Arthur Miller reading lines from his play Death of a Salesman. Recorded February 2, 1955 in Manhattan.
This summer Ray and I saw Death of A Salesman at Cincinnati Shakespeare theater. It was superb. The quiet desperation of Willy’s story, played pitch-perfect by Bruce Cromer, moved around in my mind for weeks afterward.
And the story is Willy’s of course. But it was Annie Fitzpatrick’s moving portrayal of Linda Loman that broke my heart. The actor’s were all phenomenal, and the story, the first I had seen it, was terrific. You understand after seeing it why it is an American theater classic.
Then last week on Open Culture I saw a link to Arthur Miller reading sections of Death of a Salesman with Salesman’s first Mrs. Loman, Mildred Dunnock. Arthur and Mildred recorded the audio in front of live audience in Manhattan on Feb. 22, 1955.
It’s 52 minutes long. And I was gripped by every second of it. I’d never heard Arthur Miller speak before, and to hear his crisp New York accent sharply deliver the lines, the lines he wrote, is transfixing.
As Open Culture wrote: “Who better to understand the nuances, motivations, and historical context of this tragically flawed character” than the man who felt it, saw it and wrote it.
I don’t imagine that Miller ever took the stage as his title character, but what a performance it’d have been.
(Arthur Miller and I share a birthday — October 17. Which I note only to feel proud by proxy, as though we might somehow be cosmically connected. And cosmically, Ray took me to see Miller's enduring play for my birthday, which Cincinnati Shakespeare Company was staging for Miller's centennial birthday.)
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.”
I don’t know that the men in the audience at the Shakespeare Theater this fall sat with handkerchiefs over their faces as the curtain fell, but there was a certainly a quiet pall that settled over the theater.
It’s a lonesome play. Of course, Willie dies. But the most sorrowful expression for me wasn’t the delusion of Willie (or really the entire family), but the futility of it all.
Willie laments: “Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it.”
When he says this in the midst of the play you think he’s sadden by the fact that his kids are grown and won’t be sharing the home with them. But you’re reminded of the true starkness of the statement when Linda Loman delivers it during the requiem. The kids are grown and now Willy is also gone. It's just Linda.
Standing over her husband's grave she says mournfully: “I made the last payment on the house today... Today, dear. And they’ll be nobody home.
“There were a lot of nice days. When he'd come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch... You know something, Charley, there's more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.”
And isn’t that true of our homes and lives? More to us in the books on our shelves, the sheds built, the roofs repaired, the passed-down crockery and flatware, than all the days of our work?
The play is gone from the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, but you can hear Arthur Miller deliver the lines above with Mildred.