The Denver Center for the Performing Arts Blog

Panel: “Death of a Salesman” is the most important American play ever written

Montage from The Denver Center Theatre Company’s “Death of a Salesman, running throuh Oct. 20. Video by Ken Mostek.

By John Moore

The Denver Center Theatre Company opens its 35th season tonight with its first-ever staging of the most important American play ever written according to a survey of theater experts from around the country.

The Denver Post asked 177 playwrights, directors, actors, professors, critics, agents, producers, bloggers students and theatregoers to rank America’s 10 most important plays. Fittingly, America’s most significant work is often described as Greek in scope and tragedy.

Think of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” as a working-class “Oedipus Rex.”

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Miller changed the face of the American theater in 1949 when he wrote “Salesman” at age 33. Miller described Willy Loman as “an everyman who finds he must create another personality in order to make his own way in the world, and therefore, he has sold himself.”

Miller elevated the significance of ordinary people by transporting their hopes and anguish to the stage. Miller was celebrated for writing about the inequity of the American Dream, but more accurately, he wrote about the death of the American Dream. And Miller would be the first to say it was a dream that needed dying. After all, it is the elusiveness of that dream that drives washed-up Willy Loman into a tree. The dream Miller’s characters consistently failed to attain was a flawed one, for it grew out of the desperation of the Depression, and was mired in capitalism and greed.

How ironic, then, that in both the American popular culture, from Harold Hill to Dale Carnegie, the salesman has always been thought of as the great deliverer of dreams. Not here.

Miller saw salesmanship itself as the ultimate fraud — the ability to sell a commodity regardless of its intrinsic usefulness. Willy was driven by the example of tycoons such as B.F. Goodrich, but he was the ultimate contradiction, for he languished at the diminished, wrong end of capitalism’s spectrum. Willy was tragic because he bought into the dream. And if you do, Willy finally admits, “You end up more dead than alive.”

But why, 63 years after its debut, does “Death of a Salesman” remain America’s most important play? Experts credit its groundbreaking performance style, its now iconic character types, its influence on hundreds of plays that have followed, and its unfortunately enduring relatability.

“This play was a bridge from the old, pre-1950s American play to what we now consider to be modern theater,” said Denver Center Theatre Company director Anthony Powell. “Despite its kind of realistic surface, this was seriously avant-garde theatre when it premiered in 1949. The play is completely non-linear. It jumps back and forth in time. The image I keep coming back to in rehearsal is Billy Pilgrim in ‘Slaughterhouse Five.’”

Powell says Miller’s narrative innovations have become so second nature in American plays that we take them for granted.

Miler’s iconic characters provided the DNA for hundreds who have followed: Willy, the washed-out salesman; Linda, his long-suffered but ferociously devoted wife; their two sons: Biff, the All-American athlete who can never quite fit into the larger society, and Happy, the most unhappy younger fellow.

Lauren Klein, the actor who plays Willy’s wife, Linda, has a friend who once had occasion to visit Miller at his Connecticut home. The two were walking along his property when the woman said to Miller, by then in his 80s, “I have been obsessed by this play since I was first in acting school. … What’s it about?” And Miller simply responded, “It’s a play about a family.”

And what resonates more with all of us, Powell asks, than family?

"The tragedy of Willy Loman was that if he had just looked closer to home, he would have seen two sons who adored him and a wife who doted on him,” said Curious Theatre company member Christopher Leo, one of 36 panelists who voted “Salesman” No. 1 in the survey. “He already had realized a much more important dream. Instead, he was concerned with his pocketbook, and he determined his life was meaningless."

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Now in its eighth decade, Klein said Miller’s play will still hit some modern playgoers uncomfortably close to home. In 1949, America was riding a four-year post-war economic boom. But while things are very different today, the global economic collapse of 2007 turned a lot of everyday dreamers into Willy Lomans.

“The significance of ‘Death of a Salesman’ in today’s world is that so many people feel that they are obsolete,” said Klein. “Maybe it’s because of their age; maybe it’s because of being retired; maybe its because technology has made them feel impotent. That’s a very personal reality today, and most people don’t really want to talk about. But it’s right there in front of you when you watch this play.”

Mike Hartman, who is cast as Willy in the Denver Center production, says the thing that never changes about the play is that it deals with someone who is getting older, and the world doesn’t want him anymore. “He has lost his purpose,” Hartman said. “For a person not to have a job, to not be able to make a living for his family, to not be able to reach your dreams … it’s a terrible thing.”

No matter your age; and no matter whether the economy is good or bad, Powell said, “we define ourselves to a huge extent by what we do for a living. And the society around us does, too.”

Most audiences who see the play today can’t possibly know just how threatening the very idea of a celebrated Willy Loman was to 1949 America. Or at least to its captains of industry. The play tapped into a common suspicion and uncertainty that ran just underneath the surface of the good times, post-World War II boom.

“People are starting to use credit,” Powell said. “They are starting to fall into debt. The pressure of the world is starting to come down on these people because they came from The Depression, and now they are starting to have things that they can’t afford.”

When the film adaptation was released in 1951, the Columbia movie studio was so wary of its message, it filmed a short companion piece titled “Life of a Salesman,” and it ran before the main feature wherever it screened. It was a propaganda film that praised sales as a profession and directly condemned Loman.

And yet, “The American Dream has never been indicted more succinctly,” said panelist Jeremy Cole, a director in San Francisco.

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John Patrick Hayden and M. Scott McLean play sons of the salesmen in the Denver Center’s “Death of a Salesman.” Photo by Jennifer Koskinen

In 1999, Washington Post staff writer Lloyd Rose called the play “an American classic,” as opposed to a masterpiece, because “it’s sentimental.”

He wrote:

“O’Neill makes an audience look at the ugliness in its own soul. Miller appeals to our self-pity. You work so hard, you play by the rules — and what do you get? As soon as you’re outmoded, you’re thrown out like a broken kitchen appliance. It’s not Willy who has conned customers into buying whatever mysterious product he sells (Miller never identifies it). Instead it’s Willy, the believer in the system, who has been conned by the promise of success in America.

“The son of an immigrant, Miller was hyper-aware of the friendly mask worn in the alien world of American business, a place where men could smile and smile and yet be villains. Willy, pathetically, wears (a smiling mask) and never succeeds. “The important thing,” he tells his family, “is not to be liked — but to be well-liked.” This is not the violent dream of a radical but the submissive hope of a would-be joiner. The figure of Willy epitomizes the immigrant’s despair of ever belonging, and Miller pleads for compassion rather than snarling for justice. Willy Loman is a loser who has been emasculated by America, and it’s himself that he kills.

According to Rose, when Meredith Willson decided to make the hero of his new musical “The Music Man” a salesman in 1957, he had to set the storyline back several decades because of its proximity to “Death of a Salesman.” Talk about influence.

Panelist Ed Baierlein, a bit of radical himself who made his mark with the Germinal-Stage Denver theater he founded in Denver in 1973, calls Miller “the conscience for the postwar generation as far as the aspirations of people who had the wrong priorities.”

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Nick Nolte as Biff in a 1965 production of “Death of a Salesman” by the Little Theatre of the Rockies in Greeley.

More on the survey

According to The Denver Post poll, the second-most influential American play is “Angels in America,” followed by “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As a collective, the top 10 largely reflect a world of booze and brawls, of failed ambitions and the disintegrating American family.

The panel included “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner, who ranked “Salesman” No. 2, just behind Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Kushner called “Journey,” “Salesman” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” “the unquestionable big three” of American playwriting. “I feel fairly confident there’s not much better than those three anywhere,” Kushner said.

The survey was conducted as a conversation-starter in conjunction with the Denver Center Theatre Company’s 2010 Colorado New Play Summit. Of concern to Denver Center artistic director Kent Thompson at the time was the fact that the top 10, while each inarguably meritorious, had an average birth year of 1958.

Among the top 10 playwrights, only Kushner is still alive. Which begs asking this question: Are we no longer writing plays that will stand the test of time?

"I think great plays are being written today, but it takes time to establish their place in history," said Thompson, one of the leading proponents of new plays in the American theater. His No. 1 vote was Eric Overmyer’s "On the Verge" (1985). His list also boasted newer plays like "Ruined," "Clean House," "Lydia," "Next to Normal" and "August: Osage County."

The voting panel included NPR commentator Frank Deford, Tony-winning Broadway actor Dana Ivey (“The Last Night of Ballyhoo”), playwrights Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”), Jason Grote (“1001”), Steven Dietz (“God’s Country”), Octavio Solis (“Lydia”), Joan Holden (“Nickel and Dimed”), as well as the artistic directors of the Goodman Theatre (Robert Falls) and Portland Center Stage (Chris Coleman), and staff from theaters across the country, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, host of the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays. Locally, voters included Denver Center actors Charlotte Booker and Sam Gregory, trustee Jim Steinberg, retired producer Henry Lowenstein, Arvada Center executive director Philip Sneed and actor John Carroll Lynch (“Shutter Island”).

Note: John Moore was The Denver Post theater critic from 2001-12, and he conducted the survey cited in this article. Portions of this story were taken from his original reporting for that article, as well as from the Arthur Miller obituary he wrote in 2005. Moore is now employed as an in-house journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

"Death of a Salesman”

Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company

Through Oct. 20

Showtimes: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 p.m. Sundays.

At the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets

Info: 303-893-4100 or the denver center’s home page

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