Hear Arthur Miller Read From Death of a Salesman, His Great American Play (1955)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Camus Talks About Adapt­ing Dos­toyevsky for the The­atre, 1959

Hear Antonin Artaud’s Cen­sored, Nev­er-Aired Radio Play: To Have Done With The Judg­ment of God (1947)

Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade Pushed the Bound­aries of The­ater, and Still Does

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Her play, Fawn­book, is now play­ing in New York City . Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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