I was in that London at the weekend to see the RSC’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (which we study in Make it New: American writing 1900-1950). During the day we took in the London Eye and the new cable car across the Thames at Greenwich. We separated these panoptical pursuits with lunch at the Tate and some contemplative time with Rothko’s magnificent explorations of colour, shade and shape.
We wandered through the remnants of Pride to reach the Noel Coward Theatre. The cast, as you’d expect from the RSC, was world class – Harriet Walter and Antony Sher play Linda and Willy Loman, Alex Hassell and Sam Marks play Biff and Happy, their disappointing and disappointed sons. Miller’s stage directions are exacting, creating different places and times in front of and around the domestic setting of the family home. This production faithfully observes his instructions, with the lighting creating wonderful transitions of the backdrop between the pastoral dream of the family’s inter-war years and their later suburban struggles as the city encroaches.
At the time, critics saw the play as a dangerously subversive attack on American capitalism, but a not very careful observation of the play reveals the failure of the American Dream for the jocks and the salesman who see sport and personal speculation as the path to success. While Willy and Biff play out their patriarchal contestations, the nerdy kid next door, Bernard, is studiously progressing towards Washington and personal and professional fulfillment. One of the most subversive roles in the play is the strength and awareness of the seemingly oppressed Linda, the only Loman left with any dignity.