It may be a shattering exploration of the death of the American Dream, but is “Death of a Salesman” also about a Jewish family’s denial of its heritage? Arthur Miller certainly thought so, although it took him half a century after his masterpiece was first staged to admit that the Lomans were Jewish. Now “Salesman” is coming back to Broadway, in a star-studded production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andrew Garfield and Linda Emond. “Salesman” opens in March at the Barrymore Theatre.
Directed by Mike Nichols, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play centers on Willy Loman (Hoffman), an aging businessman whose mind is starting to slip and who is failing in his career. Willy has a strained relationship with his two sons, Biff (Garfield) and Happy (Finn Wittrock) and is unfaithful to his wife (Emond), who nevertheless stands by him and allows him to fantasize about success that she knows he will never achieve.
Since the play premiered in 1949, it has been revived three times on Broadway — in 1975 with George C. Scott, in 1984 with Dustin Hoffman, and in 1999 with Brian Dennehy. The current production, which is directed by Mike Nichols and produced by Scott Rudin, will feature a recreation of Jo Mielziner’s original set design.
Miller wrote in the preface to a 50th-anniversary edition of the play that the Lomans are “Jews [who are] light-years away from religion or a community that might have fostered Jewish identity.” But before this disclosure, speculation about the Jewishness of the Lomans had been common in literary criticism circles for decades. Critic Leslie Fiedler had called the Lomans “in habit, speech and condition of life typically Jewish-American.” And the actor George Ross, who reviewed a 1953 Yiddish language production of the play at Brooklyn’s Parkway Theater, “Toyt fun a Salesman,” starring Joseph Buloff, had opined that the Yiddish version was actually the original one, from which Miller had “translated” in writing the play in English.
Julius Novick, a retired drama professor at SUNY Purchase, is the author of “Beyond the Golden Door: Jewish American Drama and Jewish American Experience” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). In an interview, he speculated that Miller “only gradually discovered Willy’s Jewishness over the years,” long after he had written the play.
Novick quoted a statement of Miller’s that as a young man he “was struggling to identify myself with mankind rather than one small tribal fraction of it.” But by the end of the 20th century, the rise of multiculturalism meant that the trend was, in Novick’s words, “to embrace your roots, not to transcend them. That’s why he wrote that the Lomans were Jews.”
“Death of a Salesman” begins previews on Feb. 13 for a March 15 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. For tickets, $46.50-$121.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.