "Willy longs to
take off, be great," and "Willy wants his boys prepared for any
life. 'Nobody will laugh at them-- take advantage.
They'll be big men.' It's the big men who command respect." In
Willy's frenzied and exhausted attempt to claim himself, Miller had stumbled
onto a metaphor for a postwar society's eagerness to pursue its self-interest
after years of postponed life. In Willy's desperate appetite for success and
in the brutal dicta offered by his rich brother Ben ("Never fight fair
with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way") Death
of a Salesman caught the spirit of self-aggrandizement being fed by what
Miller calls "the biggest boom in the history of the world."
Americans had struggled through the Depression, then
fought a world war to keep the nation's democratic dream alive; that dream
was, broadly speaking, a dream of self-realization. America, with its ideal
of freedom, challenged its citizens to see how far they could go in a
lifetime - "to end up big," as Willy says. (In the play, Ben, whom
Willy looks to for answers - the notebook points to him as "the visible
evidence of what the boys can do and be. Superior family" - is literally
the predatory imperialist who at seventeen walked into the African jungle and
emerged four years later as a millionaire.) Miller was not the first to
dramatize the barbarity of American individualism; but, in a shift that
signaled the changing cultural mood, he was the first to stage this spiritual
battle of attrition as a journey to the interior of the American psyche.
"In a certain sense, Willy is all the voices," Miller said later.
In fact, "The Inside of His Head" was Miller's first title for the
play; he also briefly toyed with the idea of having the proscenium designed
in the shape of a head and having the action take place inside it.
In the economic upheavals of the thirties, social realism reflected the
country's mood; plays held a mirror up to the external world, not an internal
one. But in the postwar boom Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie
(1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), written in what Williams
called his "personal lyricism," suddenly found an audience and
struck a new chord in American life. The plays were subjective, poetic, the
self, not of social remedies. Indeed, the name "Willy Loman" was not intended by Miller as a sort of
socioeconomic indicator ("low man"). Miller took it from a chilling
moment in Fritz Lang's film "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse"
(1933) when, after a long and terrifying stakeout, a disgraced detective who
thinks he can redeem himself by exposing a gang
forgers is pursued and duped by them. The chase ends with the detective on
the phone to his former boss ("Loh- mann? Help me, for God's sake! Loh-
mann!"); when we see him next, he is in an asylum,
gowned and frightened and shouting into an invisible phone ("Lohmann? Lohmann? Lohmann?"). "What the
name really meant to me was a terrified man calling into the void for help
that will never come," Miller said.
Willy Loman's particular terror goes to the core of
American individualism, in which the reputable self and the issue of wealth
are hopelessly tangled. "A man can't go out the way he came in,"
Willy says to Ben. '"A man has got to add up to something." Willy,
who, at sixty, has no job, no money, no loyalty from his boys, is
sensationally lacking in assets and in their social corollary - a sense of
blessing. "He envies those who are blessed; he feels unblessed, but he's
striving for it," Miller says. Although Willy's wife, Linda, famously
says of him that "attention must be paid," he feels invisible to
the world. "I'm not noticed," he says. Later, Linda confides to the
boys, "For five weeks he's been on straight commission, like a beginner,
an unknown!" As Miller puts it now, "The whole idea of people
failing with us is that they can no longer be loved. You haven't created a
persona which people will pay for, see, experience, or come close to. It's
almost like death. You have a deathly touch. People who succeed are loved
because they exude some magical formula for fending off destruction, fending
off death." He continues, "It's the most brutal way of looking at
life that one can imagine, because it discards anyone who does not measure
up. It wants to destroy them. It's been going on since the Puritan times. You
are beyond the blessing of God. You're beyond the reach of God. That God
rewards those who deserve it. It's a moral condemnation that goes on. You
don't want to be near this failure."
Death of a Salesman was the first play to dramatize this punishing -
and particularly American - interplay of panic and achievement. Before Salesman,
Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1946) raised the issue in the
eerie calm of Harry Hope's bar, whose sodden habitues
have retreated from competitiveness into a perverse contentment; as one of
the characters says, "No one here has to worry about where they're going
next, because there is no farther they can go." But in Willy Loman, Miller was able to bring both the desperation and
the aspiration of American life together in one character.
Willy is afflicted by the notion of winning - what Brecht called
"the black addiction of the brain." He cheats at cards; he
encourages his boys to seek every advantage. Victory haunts him and his
feckless sons. In a scene from the notebook, Biff and Happy tell Willy of
their plan to go into business. "Step on it, boys, there ain't a minute
to lose," Willy tells them, but their souls are strangled by their
father's heroic dreams, which hang over them like some sort of spiritual
kudzu. In another notebook entry, Biff rounds fiercely on Willy: "I
don't care if you live or die. You think I'm mad at you because of the Woman,
don't you? I am, but I'm madder because you botched up my life, because I
can't tear you out of my heart, because I keep trying to make good, be
something for you, to succeed for you."
In dramatizing the fantasy of competition, Miller's play was the first to
dissect cultural envy in action - that process of invidious comparison
which drives society forward but also drives it crazy. "You lose your
life to it!" Miller says of the envy that feeds Willy's restlessness.
"It's the ultimate outer-directional emotion. In other words, I am doing
this not because it's flowing from me but because it's flowing against him."
He goes on, "You're living in a mirror. It's a life of reflections.
Emptiness. Emptiness. Emptiness. Hard to go to sleep at night. And hard to
wake up." In his mind, Willy is competing with his brother Ben; with
Dave Singleman, a successful old salesman who could
make a living "without ever leaving his room" and who died a
placid, accomplished death on a train to Boston; with his neighbor Charley,
who owns his own business; and with Charley's successful lawyer son, Bernard.
"Where's Willy in all this?" Miller asks. "He's competed
himself to death. He's not existing anymore, or
In his notebook Miller wrote, "It is the combination of guilt (of
failure), hate, and love - all in conflict that he resolves by accomplishing'
a 20,000 dollar death." In death, Willy is worth more than in life. His
suicide is the ultimate expression of his confusion of success with love and
also of his belief in winning at all costs. As a father, he overlooked
Biff's small childhood acts of larceny - taking sand from a building site,
stealing basketballs, getting the answers for tests from the nerdy, studious
Bernard - and Biff has continued his habit into adulthood, out of a
combination of envy and revenge. A notebook citation reads, "It is
necessary to (1) reveal to Willy that Biff stole to queer himself, and did it
to hurt Willy," and "(2) And that he did it because of the Woman
and all the disillusionment it implied." In the final version of the
play, Biff, admitting in passing that he spent three months in a Kansas City
jail for lifting a suit, tells Willy, ''I stole myself out of every good job
since high school!" At first, Miller saw the twenty thousand dollars of
insurance money as cash to put Biff on the straight and narrow. "'My
boy's a thief - with 20,000 he'd stop it,' " he wrote in the notebook.
Instead, Willy's suicide - the final show of force and fraud, in keeping with
his demented competitive fantasies - is pitched on a more grandiose and
perverse note. In an early draft of the terrific penultimate scene, where
Biff exposes Willy and calls it quits with him and his dream, there is this
(to him): What the hell do you want from me? What do you want from me?
In Miller's final draft, Willy, who will not accept his son's confession of
thievery, takes Biff's greatness as a given as he visualizes his own suicide.
"Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his
pocket?" he says to Ben. He adds, "Imagine? When the mail comes he'll
be ahead of Bernard again." When he goes to his death, Willy, in his
mind, is on a football field with Biff, and full of vindictive triumph
("When you hit, hit low and hit hard, because it's important,
boy"). "He dies sending his son through the goalposts,"
Miller says. "He dies moving." Miller pauses. ''I think now that
Kazan had it right from the beginning. He said, 'It's a love story.' "
On the last page of his notebook, Miller scribbled a short speech to give to
the original cast after its members had read the play in galleys: ''I want
you all to know now that the cannons are quiet that this production has been
the most gratifying I have known. I believe you are the finest cast ever
gathered for any play and I am exceedingly proud and gratified not only for
myself but for the American theatre." (The original cast included Lee J.
Cobb as Willy, with Mildred Dunnock, Arthur
Kennedy, and Cameron Mitchell.) In its passage to greatness, Death of a
Salesman was enhanced enormously by the poetic set design of Jo Mielziner, who created a series of platforms, with
Willy's house as a haunting omnipresent background. However, as Elia Kazan pointed out in his autobiography, "The
stage direction in the original manuscript that Art gave me to read directly
after he'd finished it does not mention a home as a scenic element. It reads,
‘A pinpoint traveling spot lights a small area on stage left. The Salesman is
revealed. He takes out his keys and opens an invisible door.' " Kazan continues, "It was a play waiting for a
directorial solution." It got it. Death of a Salesman also got
its share of bad suggestions. Kazan's then wife, Molly Day Thacher, who was a playreader
for the Group Theatre and had some influence over Kazan, tried to get Miller,
as he remembers it, "to cut out Uncle Ben, all the memory scenes, and
simply make it a realistic little narrative." And the co-producer,
Kermit Bloomgarden, nervous of a play with Death in
its title, took a poll among theatregoers which asked, "Would you go to
see a play called Death of a Salesman?" Nobody would. "They
had a list of about fifteen titles," Miller says. "One was Free and
Clear. I'll never forget that."
In the intervening half century, the surface of American life has changed,
but its mad competitiveness hasn't. "I'm not aware of any change in the
way people look at this play," Miller says, but he admits that Willy's
complaints about loyalty from the head office ring strange to contemporary
ears. "Workers now - not just workers but management - know that nobody
will have much pity for them." Last year, in a poll taken by the Royal
National Theatre of eight hundred English theatre professionals, Miller was
voted the greatest contemporary playwright; but in America, where in some
quarters he's seen as a kind of Jeremiah, Miller is not accorded quite the
same honor. He ascribes his decline in popularity to the erosion of the
"unified audience" that came with the rise of the avant-garde in
the early sixties. "The only theatre available to a playwright in the
late forties was Broadway," Miller writes in the fiftieth anniversary
edition of Salesman. "That theatre had one single audience . . .
catering to very different levels of age, culture, education, and
intellectual sophistication." He continues, "One result of this mix
was the ideal, if not frequent fulfillment, of a kind of play that would be
complete rather than fragmentary, an emotional rather than an intellectual
experience, a play basically of heart with its ulterior moral gesture
integrated with action rather than rhetoric. In fact, it was a Shakespearean
ideal, a theatre for anyone with an understanding of English and perhaps some
But there was nothing Shakespearean in the response to "that damned
disturbing play," as Kazan called it, on the night of its debut, February
10, 1949, in Philadelphia. "The curtain came down and nothing
happened," Miller says. "People sat there a good
two or three minutes, then somebody stood up with his coat. Several
men - I didn't see women doing this - were helpless. They were sitting there
with handkerchiefs over their faces. It was like a funeral." He
continues, "I didn't know whether the show was dead or alive. The cast
was back there wondering what had happened. Nobody'd pulled the curtain up. Finally, someone thought
to applaud, and then the house came apart."
© 1999 The New Yorker, January 25, 1999 by John Lahr.