By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
Among the Greatest Plays of the 20TH Century

     The adjective “great” is among the most misused words in the English language. Today, it can cover anything from a surprisingly dependable cheap old car to any movie which grossed over a hundred million dollars, even one with utterly non-existent artistic values.
     Yet what other superlative could be used in discussing a play which opened on Broadway almost sixty years ago, but is still being performed in theaters all over the world, has made an unforgettable impression on several generations of playgoers, and won every award for which it could possibly have been eligible.
     Death of a Salesman has been called the “quintessential American play,” a designation belied because performances in places with cultures as varied as China, Mexico, Russia and Japan, have made profound impressions on audiences in all those countries.
     The original production starred the incomparable Lee J. Cobb, along with Mildred Dunnock, Arthur Kennedy and Cameron Mitchell. Only Kennedy went on to a long and successful career in both films and theater, though Cobb would persevere long enough to win an Oscar nomination for his galvanizing turn in On the Waterfront. Like the tragic “Willy Loman” whom he played in Salesman, Cobb was too “big” for any ordinary role. But what a “King Lear” he might have made!
     Playgoers of a certain age still speak in awed tones about the night Salesman opened at the Morosco Theater in New York—an evening that occasioned a phenomena rarely, if ever, duplicated. That night, both the cast and the audience were so transported that the so-called “invisible fourth wall” was obliterated. The audience became part of the cast, as with tears streaming down their faces, total strangers revealed deeply personal things to each other, as if they had been best friends all their lives.
     The alchemy that made the play so memorable remains something of a mystery. But surely its author, Arthur Miller, tenderly caught our frailties, unrealistic dreams, self-deceptions and the lies we tell others and ourselves, as very few playwrights ever have. Miller also re-invented a form of dramaturgy, wherein the past and present played equal roles, with elements of each impinging themselves without regard for the time-honored theatrical traditions of sequential action. But almost as important to the play’s success was its director, Elia Kazan. Long famous for his unrivaled brilliance with actors, Kazan would go on to a string of successes, both on Broadway and in Hollywood, where he would win Academy Awards for A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. Arthur Miller would also have a distinguished career, marked by such milestones as A View From the Bridge, Incident at Vichy, After the Fall, The Price and the film script for John Huston’s The Misfits. But as with everyone else connected with Salesman, I suspect both men regarded it as their own “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
     The play remains a mournful ballad about defeated dreams, exhausted aspirations and the pitiless power of the past to cripple our future. Perhaps the last few lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby best sum up the haunting, timeless theme of Death of A Salesman.
     “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”