Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Drama Matters: Suitcases, Sand, and Dry Goods

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Drama Matters: Suitcases, Sand, and Dry Goods

Article excerpt


When Willy Loman, two large sample cases in hand, enters the set for Death of a Salesman in what is certainly one of the most famous walk-ons in modern stage history, he carries with him a whole lot of baggage. That remarkable set was originally designed for the play's premiere on February 10, 1949, by the great Jo Mielziner, whose multiplatform concept provided an efficient solution to the tactical problem of communicating the "air of. . . dream [that] clings to the place," "a dream," as the playwright wrote, "rising out of reality." Arthur Miller rarely tired of reciting the opening lines of the stage directions that set this landmark drama in motion:

A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises.

As well he might, for the decisiveness of his scenography is a model of skillful stagecraft and deft stage management. Willy Loman's father made flutes, then sold on his own terms what he previously shaped, lovingly, with his own hands. Willy's sample case, heavy though it may be, contains only mass-produced dry goods hawked in Boston, Waterbury, and other commercial markets up and down the vast New England territory traversed by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railway. The suitcase tells the whole story.

Here at the University of Michigan Miller learned a great deal about the specialized language of theater. First with Paul Mueschke, with whom he studied the classical Greek plays in translation, and later with Kenneth Rowe, who introduced him to Ibsen-"You may not have heard of this Norwegian playwright," he was fond of telling his undergraduates, "but by the time you leave here you will know who he is"-Miller spent a lot of time thinking about how to turn social history into drama. Looking back at the Miller oeuvre today, and reading it alongside Rowe's clever little handbook Write That Play! (note the exclamation point), it's easy to track and trace his mentor's influence, focusing as it did on clarity and concision when it came to questions of dramatic exposition, narrative through-line, character development, rising action, offstage effects, and the logistics of introducing a back story-all this part and parcel of Drama 101.

Rowe, while I'm sure he wanted to teach me a lot, taught me really only one thing, and that was that I could hold the stage with dialogue. He acquainted me with the history of the theater and with the development of various forms, and it was a quick way of getting educated.

Professor Rowe, Miller continued, "may not have created a playwright (no teacher ever did), but he surely read what we wrote with the urgency of one who actually had the power to produce the play." The first play Miller wrote, however, was for an English literature class taught by Erich Walter, who later served in the Office of the Dean. Miller asked if he could rework an assignment in dialogue form, and his instructor enthusiastically gave him the go-ahead. Walter was a stern critic-Miller remembered that "he was capable of liking half a sentence, but not the other half"-and years later he could still recall, too, how his teacher's flat Midwestern accent did "considerable violence" to the savvy New York rhythms he had tried to build into his text.

It would take Miller a good ten years after he left Michigan to develop an authentic theater vocabulary of his own-not a long time really, though it must have seemed so to him at the time (keep in mind that he was only thirty-four years old when Salesman opened on Broadway). His letters to Professor Rowe, now part of the manuscript collection here at the University of Michigan Libraries, detail the many frustrations a young writer faced while living frugally in Brooklyn Heights and getting nowhere in particular. As early as June 1938, only a few weeks after leaving Ann Arbor for New York, he wrote that he had been struggling with

two plays, a revue, four or five radio scripts, short stories, and three postcards. …

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