1949’s Death of a Salesman is one of the most enduring plays in the American canon, a staple of both community and professional theater.
Playwright Arthur Miller recalled that when the curtain fell on the first performance, there were “men in the audience sitting there with handkerchiefs over their faces. It was like a funeral.”
Robert Falls, Artistic Director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, brings the experience of dozens of productions to bear when he describes it as the only play that “sends men weeping into the Men’s room.”
Small wonder that the titular part has become a grail of sorts for aging leading men eager to be taken seriously. Dustin Hoffman, George C. Scott, and Philip Seymour Hoffman have all had a go at Willy Loman, a role still associated with the towering Lee J. Cobb, who originated it.
(Willy’s wife, Linda, with her famous graveside admonition that “attention must be paid,” is considered no less of a plum part.)
On February 2, 1955, Arthur Miller joined Salesman’s first Mrs. Loman, Mildred Dunnock, to read selections from the script before a live audience at Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMCA. In addition to reading the role of Willy Loman, Miller supplied stage directions and explained his rationale for picking the featured scenes. The Pulitzer Prize winner’s New York accent and brusque manner make him a natural, and of course, who better to understand the nuances, motivations, and historical context of this tragically flawed character?
Miller told The New Yorker that he based Loman on his family friend, Manny Newman:
Manny lived in his own mind all the time. He never got out of it. Everything he said was totally unexpected. People regarded him as a kind of strange, completely untruthful personality. Very charming. I thought of him as a kind of wonderful inventor. For example, at will, he would suddenly say, “That’s a lovely suit you have on.” And for no reason at all, he’d say, “Three hundred dollars.” Now, everybody knew he never paid three hundred dollars for a suit in those days. At a party, he would lie down on his wife’s lap and pretend to be sucking her breast. He’d curl up on her lap—she was an immense woman. It was crazy. At the same time, there was something in him which was terribly moving. It was very moving, because his suffering was right on his skin, you see.
If Miller and Dunnock’s performance leaves you hungry for more, you can see her and Lee J. Cobb reprise their roles on television in a 1966 CBS production. See Act 1 above, and Act 2 here.