What is Death of a Salesman about? Arthur Miller’s original conception was arguably (so let’s argue) about the crushing effect of American individualism – the myth of exceptionalism, that convinces those in lowly occupations, ascribed a market value, that they live in a country that can alchemise anyone’s potential. It’s a cruel lie, Miller suggested, with dissembling consequences, because it convinces the majority of Americans, who are not exceptional, and who lack the requisite industry, intelligence, imagination and luck to tear away from the pack and make their fortune, to accept the predatory economic model that enables the few to profit at the expense of the many. For this reason, above all others, the first British critics to sample the fall and disintegration of Willy Loman, thought they detected a Marxist critique of US life; a bullet glazed in tears, fired straight into Uncle Sam’s dick.
One of the most recent developments in Marxist thinking, or rather its user-friendly derivation, the social sciences, is the replacement of the old, problematic working class with other oppressed groups; class struggle and its attendant power relationships, expanded to include race, gender and sexuality. This, one feels, is where Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production comes in, right on cue.
There’s little change to the text, more the texture and soundtrack of Miller’s opus, but a significant tonal shift – the skin colour of the cast. The Loman’s are a black family now who, according to the programme notes, are here to challenge the old orthodoxy; the white privilege of the family as written, who by virtue of their ontology could opt out of representing their race; a pernicious fallacy say the salesmen for intersectionality.
Indeed, it’s almost like Miller’s intent was to examine the cultural conception of self-worth rather than explicit and historically embedded social hierarchies, but why not use his scenario to implicitly comment on economic segregation – even if it somewhat obscures the point that Death of a Salesman is about a false consciousness that occupies and consumes the imagination of every American? Yes, a system that at its most cruel and dehumanising sanctions slave labour and cleaves a society in two along racial lines, but also, at a microcosmic level, can break an otherwise happy family, whose principal handicap is that they’re entitled but ordinary.
The political recalibration of the material, the invitation to apply the play’s critique to an African American context, barely registers. One can look for it, but if it isn’t there, it isn’t there – even if there’s convenient contrasts between American capitalism and colonial exploitation (here reimagined as Uncle Ben profiteering from ancestral lands), and the Lomans with the success and social access of their Jewish neighbours. The latter might have attributed a little anti-Semitism to Willy. In this version there’s the equally obnoxious, though very different suggestion that Charley and Bernard represent white privilege.
None of which should detract from the fact that an excellent cast, headed by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, sell every moment of disappointment, heartbreak, frustration, and disillusion that the text demands. The characters may not be exceptional but the players certainly are.
The production’s also notable for its design; a hanging set that reconfigures and reframes as Willy’s memories shift and intrude on his present; lighting and sound design that use the conceit of a reel-to-reel tape recorder – a significant prop in a crucial scene, as a structuring metaphor for the way Miller’s tortured protagonist plays and replays moments of happiness, regret, mortification and sadness.
As ever with Miller’s play, it’s the universality of the disappointments and failures under glass that abides. Perhaps that’s why this production’s decision to sub-divide those truths and examine them through a racial lens feels like a false note.