Theater Review: Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

I’ve been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac lately. Just before going to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Death of a Salesman, I realized that Kerouac’s use of the word “beat,” which came to be adopted for “the Beat Generation,” was contemporaneous with Arthur Miller’s writing of this play. It was in 1948 that Kerouac used the term “beat” to describe what he thought was a generation of “people who had been beaten down, worn out, exhausted.” (William Morgan, The Typewriter is Holy) He only later amended this definition “to emphasize the beatific, blessed or sympathetic qualities of his generation.”

When Arthur Miller was writing Death of a Salesman in 1948, he wouldn’t have known about this term. It didn’t become common until the 1950s, and Kerouac’s Beat classic On the Road wasn’t published until 1957, even though it relates events that took place between 1947 and 1950. Both of these take place right after World War II, in an era of post-war fatigue, sudden economic prosperity, but also a new nuclear world.

I mention this to draw a parallel to the characters of Death of a Salesman and the context of a nascent counterculture, one that would question the tenets of what it meant to be American.

Willy Loman is most definitely “beat,” in the original sense of the term. A failed salesman, with plenty of braggadocio, Loman is at the twilight of his life, and realizes that he has never achieved anything important; never attained the success he had expected. Not only that, his two sons, Biff and Happy, haven’t broken out either. While Happy has a job, as a sort of assistant salesman, Biff has just returned home after wandering for a while, after being on the road, working most recently on a ranch in Texas, and spending a few months in jail for stealing a suit.

In this post-war period, business, and especially sales, was the thing to do. A salesman, one who made a living from his words, was the crowning example of the American dream, of a man who could invent himself, build himself from nothing, with just a few good jokes and a bit of gumption. But Willy Loman had never really made it. Living in a house in Brooklyn, stuck between two recently-built apartment buildings, he wasn’t successful enough to move to the new Levittowns being constructed on Long Island. At 63, he had reached the point when he simply couldn’t go on, and wanted to stop traveling and take a desk job.

In the end, Willy, realizing that there was nothing left, did the wrong thing for what he thought was the right reasons, taking advantage of his $20,000 life insurance policy to give his family a bit of financial security.

Director Gregory Doran has said “I believe ‘Death of a Salesman’ is the greatest American play and is of a scale, ambition and power of any Shakespeare play,” and he certainly treats it as such. On the main stage at the RSC, where Shakespeare plays are regularly performed, this drama takes on a great deal of significance. With Antony Sher as Willy Loman, there is even a certain continuity between this part and the actor’s previous role as Falstaff in Henry IV, and his upcoming King Lear. Loman is part Falstaff – when he brags about his successes, and exaggerates how much he has sold and how much he likes – and part Lear – when he is trying to deal with what he is leaving to his sons.Sher is simply masterful. From the first moments when he shuffles in, arms weighed down by two heavy valises, entering the stage on one of the voms, to his final moments before he ends his life, Sher inhabits Willy Loman. After seeing him as the rousing Falstaff last year, it’s quite a revelation to discover this actor’s ability to be understated, to develop the character of Willy Loman in his movements and body language, in addition to his words. Sher is stiff, tired, aching, as this man approaching retirement faces the truth of his life. The weight on his shoulders shows as Sher alternates between standing tall and slouching ever so slightly to show the different period’s in Loman’s life.

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The play centers around a family of four, and all of the lead actors are excellent. Harriet Walker, who has a long history with the RSC, and notably played Lady Macbeth to Sher’s Macbeth at the RSC in 1999, is very moving as Linda Loman, a woman does everything to support her husband. Very close to breaking down, Walker wears a tired expression on her face, but never loses hope. Even at the end, after Willy is gone, she retains her dignity, and her performance, and her final lines, are filled with pathos yet hope.

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The two sons, Biff and Happy, are played by Alex Hassell and Sam Marks. While Happy’s character isn’t very complex – he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps – Biff is the conflicted one, and Hassell is excellent in this role. I had found him to be a bit too showy as Prince Hal in the two Henry IV plays last year, but in this play, Hassell is very moving. He alternates smoothly between the football player with a future, seen in the flashbacks, and the Sal Paradise character (Sal Paradise is Kerouac’s alter ego in On the Road), trying to find his way in life. He’s the prodigal son, returned after wandering around the country, hoping to find something that he can do to be great. In the end, he realizes that greatness is not an option, and Hassell’s metamorphosis during the performance is stunning.

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All of the secondary characters – especially Joshua Richards as the neighbor Charley, and Guy Paul as Willy’s brother Ben – are impeccable.

What helps make this production work so well is the excellent design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, which takes advantage of the RST’s thrust stage, while offering a set that recalls a proscenium arch stage. (This set may have been designed, in fact, to be transferred to a standard theater.) At the back of the stage is a fixed set of the Loman’s house, while the front of the stage is used for Willy’s flashbacks, and for the scenes that take place in other locations, such as the restaurant and offices. A riser comes up from the very front of the stage for some scenes, such as the hotel room in Boston where Loman is consorting with a woman, and the garden where Willy plants seeds, which becomes his grave after his death. Tim Mitchell’s excellent lighting helps shift the scene from the present to the past, focusing on each section of the stage as necessary.

The only thing that irked me in this production it was the actors’ American accents. They all sounded just a bit false to this New Yorker, with Sher especially slipping at times when he was at his most boisterous. Alex Hassell particularly sounded a bit too smooth with his accent, as though he was overly conscious of trying to get it right, but that didn’t get in the way of enjoying the show.

This was an immensely moving production, perhaps the most poignant I’ve seen yet at the RSC. This is a short run, playing only through May 2, so if you want to see it don’t wait. (Though, given the stellar reviews, one may expect a London transfer.) It’s a shame that the RSC isn’t filming this and broadcasting it to cinemas; I’m very glad I have tickets to see it again before it closes.

Updated: the day after I wrote my review, the RSC announced that the play will be transferring to London after the Stratford-Upon-Avon run ends. Find out more on the RSC website.

(Photos by Ellie Kurttz for the RSC.)

Some thoughts on Death of a Salesman.

I’d first read Death of a Salesmen in high school, and re-read it a half-dozen years ago in the excellent Library of America edition of Miller’s plays. (, Amazon UK) Thinking about the play after seeing it on stage, I wondered about certain aspects of it, particularly in light of Jack Kerouac. Unlike Biff and Happy, Kerouac and Neal Cassady – the two main protagonists in On the Road – were too young to go to war. Yet Biff and Happy would have fought in the war, especially with both of them being is such good physical shape. Wondering why there is no mention of this, I came across the following in The Columbia Journal of American Studies:

“Finally, a point that is strangely more apparent now than it was likely to have been when Salesman first appeared in 1949: the drama is set in the late 1940s and reaches back some fifteen years to the early 1930s, yet there is scarcely a mention of the Great Depression–or of World War II? How did the Loman sons escape the war, and if they did, were they criticized or attacked for not serving in the military? If they didn’t escape military service, wouldn’t the reunited brothers have had something to say about it? About the Holocaust? And wouldn’t the postwar economic boom itself have had some effect in the present on Willy’s view of a promise-crammed America, not to speak of the Depression’s effect in the past on Willy’s view of that same America and his decreased earning power in it?”

This prosperity makes one wonder what exactly Loman was selling. In the play, his sales have gone down drastically, to the point that he is no longer on salary, but only earning commissions, and eventually gets fired from his job. Loman is not just a loser for being unsuccessful, but he is also a loser for not being able to sell something in a booming market. He is one payment away from owning his home, after a 25-year mortgage – which he would have taken out in the mid-1920s, before the Depression – and his house is clearly in a location where he could have sold it to developers and moved to a better location.

The only temporal reference in the play is one line where Loman mentions having earned $170 a week in commissions in 1928, and it seems, watching the play, that it is outside of time, that neither the Depression nor the war ever happened.