The question at the heart of Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s predominantly black production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is what (if any) additional resonance has been added to this perennial masterpiece? August Wilson, considered by many to be America’s black equivalent of Miller, was outspoken in his disapproval of a colored Salesman. Speaking in 1996 to the New Yorker, he went on record saying, “To mount an all-black production of Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition … is to deny our own humanity, our own history.” The celebrated critic and biographer John Lahr agreed, saying that by replacing Willy Loman’s Jewish roots with an African American sensibility is “to change something elemental in the play’s lament.” Yet there is nothing in the play that implicitly states that Willy Loman and his family are Jewish. What Miller intended was an Everyman tragedy that could be universally experienced and appreciated. It was only toward the end of his life that he acknowledged that the Lomans were, indeed, Jewish.
Elliott and Cromwell’s staging isn’t all black. The Loman’s neighbours are white, as is Willy’s callous boss Howard. Nor is their concept just another case of fashionable color-blind casting. Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce), his long-suffering but supportive wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) and their feckless, selfish layabout sons Biff (Arinze Kene) and Happy (Martins Imhangbe) are meant to be an African American family living in Brooklyn in 1949, which, as a programme note points out, was certainly feasible but with a great deal more discrimination than their Jewish counterparts.
My concern, in purely practical terms, is that this concept doesn’t always make a great deal of sense. Apart from the addition of some mood-enhancing gospel and blues singing, the text remains faithful to the original, with one exception: The college Willy dreams of sending Biff to isn’t Virginia – which would not of course have been possible for a man of color in 1949. Instead, it has been changed to UCLA.
By making this distinction, however, we’re asked to accept that a racially divided America would have tolerated without incident or impediment a black salesman peddling his wares for 34 years up and down the overwhelmingly white Eastern seaboard. Not only that, but Willy, we’re told, was so well liked, local police officers allowed him to park his car in restricted areas. Really?
Equally unlikely is the fact that a black salesman would have been welcome in a white hotel in conservative Boston where he took the considerable risk of paying a white hooker to keep him company.
Nothing, apart from the atmospheric, mood-enhancing music (by Femi Temowo) persuaded me that I was watching something specifically African American. If the underlying impetus of the production was to equate Willy’s impossible American dream with the appalling struggle for acceptance by an oppressed race whose ancestors suffered the cruelties and indignities of slavery, it didn’t come across.
Only once, when Willy refers to one of his sons as “boy” and sings a song about getting a rope to make a backyard swing for him, did the image of lynching come into my mind. In the main, though, this Willy Loman’s downfall has nothing to do with the color of his skin or with his role in a predominantly white society. On the contrary, his achievements were many: marrying a loving wife, having two sons whose education he paid for, securing a roof over their heads and a job he held for 34 years.
But that wasn’t enough. One of the several torments that filled his head with demons (Miller originally called the play The Inside of His Head) and contributed to his suicide was his failure as a young man to take risks such as going to Alaska with his brother Ben (Joseph Mydell), who found his fortune there and who in flashback constantly haunts his memories.
Also gnawing away at him is the jealousy and resentment he feels for his only friend and neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper). Most damaging of all, though, is his inability to reconcile himself to the fact that his favorite son Biff, who had such youthful potential, went to pieces after discovering him in that Boston hotel room with his whore. Willy Loman is and always was a victim of his own human frailty and unfulfilled dreams. His failure has nothing to do with the color of his skin.
That said, this is as moving a revival of Salesman as I can remember. Elliott and Cromwell’s direction mixes just the right blend of reality, fantasy and memory, and effectively melds music and text. And while the expressionistic set by Anna Fleischle couldn’t be further in concept from Jo Mielziner’s original Broadway design, her levitating skeletal window frames and floating pieces of furniture are an uncomfortable echo of Willy’s slowly disintegrating mind.
Ultimately, all productions of Death of a Salesman rely on its quartet of central performances, and American actor Pierce (The Wire, Suits) makes a mighty impressive West End debut as one of the most iconic characters in 20th-century American drama. His Loman is an awesome portrait of unrestrained emotion, bottled guilt, forced joviality and, on occasion, unchecked fury.
As his supportive wife Linda, Clarke, one of the undoubted jewels in Britain’s multi-faceted theatrical crown, breaks your heart, while in the play’s wrenching final scene she tries to keep hers intact. Her dignity and poise are luminous, and her quiet singing of the spiritual that brings this epic domestic tragedy to a close will haunt me for quite a while.
As a singularly buff Biff – the more emotionally scarred of the brothers – Kene does battle with his own guilt and failure, and most painfully, with the disintegration of his relationship with the father he once adored and who still cherishes unrealistic dreams for him. Biff’s climactic scene, though, when he breaks down and cries uncontrollably in his father’s presence, would have had more impact had he reined in the shouting.
Inhangbe, as the passive, less conflicted Happy, touchingly but ineffectually attempts to keep the peace in this fractious household. And there are excellent performances from Ian Bonar as Biff’s upwardly mobile white friend and neighbour Bernard, from Mydell as Willy’s brother Ben and from Matthew Seadon-Young, who offers standout support as Willy’s employer Howard. In one of the play’s most shattering scenes, he chills your blood as a man more interested in his newly acquired wire-recorder than in Willy’s future, even to the point of recoiling from the merest hint of physical contact with him.
I’m not sure what Arthur Miller would have made of it all, but attention was paid, and an emotionally drained audience gave it a standing ovation.