Death of a Salesman

I’m in the middle of rehearsals for TJT’s upcoming: Death of a Salesman (Opens April 8, previews start April 5, 2007), in which I play WIlly Loman.

For schedule and tickets, click here.

Here’s what I wrote about the reasons TJT is taking on this formidable challenge:

In February, 2007, TJT begins work on a breakthrough production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman that will reclaim the Jewish context that Miller, writing in 1949, felt constrained to “censor out,” attempting to create an ethnically unmarked family whose struggles would have “universal” appeal.

Our production will be directed by our Artistic Director, Aaron Davidman. Corey Fischer and TJT Associate Artist Jeri Lynn Cohen will play Willy and Linda. Scenic design will be done by Giulio Cesare Perrone (designer of our productions Opening to You and Isaac). Jess Ivry, whom TJT audiences will remember from The Bright River, will perform her original, solo cello score live throughout the run.

Why a Jewish Death of a Salesman?

TJT has always held, as a working principle, that universality can only come from specificity. We’re certainly not alone in this view; more and more late 20th and 21st century writers, artists and thinkers have moved beyond the notion that specific ethnic or cultural markers needed to be jettisoned in order to create works of a truly universal value. This mid-century notion may have been a reaction of second generation immigrants to the limitations of the “old world.” What I find fascinating is that, almost in spite of himself, Miller created a character (Willy Loman) who is caught is that very struggle to assimilate, to re-invent himself as an American free of the poverty, backwardness and isolation of the shtetl or the ghetto. But Miller, in 1949, was perhaps – as a writer, anyway – caught in that struggle himself and felt bound to make Willy a generic American.

Willy Loman was recognized as a crypto-Jew as far back as 1951, when one of the most accomplished actors of the Yiddish theatre, Joseph Buloff, translated the play into Yiddish and played the role of Willy. The production was a huge success in New York and on tour. George Ross wrote, in a review of the Yiddish Death of a Salesman:

“The great success of Joseph Buloff’s production is that it brings the play “home.” The effect is remarkable. Buloff has caught Miller, as it were, in the act of changing his name…”

And just last year, the contemporary Jewish playwright Karen Hartman wrote,

“Death of a Salesman suggests but does not explain an immigrant anxiety, the fallout from Anatevka with all clues removed. The Lomans seem alone in the world, or at least in Brooklyn. The sense of them as a displaced family comes through the absence of any other relatives (Willy, the son of an unnamed Midwestern peddler, has lost his only brother two weeks before the play begins) or history, rather than culturally specific referents—no pogroms, no old country yarns, no particular cause for feeling “kind of temporary” about oneself. The play’s Judaism, like that of its characters, lies in its not being anything else—not rooted New England, not a sweetly rotting South. Details have been erased, leaving a sparse, attenuated world that is universal and also incomplete.

I’d suggest that the psychically fluid structure of Salesman tends to stick for contemporary playwrights, while its resistance to naming Jewish content has changed for now. For example, it’s impossible to envision the shifting structure of Angels in America without Death of a Salesman, but equally difficult to imagine Tony Kushner holding back cultural detail.” (http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=131)

So the intention behind our production is to restore those missing “clues.” Unlike the infamous production of The Crucible by New York’s Wooster Group (it was subject to a cease and desist order initiated by Arthur Miller) TJT will take no liberties with the text, but will, rather, explore it from its own particular perspective and esthetic – that of a contemporary Jewish ensemble theatre.

As Karen Hartman points out, Miller was not entirely successful in purging all yiddishkeit from his play. It reveals itself in the monitory cadence of a line like “Attention must be paid..” Ross, referring to this line, writes: “Here, and in many places, one felt in the English version as if Miller were thinking in Yiddish and unconsciously translating…and sometimes when his English filters through the density of his background, it succeeds in picking up flavor on the way.”

For a company who has based its 28 year-old reputation on the creation of original work and the development of new plays across a variety of forms, engaging with an iconic American play can be seen as a radical new direction. Likewise, realizing that the largest part of its work has looked toward the Eastern European Jewish Diaspora, the Shoah, the Middle-East for inspiration, we want to explore the American Jewish experience of the last few decades; the period in which American Jewish identity went through such surprising transformations.

An interesting side note to the 1951 Yiddish production by Joseph Buloff can be found at: http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=331. Chloe Veltman interviewed Luba Kadison, Buloff’s widow and an important yiddish theatre performer in her own right. Veltman says:

“Arthur Miller was delighted with her portrayal of Linda in a Yiddish version of Death of a Salesman at the Parkway Theatre in Brooklyn in 1951, as was the scholar Harold Bloom, who wrote to Kadison just a few weeks before her death, saying her Salesman was the most moving he’d ever seen.”

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