Review of "The Death of a Salesman" by Theatreleela Productions
Originally written for Delhi Theatre Guide.
“I'm not bringing home any prizes anymore and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home”
It's the conflict in this line said by Biff Loman, a disillusioned thirty-something, in resignation and desperation, to his father Willy, an ageing salesman stuck in dead-end job, during their very last confrontation over the former's decisions in life, that explains the central theme of this Arthur Miller play, The Death Of A Salesman. The unmet expectations of a parent from their children and the unspoken burden of attaining societal validation perhaps makes this play as relevant to today's times as it was when it was written in 1948 and first produced in 1949.
Perhaps that is why Varun Sharma of Theatreleela Productions, a New Delhi based independent group decided to direct and stage this production in its original setting, as opposed to adapting it for Indian sensibilities. However, as they attempted to embrace and replicate the original circumstances in which the production was written and performed in the US, one must wonder whether this a wise decision given that this was the group's first production in English, and an incredibly challenging choice at that. It was heartening to see a young cast commit so fervently to the characters they picked up, as well as their attempt to present such an expansive text in a concise and crisp manner. However, their attempt falters on a few fronts — like an inability of the actors’ performances to match the localisation of the setting chosen, a diminished focus on critical themes and character motivations and lastly, the inability to highlight and distinguish scenes playing in the present and in past — the last being a critical element the playwright focused on.
The plot revolves around Willy Loman, who at the age of 63 is a mess. He's broke, in debt, and about to get fired. The other members of his family are his wife Linda, an practical yet patient woman trying hard to keep the family together; his younger son Happy, who yearns for his parents' attention and approval, and his elder son Biff, a once promising high school athlete who is now middle-aged, unemployed and broke. At a young age, Willy had caught his father having an affair with a mistress and in disillusionment, becomes alienated from the rest of the family, struggling to hold a steady job as an adult. Willy believes his all-star son Biff can still bring honour to the Loman family name and secure their “American dream”, something Willy could never do. However, Biff is insecure and unsure between his own careers ambitions and his father’s unrealistic expectations. Despite repeatedly borrowing money from his neighbour Charlie to make ends meet, Willy is a proud man who struggles to get a grip on his financial reality. Willy is also resentful of his brother Ben, and his surprising success as a diamond tycon in Africa, seeing himself as someone’s beat him to achieving the “American Dream”. Their real relationship is described superficial at best, and he often hallucinates having deep conversations with his brother which reveals Willy’s intense desire to be “liked” by the people in his life. Willy’s final salvation comes as he takes his own life to give his family one last chance at happiness.
The basic expectation from any play being staged in a certain language is that the actors are comfortable speaking that language. For a group whose repertoire of Hindi plays is quite varied, the production falters in this department. The cast on the whole was not very comfortable speaking dialogues in English, often rushing through them and leaving the audience to decipher what was being said. Some actors chose to embellish their speech with an accent, multiple variations at those (which is questionable given that all the characters belonged to the same geography in the play) that sounded jarring. While the effort to sound authentic is appreciated, the fact remains it was Indian actors trying very hard to sound American. The outcome was a troubling inconsistency of how different scenes (and the characters in them) sounded, which made it harder to connect with the performance and the time, place and setting it was trying to establish. One cannot help but wonder whether it would’ve been better to adapt this play to an Indian setting given our country’s ongoing struggle with a high unemployment rate and similar issues of ‘responsibilities and expectations’ amongst families. Barring the language, each of the actors stepped into different scenes with conviction and confidence. With simple blocking and well coordinated movements, the play moved briskly with quick transitions between scenes. The director and the actors make good attempts to highlight Willy and Biff's (Sagar Vashisht and Vaibhav Srivastava respectively) conflicts throughout the play with subtle moments and reactions.
While the original play had a running time of approximately 3 hours with an internal, this heavily trimmed version of Death Of A Salesman was a brisk 70 mins. While most important “events” were retained in the plot, there was a lack of staging focus given to characters other than Willy and Biff. The outcome was fleeting glimpses of many important themes - such as the harshness of the Lomans’ financial situation and Willy’s deep envy of Charlie’s undeserved business success. There is also less focus on each characters’ struggle to deal with (and accept) Willy’s deteriorating physical and mental well-being. Linda’s response, originally written as a strong character whose practicality and stability keeps the house together, to Biff’s treatment of his father is reduced to a singular emotion of anger. What’s missing is also Happy’s envy of growing up in his elder brother’s shadow and a need of a validation from his parents. There was an unnecessary haste in every scene played out, with the dialogue and action moving much faster than the ability of the audience to comprehend and digest what was happening.
In the original script, Arthur Miller takes two entire pages to describe an elaborate setup for the play, carefully dividing the stage into distinct spaces for the Loman house and different areas within, the garden and street outside for scenes with Willy’s neighbour to play out, and an “in-between space” for Willy’s memories as the play slips in and out between the present and the past. Perhaps it’s fitting that this play has been staged on Broadway right from the beginning, when it premiered in February 1949, eventually running for 742 performances and then being revived 3 times hence. A common problem with staging classics, especially for small and independent groups with limited revenue, is the compromise they have to make with elaborate set designs and expensive stage properties, to make the production financially and logistically viable. Given the judicious stage dimensions of Alliance Francaise, the group stuck to a minimal set design, consisting of three black boxes, a coat hanger and a few small properties that were brought in and out during relevant scenes. While a minimal set design can be enhanced with a clever use of light to divide and create spaces for the performers to inhabit, the production was not able to achieve this effectively. Scenes in the present day and those from Willy’s memories in the past were often played with the same treatment of light and space, making it immensely confusing to those not familiar with the original script.
The sound design, while complementing the on stage action a few times, was majorly used to indicate a change in the play’s rhythm and emotions of the characters, or between transitions as the backstage crew prepared the stage for the next scene. One aspect that stood out in the production was the focus and layering given to the costumes of each character and the multiple changes between two successive scenes, such as indoors and outdoors. The characters’ dresses were the only apparent indication of passage of time, a change in place and for multiple actors, the actual age they were playing.
Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman addresses the internal struggle with identity, and one’s inability to accept change within himself and society. The play is a summation of memories, aspirations, confrontations, and quarrels, all of which make up the last 24 hours of Willy Loman's life. The production by Theatreleela is an honest attempt, yet needs to build more depth in its efforts to be staged as an “authentic” American classic, resplendent in the circumstances and setting of the original script. The energy and resolve of these young theatre-makers to stage a challenging script given all the constraints of producing theatre in this city is commendable and points to a bright future for the group’s future productions in English.