Arthur Miller: An American Classic

February 10, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: February 10, 1949, “Death of a Salesman” starring Lee J. Cobb premiered in New York. Tonight, exactly half a century later, Willy Loman returns to Broadway with Brian Dennehy as America’s most tragic traveling salesman.

(Scene from Play)

BRIAN DENNEHY: Why don’t you open a window in here — for God’s sakes!

ELIZABETH FRANZ: They’re all open here.

BRIAN DENNEHY: The way they boxed us in here, bricks and windows, windows and bricks.

ELIZABETH FRANZ: We should have bought the land next door.

BRIAN DENNEHY: Lined with cars. Not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass still growing, and, boy, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should have had a law against apartment houses!

PAUL SOLMAN: This is the play’s third Broadway revival. George C. Scott played Willy in 1975, Dustin Hoffman in 1984.


DUSTIN HOFFMAN: It’s all right.

PAUL SOLMAN: But off-Broadway, usually way off, “Salesman” has been performed non-stop for five decades. Robert Falls directs the current revival first staged in Chicago’s Goodman Theater last fall. They’re working on the New York set in the background.

ROBERT FALLS, Director: You can go to Kansas City, you could go to Miami Beach, you could go to a college in Utah, you could go to a theater in Japan, you could go to a theater in the Soviet Union, and this play is sitting in the repertoire of the world theaters and of American theaters. It’s a play that for 50 years has never lost its popularity.

PAUL SOLMAN: Playwright Arthur Miller was only 33 when he won a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for “Death of a Salesman” in 1949. The play takes place in Brooklyn during the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life, as he’s play played by his failures and those of his sons, especially the older one, Biff. The idea had come two years earlier when he bumped into his Uncle Manny, the salesman, after a performance of his first hit play “All My Sons. “

ARTHUR MILLER, Playwright: I was coming out of the theater and there he was — I hadn’t seen him in – I don’t know — 10 or 15 years, and I greeted him and without a word he said the equivalent of “Biff is doing very well.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Biff, the son of Willy Loman in the play?

ARTHUR MILLER: And I’m using Biff but the real name was not Biff. And the idea suddenly struck me that he’s living in two different eras at the same time.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because he’s talking about his son, your cousin?

ARTHUR MILLER: He’s talking about his son, my cousin. I haven’t seen this man in 15 years, but you see what he was carrying forward was his competitive race with me between me and his son as of 30 years before.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so here you had your play and he’s saying to you, “hey, your cousin’s doing just as well.”

ARTHUR MILLER: Just as well. It was very touching. At the same time, it was miraculous that the human brain could be running on two different tracks like that. So the play is filled with these concurrences where somebody — he’s talking to a man that he’s playing cards with and at the same time he’s talking to somebody who died 25 years before.

Scene from Play:

BRIAN DENNEHY: I’ve got to talk to you.

(BEN LOMAN): I haven’t the time, William.

BRIAN DENNEHY: Ben, Ben, nothing is working out! I don’t know what to do!

(BEN LOMAN): Now, look here, William. I bought timberland in Alaska and I need a man to look after things for me.

BRIAN DENNEHY: You have timberland? Me and my boys, the grand outdoors.

PAUL SOLMAN: Assailed by voices from the past, exhausted by years of false cheer on the road, Willy is unraveling. He begs his young boss for a desk job at almost any salary, instead he’s fired from the only job he’s ever had. In the end, Willy kills himself, as Miller’s Uncle Manny did not long after his encounter with his nephew at “All My Sons.” For the audience, watching can be almost unbearable.

BRIAN DENNEHY, Actor: I see extremely sophisticated very successful New Yorkers with absolutely no questions at all about who they are, how far they’ve come, and how right their lives are. I see them dissolve in tears, their shoulders shaking, ready to just go home.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s also an apt account of the cast’s condition at the end of this three-hour performance. In the preview we saw, Elizabeth Franz, Willy Loman’s wife wept so desperately at the end of the play that when the curtain call came, she was still shaking with sobs.

ARTHUR MILLER: Originally, of course, when we first performed and people didn’t know what to expect, they didn’t applaud at all for a good three, four minutes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Three or four minutes?

ARTHUR MILLER: Oh, yeah — and then suddenly would remember to applaud because there were actors behind the curtain. And it would take them several minutes to think about it.

WILLY: (in play) But you can’t sell that.

PAUL SOLMAN: For both actors and audience, then, it can be a truly cathartic experience. But why would a 50-year-old play about a pathetic small-time loser still resonate so powerfully?

ROBERT FALLS: You cannot come out of it without going, “I know somebody like that. That’s my father, that’s my brother, that’s my son, that’s my uncle.” And that’s a work of genius to have that happen.

Scene from Play:

(LOMAN’S SON): Where’d you go this time dad?

BRIAN DENNEHY: Well, I got on the road, went north to Providence, I met the mayor.

(LOMAN’S SON): The mayor of Providence.

BRIAN DENNEHY: He was sitting in the hotel lobby.

(LOMAN’S SON): What did he say?

BRIAN DENNEHY: He said, “Morning.” And I said “You got a fine city here, Mayor.” And he had coffee with me.

ROBERT FALLS: This is about a father who loves his son so much that he sort of passes on all the sort of wrong values, if you’re liked, if you’re handsome enough, if you’re charming enough — it’s all about sort of surface appearances. And I think that’s still a lesson that we see today. I mean, if anything, we live in a society which is far more disposable than ever, the fact that we’re always looking for the newer – the hotter – you’re going to be displaced sometime for a younger guy, a younger, more attractive guy than you are. I’m going to be displaced for exactly the same reason.

PAUL SOLMAN: “Death of a Salesman” has lived through its share of historical changes. Written early in the Cold War, its cynical take on the American dream made it a political hot potato. When the film version was made in 1951 starring Frederick March, the studio decided to release it with an accompaniment.

ARTHUR MILLER: Columbia Pictures made a film called “The Life of a Salesman” which they wanted to show with the “Death of a Salesman.” It was short, the brunt of which was that “the life of a salesman” was. — couldn’t be better; that it was a wonderful profession, that people thrived on it, and there were no problems at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, the Frederick March feature itself made Willy into a very untypical salesman — a sort of lunatic.

ARTHUR MILLER: And, indeed, the film suffered because they tended to make him crazy. And it was a real politically influenced film and I complained about it. But I didn’t have any control over it at the time.

PAUL SOLMAN: You didn’t have any control over the total film?


PAUL SOLMAN: But what about this short?

ARTHUR MILLER: The short I complained about and pretended I knew what I was talking about and I said, “I’ll sue you for –” whatever I invented. And they — I think they showed it once or twice, but it was so dreadful that they simply withdrew it. And it’s the only time that a movie company put out a picture to destroy the film that they had just made. That’s how terrified people were.

PAUL SOLMAN: This was the terror of the McCarthy era when hundreds of prominent Americans were called before Congress to testify about their left-wing affiliations and name those with whom they’d associated. In 1952, two of Miller’s colleagues from the original “Death of a Salesman” production –Director Elia Kazan and actor Lee J. Cobb — named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The 1954 movie, “On the Waterfront” was a sort of defense of their actions. When it came Miller’s turn to testify before the committee, however, he refused. In fact, he didn’t take the fifth, the amendment that protects Americans from self-incrimination, but the first, the right to free speech. Miller was convicted of contempt and sentenced to a year in prison. The Supreme Court later softened the blow.

ARTHUR MILLER: They suspended the sentence but I still had to pay a $500 fine, which hurt. And so — but I must say that my thing came at the sort of — near the end of the whole fever that was not on the front pages anymore.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, you were on the front pages?

ARTHUR MILLER: Yeah, well, they — that’s why they brung me in; it was to get back on the front page. That was the whole thing. The chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities told my lawyer that he’d call off the hearing if he could take a picture with Marilyn Monroe. That was what the whole thing was all about.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean it was because you and Marilyn Monroe were married at that point?

ARTHUR MILLER: Sure. Had we not been — I would never have been subpoenaed, in my opinion.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was during the Cold War that Miller wrote “The Crucible” and a parable of the so-called McCarthy witch-hunts. It also plays worldwide to this day. His “View From the Bridge” has often been revived as well, and he’s been writing plays throughout, many of them critical of American culture — but none more critical nor more popular than “Death of a Salesman.”

PAUL SOLMAN: So the dog-eat-dog competitive capitalism that you see in “Death of a Salesman,” are you more resigned to it, sympathetic to it?

ARTHUR MILLER: I object to it, but formerly I thought that a socialist solution would resolve some of these problems. The only thing is, is that where we have had a socialist solution, it has raised up innumerable other problems that you stand and pause a bit before you really could go down that road.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you don’t know what to do?

ARTHUR MILLER: So — I don’t know what to do.

PAUL SOLMAN: America’s most famous living playwright is better known for his early than his later plays. He’s been celebrated in England for decades but less so in America. Just last week, however, a street in New York City’s theater district was named “Arthur Miller Way.”

ARTHUR MILLER: If I could only park my car there. But I can’t.

PAUL SOLMAN: But how does it feel to be –

ARTHUR MILLER: Well, it feels great. I’m glad that in my own country, finally, this kind of recognition takes place and I just am pleased, immensely, with the fact.

PAUL SOLMAN: Arthur Miller, thank you very much.

ARTHUR MILLER: Thank you, Paul.