Anthony LaPaglia powerfully portrays a man of crumbling illusions in Neil Armfield’s vital production of Death of a Salesman. By Ben Brooker.

Death of a Salesman

Two performers on stage.
Richard Piper (left) and Anthony LaPaglia in Death of a Salesman.
Credit: Jeff Busby

Overhanging Exhibition Street like a lodestone is a sign that reads: “The greatest play of the 20th century”. It’s an advertisement for GWB Entertainment and Red Line’s new production of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s 74-year-old tragedy about ageing everyman Willy Loman and the duplicity of the American Dream.

Marketing hyperbole to be sure, but on seeing the sign I wondered which other plays could reasonably hold this claim. Waiting for Godot? A Streetcar Named Desire? A Raisin in the Sun? Our own The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll? Or perhaps even a different Miller work, The Crucible? And these plays only span a few years in the middle of the century. What about Angels in America or Blasted or Top Girls?

Rather than parsing the theatrical canon, let’s use a measure of Salesman’s prominence that Willy himself might have appreciated. According to John Lahr in his 1999 New Yorker profile of Miller, the play had by then sold 11 million copies, “making it probably the most successful modern play ever published”. A rich irony for if not the greatest play of the 20th century, then at least the greatest play of the 20th century about an unsuccessful salesman.

What is it about Miller’s play that continues to resonate with theatre-makers and audiences while striking producers, even in the post-Covid world, as bankable? If the intermittent sobbing I heard across the aisle from me on opening night is any indication, then Salesman has lost none of its power to rend the heart.   

Viewed from 2023, it’s hard not to see in Willy’s bullshit – a term borrowed from the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt to denote something worse than lying which, unlike bullshit, still exists in some relationship to the truth – echoes of Trump’s braggadocio. What could be more Trumpian than Lahr’s observation that Willy, who cheats at cards and exhorts his sons to wring advantage from every interaction with the world, is “afflicted by the notion of winning”?

While such inflections remind us that few plays, however “timeless”, remain fixed in their meanings, Salesman endures as a devastating critique of American individualism. The play unquestionably reads differently as the cost of living surges and the aspirational middle class to which Willy belongs continues its long hollowing out, but it is still a mirror reflecting the devouring inhumanity of capitalist economics.

Miller’s plays are supremely sturdy in their construction and close to director-proof. Unlike Edward Albee, for example, whose arch and often ambiguous plays require careful handling, you can’t really fuck up Miller without consciously trying to. His plays call forth something more elemental than many of his contemporaries: they are the artistically and morally muscular products of a man who once, as director Neil Armfield recalls in his program note, stood in the Greek amphitheatre outside Syracuse and “had a vision of a national theatre that was both popular and poetic, where the tragic form gave shape and meaning to life”.

Armfield has spent his career helming large-scale works with both popular appeal and intellectual heft and evinces this vision as well as any modern director. For the most part, he plays things safe. This isn’t a production that seeks to refashion Miller’s play as previous directors have done by, for example, casting African–American actors in the major roles.

Elia Kazan, who directed the 1949 premiere production on Broadway, said Salesman was “a play waiting for a directorial solution”. Perhaps taking as their cue the shift in Miller’s style that Salesman represented – from the strict, chronologically expository naturalism of his earlier plays to a more slippery, dreamlike style – Armfield and designer Dale Ferguson have plumped for symbolism over realism, placing the action on steeply raked sports stadium bleachers. The name of Brooklyn’s famous Ebbets Field ballpark is emblazoned in peeling letters across a viewing box at the top.

It’s a canny choice, framing the play in the brutally competitive terms of both sporting and business arenas. It strongly expresses how Willy is psychologically held hostage to a particular moment in time: when Biff, Willy’s elder son and a burgeoning football star, was 17 years old, with everything still to play for. I only wished Armfield had traded the bleachers for a sparser aesthetic in the play’s second act, where they begin to feel constraining and inapposite for the descent into Willy’s deteriorating psyche. Another misstep is Alan John’s rather scattershot score – throbbing strings, peals of bells, slashes of discordant jazz – which often registers as too quiet, incongruous, or both.

In what is, remarkably, his Australian stage debut, Anthony LaPaglia is the most pitiable Willy Loman I’ve seen. He moves haltingly, heavily. He is gruff but brittle, his outbursts seeming to emerge less from fading bravado than sheer panic. In his infirmity and abjection, I was reminded more than once of Lear, surely one of Miller’s inspirations for the character and one that has drawn Armfield before, most notably in his controversial 2015 production of Shakespeare’s play for Sydney Theatre Company.

LaPaglia’s performance complicates the play’s usual characterisation – that it’s a tragedy grounded in the unrealisable promises of the American Dream – in its heavy implication of neurobiological malady, perhaps dementia. It’s an impression reinforced by LaPaglia’s tendency to mumble, a vestige perhaps of his frequent work for film and television that even a head mic can’t fully compensate for. Still, it’s a performance that bears comparison with the best of his screen oeuvre, and one that will no doubt remind some audiences of his Tony Award-winning interpretation of Eddie Carbone in another Miller classic, A View from the Bridge, in the late 1990s.

The large supporting cast is equally fine, especially a febrile Alison Whyte as Linda, Willy’s fiercely loyal wife, a haunted Josh Helman as Biff and Steve Bastoni as Charley, Willy’s jocular neighbour. Whyte effortlessly demonstrates that the play’s tragic arc extends beyond its protagonist, while Bastoni, despite his seeming unseriousness, convinced me this production potentially harbours more than one excellent Willy.

When so much contemporary drama has become elliptical and detached, it’s bracing to be confronted with theatre as direct and impassioned as Miller’s. Heading back out into the night after bearing witness to Willy’s undoing, that sign still brightly illuminated as I passed back under it on the way to my car, I wasn’t thinking about the play so much as feeling a mixture of pity for its protagonist and the curious uplift that follows the powerful emotional release of well-executed tragedy. Canonicity feels like a mug’s game when theatre is as viscerally alive and enlivening as this. 

Death of a Salesman is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, until October 15.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "The American delusion".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription