By Published: Feb. 20, 2024

CU Boulder theatre professor Bud Coleman reflects on Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer-winning play and why it’s a story that still has meaning

“A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man.”

It’s a simple yet resonant thought, first expressed 75 years ago this month when Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” debuted at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway. Since that time, the play has occupied an iconic place in the American consciousness.

For Bud Coleman, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of theatre and Roe Green Endowed Chair in Theatre, one of the reasons for its resilience is Miller’s subtle complexity.

Bud Coleman

Bud Coleman, a CU Boulder professor of theatre, notes that a reason "Death of a Salesman" remains relevant 75 years after its first performance is characters that seem immediately recognizable to audiences.

 “Every time I revisit the play, I'm just amazed at how many different layers are in it. It continues to play the boards because it is very rich,” he says. “You get a hundred people and, quite often, they'll have a hundred different takes on what they think either the message of the play is, or what part of the play grabbed them the most.”

“Death of a Salesman,” which tells the story of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman from Brooklyn coming to grips with his failure after years of hopeful—some would say delusional—thinking, won virtually every accolade a play can win, including five Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Miller.

Mike Nichols, who directed a revival of the play starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, saw it as a young man during its first run, and likened its effect to an explosion.

"When ‘Salesman’ first opened in 1949, there were fathers for who the doctor had to be called because they couldn't stop crying,” he told USA Today in 2012. “The show's effect was people seemed to see themselves.”

For Coleman, the play may or may not be the quintessential tale of the end of the American dream, but it can be devastating. “We see the crushing of a human being in real time on the stage in front of us.”

Translating theater to film

On that front, the first film version of “Death of a Salesman” in 1951 was the occasion of a brief but revealing dispute. Prior to releasing the film, Columbia Pictures created a 10-minute short meant to run newsreel-style before the full feature in theaters, as a preemptive salve for the rawness of Miller’s portrayal of Willy Loman.

“Career of a Salesman” was a stiff and laughable bit of propaganda, which replayed and critiqued segments of the feature film, deriding Willy’s talents as a salesman, while reassuring the audience of the importance of the profession and the guarantee that hard work leads to success. “Nothing, nothing happens in this great country of ours until something is sold,” a lecturer gravely intones.

The short film enraged Miller. "Why the hell did you make the picture if you're so ashamed of it?” he reportedly asked Columbia studio executives. “Why should anybody not get up and walk out of the theatre if ‘Death of a Salesman’ is so outmoded and pointless?" Columbia relented and pulled the short from theaters.

What has made the play so resilient over the decades, says Coleman, is the depth that Miller imbued into characters that will be immediately recognizable to the audience—including Willy’s sons, Biff and Hap, and his wife, Linda. “The young high school senior who's got dreams and aspirations, and the parent who also has those dreams and aspirations. That’s pretty much the American story right there,” he says.

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke in 'Death of a Salesman'

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke played Willy and Linda Loman in "Death of a Salesman" at London's Young Vic theater in 2019. (Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg)

‘Despite all his flaws’

The fifth and most recent Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” was a highly regarded run starring Wendell Pierce as Willy and Sharon D. Clarke as Linda. It was the first run of the play on Broadway with Black actors portraying the Loman family, which created a new dimension for the drama.

In an interview, Pierce noted that in New York City during the 1940s, “great danger, violence, oppressive attitudes [and] subtle humiliations were part of daily life for an African American family.”

“It could be just a depressing story of somebody with a pipe dream who's completely unrealistic, but Willy loves his family so much,” says Coleman. The strained but evident familial bonds run against the riptide of Willy’s demise.

“Linda loves him, and the boys in their own way love him, and the next-door neighbor who drives Willy crazy also cares for him.” In addition to listening to Willy’s woes, the neighbor loans him money.

“Despite all his flaws,” Coleman says, “the actor playing Willy has to show us his charm and heart. In the end, four different people, with very different relationships with him, are there for him.”

Top image: Many notable actors have played the role of Willy Loman on Broadway, including (left to right) Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Wendell Pierce and Dustin Hoffman

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