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Death of a Salesman at 70 – a glance through the ages

2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the seminal play's release

Arthur Miller
(© U.S. State Department, Wikimedia commons)

Since its release 70 years ago, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman has attained a level of critical praise and adulation that secures the play an almost unique status in the modern American literary canon.

Originally titled Inside Of His Head, Miller's play opened on Broadway in February 1949 to unprecedented success; Salesman would go on to win not only the Tony Award for Best Play that year but also the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for drama. The original production, starring Lee J Cobb as Willy Loman, was performed 742 times in its run and the continued success inspired a London opening during the summer of 1949.

In total Salesman has been revived on Broadway four times, with arguably the most famous and recognisable rendition being the 1984 production at the Broadhurst Theatre. The cast boasted a range of present and future stars with Dustin Hoffman as Willy, Kate Reid as Linda and a young John Malkovich making his Broadway debut as son Biff. A second film–for–TV adaptation of the play was released in 1985 starring the same cast as the Broadway production and it is little surprise this was also a critical success, landing three Emmy awards and also a Golden Globe win for Hoffman.

1979 National Theatre Death of a Salesman poster, featuring Warren Mitchell
© Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew (poster design and photography)

The play has continued to be produced this side of the Atlantic to great acclaim; Warren Mitchell's portrayal of Willy at the National Theatre won him an Olivier award in 1979, whilst Anthony Sher was lauded for a 2015 RSC production to mark the centenary of Miller's birth.

Among the play's most anticipated and exciting revivals of recent years is the upcoming run at Piccadilly Theatre, a transfer from the Young Vic earlier in 2019. The production was widely praised and also garnered attention for casting an African–American family as the Lomans, spearheaded by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke as Willy and Linda. This is not the first time the Lomans have been cast as black – last year Don Warrington won universal adulation for his stunning portrayal of Willy in Sarah Frankcom's Royal Exchange production, whilst the first professional all African-American cast of Salesman performed way back in 1972 at Baltimore's Centre Stage theatre.

Don Warrington in Death of a Salesman
© Johan Persson

Regardless of historical precedent, co–directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's distinctive interpretation of Salesman breathes new life into Miller's script. Racial tensions are the obvious elephant in the room, an unexplored and unintentional ghost of the text that is animated through casting the Lomans as African–American.

Re–imaginings of this kind are never without contention. Perhaps one of the most eloquent voices in the debate over casting black actors in white roles is August Wilson, a double Pulitzer prize–winning playwright whose work focused upon the 20th century African-American experience. Wilson's seminal 1996 speech The Ground On Which I Stand argued that "an all–black production of Death of a Salesman… (denies) us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own cultural investigation from the cultural ground in which we stand as Black Americans."

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke
© Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Far from sidelining or eradicating the black experience however, this upcoming production forces an audience to consider it with fresh eyes. What Wilson fought and argued against was casting black actors in specifically white roles and in the process asking an audience to ignore the colour of their skin and therefore deny that actor's identity. By not employing colour–blind casting however, this production is doing exactly the opposite – Elliott and Cromwell are actively posing questions to an audience about the African–American experience.

Watch the WhatsOnStage live stream with Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke here: