Saturday, October 19, 2013

Salesman In Beijing

In 1983, only a few short years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the playwright Arthur Miller was invited to direct a production of Salesman in Beijing. He produced a book of his director's diary, which I picked up recently as a gift for a colleague.

Between getting it from eBay and wrapping it for presentation, I read the first chapter and promptly found another copy online for myself.

This was an odd thing to do for one significant reason -- I am tired of reading Arthur Miller talk about the works of Arthur Miller. As an undergrad I took a semester-long seminar with Al Kaufman on Miller, where I first dug deep into the works of this most-praiseworthy of American playwrights and was disappointed not only to discover that all of his plays feel pretty much the same (Crucible as one stand out exception) but that he spent an awful lot of time writing about what his writing means.

Didn't you say it in the play? Then why do you need to keep explaining it in The New Yorker?

However, this book is really about directing, and not about writing. His obstacles appear enormous, the most obvious that he has accepted the role of directing a play through a translator -- he speaks no Mandarin, his actors do not speak English. In addition, Salesman depicts a world which he does not believe his company (actors and designers) will be able to comprehend, that of Capitalist America.

But also too and on top of that the fact that the world of Salesman never existed in the first place. People do not actually talk like people talk in Arthur Miller plays. No one.

To his continuing credit, rehearsal day after rehearsal day, Miller reaches to explain his characters' incomprehensible motivations by asking open-ended questions about basic human nature. When one of his actors questions why a character like Charley is kind to Willy, who to them appears, at first, a consummate loser and somewhat deranged, Miller asks if the actor knows anyone they do not respect, but still likes. Of course they do, everyone does. At that time in China, however, such realistic human nature was not something they would choose to perform on a stage. It was not the stories they chose to tell, and so acting it was a challenge to be overcome, and Miller's script is full of those.

In his personal reflections, Miller learns as much about how his actors contribute to his work as his work contributes to their larger understanding of a world which had been closed to them for four decades.

He does have this grandfatherly racist way of describing the eyes of certain members of his company. As a writer, one who records what he sees, using, you know, words, I might have hoped that a man who fancies himself such a deep appreciator of human character could find some other way to look into the face of his Asian actors without saying that their eyes slant. They don't actually do that, any more than anyone else's. His ignorance disappoints and knocks you back a bit. "Someone please ask grampa to stop talking."

By the end of the book (which concludes just as you would expect, after all the pitfalls and setbacks, opening night is perfect) I remain less convinced that Salesman is a transcendent work which addresses the universal longings and love of all humanity, and more convinced than ever that it is the medium -- live theater performance -- that can bring all peoples together to reveal our beautiful commonality.

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