Birth of a salesman

Arthur Miller wrote the first act of his great play in a single day. Here, he outlines its extraordinary genesis to John Lahr - and remembers the real-life Willy Loman
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On a crisp April weekend in 1948, Arthur Miller, then only 33 and enjoying the first flush of fame after the Broadway success the previous year of All My Sons, waved goodbye to his first wife, Mary, and their two young kids, in Brooklyn, and set off for Roxbury, Connecticut. There, he intended to build a cabin on a hillock just behind a Colonial house he had recently purchased for the family, which stood at the aptly named crossroads of Tophet (another name for Hell) and Gold Mine. "It was a purely instinctive act," Miller, who long ago traded up from that first 44-acre property to a 400-acre spread on Painter Hill, a few miles down the road, told me recently. "I had never built a building in my life."

Miller had a play in mind, too; his impulse for the cabin was "to sit in the middle of it, and shut the door, and let things happen". All Miller knew about his new play was that it would be centred on a travelling salesman who would die at the end and that two of the lines were "Willy?" "It's all right. I came back." - words that to Miller spoke "the whole disaster in a nutshell". He says, "I mean, imagine a salesman who can't get past Yonkers. It's the end of the world. It's like an actor saying 'It's all right. I can't speak'." As he worked away on his cabin, he repeated the play's two lines like a kind of mantra. "I kept saying, 'As soon as I get the roof on and the windows in, I'm gonna start this thing.' And indeed I started on a morning in spring. Everything was starting to bud. Beautiful weather."

Miller had fashioned a desk out of an old door. As he sat down to it his tools and nails were still stashed in a corner of the studio, which was as yet unpainted and smelled of raw wood. "I started in the morning, went through the day, then had dinner, and then I went back there and worked till - I don't know - one or two o'clock in the morning," he says. "It sort of unveiled itself. I was the stenographer. I could hear them. I could hear them, literally."

When Miller finally lay down to sleep that first night, he realised he'd been crying. "My eyes still burnt and my throat was sore from talking it all out and shouting and laughing," he later wrote in his autobiography, Timebends. In one day, he had produced, almost intact, the first act of Death of a Salesman, which has since sold about 11 million copies, making it probably the most successful modern play ever published.

"He didn't write Death of a Salesman; he released it," the play's original director, Elia Kazan, said in his autobiography, A Life. "It was there inside him, stored up waiting to be turned loose." To Miller, there was a "dream's quality in my memory of the writing and the day or two that followed its completion." In his notebook for Death of a Salesman - a 66-page document chronicling the play's creation, which is kept with his papers at the University of Texas in Austin - he wrote, "He who understands everything about his subject cannot write it. I write as much to discover as to explain."

After that first day of inspiration, it took Miller six weeks to call forth the second act and to make Willy remember enough "so he would kill himself". The form of the play - where past and present coalesce in a lyrical arc - was one that Miller felt he'd been "searching for since the beginning of my writing life".

Death of a Salesman seems to spill out of Willy's panic-stricken imagination, and not out of a playwright's detached viewpoint. "The play is written from the sidewalk instead of from a skyscraper," Miller says of its first- person urgency. But, ironically, it was from the deck of a skyscraper that Miller contemplated beginning his drama, in a kind of Shakespearean foreshadowing of Willy's suicidal delirium. The notebook's first entry reads: "Scene 1 - Atop Empire State. 2 guards. 'Who will die today? It's that kind of day ... fog, and poor visibility. They like to jump into a cloud. Who will it be today?' "

As Miller navigated his way through the rush of characters and plot ideas, the notebook acted as ballast. "In every scene remember his size, ugliness," Miller reminds himself about Loman on its second page. "Remember his own attitude. Remember pity." He analyses his characters' motives. "Willy wants his sons to destroy his failure," he writes, and on a later page, "Willy resents Linda's unbroken, patient forgiveness (knowing there must be great hidden hatred for him in her heart)."

In Miller's notebook, characters emerge sound and fully formed. For instance, of Willy's idealised elder son, Biff, who is a lost soul fallen from his high-school glory and full of hate for his father, he writes, "Biff is travelled, oppressed by guilt of failure, of not making money although a kind of indolence pleases him: an easygoing way of life.... Truthfully, Biff is not really bright enough to make a businessman. Wants everything too fast."

Miller also talks to himself about the emotional stakes and the trajectory of scenes: "Have it happen that Willy's life is in Biff's hands - aside from Biff's succeeding. There is Willy's guilt to Biff re: The Woman. But is that retrievable? There is Biff's disdain for Willy's character, his false aims, his pretense and these Biff cannot finally give up or alter. Discover the link between Biff's work views and his anti-work feelings."

Although the notebook begins with a series of choppy asides and outlines, it soon becomes an expansive, exact handwritten log of Miller's contact with his inner voices. For instance, it reveals the development of Charley, Loman's benevolent next-door neighbour, whose laconic even-handedness was, in Miller's eyes, partly a projection of his own father. Charley speaks poignantly to Biff at Willy's graveside ("Nobody dast blame this man"). What appears in the last scene as a taut and memorable nine-line speech, a kind of eulogy, was mined from words (here indicated in italics) that were part of a much longer improvisation in the notebook:

"A salesman doesn't build anything, he don't put a bolt to a nut or a seed in the ground. A man who doesn't build anything must be liked. He must be cheerful on bad days. Even calamities mustn't break through. Cause one thing, he has got to be liked. He don't tell you the law or give you medicine. So there's no rock bottom to your life. All you know is that on good days or bad, you gotta come in cheerful. No calamity must be permitted to break through, Cause one thing, always, you're a man who's gotta be believed. You're way out there riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smilin' back the sky falls in. And then you get a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. 'Cause there's no rock bottom to your life."

As in all his notes for the play, Miller's passion and his flow are apparent in the surprising absence of cross-outs; the pages exude a startling alertness. He is listening not just to the voices of his characters but to the charmed country silence around him, which seems to define his creative state of grace.

On a bright-blue December afternoon last year, Miller, now 83, returned to the cabin in Roxbury with his third wife, the photographer Inge Morath. Although she has lived with Miller for more than three decades, only one mile away from the Salesman studio, she had never seen the place. "The main house was occupied by people I didn't know. They were sort of engineer people. Very antipathetic," Miller said, swinging his red Volkswagen into the driveway of the new, friendly writer-owners. In a tan windbreaker and a baseball cap, he looked as rough-hewn and handy as any local farmer. (The dining-room tables and chairs in his current, cluttered 1782 farmhouse are Miller's handiwork, produced in his carpentry workshop.) After a cursory inspection of his old home, Miller, who is 6ft 3in and stoops a little now, set off towards the cabin, up a steep hump that sits a few hundred paces from the back of the house. "In those days, I didn't think this hill was quite as steep," he said.

The cabin, a white clapboard construction in urgent need of a new coat of paint, stood just over the top of a rise, facing west. "Oh, it will last as long as it's painted," Miller said, inspecting what he had wrought.

"See, if a building has a sound roof, that's it, you'll keep it."

"I didn't know it was so tiny," Morath said.

She snapped off a few photos, then waved her husband into the foreground for a picture before we all crowded into what proved to be a single high- ceilinged room. Except for a newly installed fluorescent light and some red linoleum that had been fitted over the floorboards, what Miller saw was what he'd built. He stepped outside to see if the cabin had been wired for electricity. (It had.) He inspected the three cinder blocks on which it was securely perched against the side of the hill. "I did the concrete," he recalled. Leaving, he returned to take a last look. "I learnt a lot doing it," he said. "The big problem was getting the rafters of the roof up there alone. I finally built it on the ground and then swung them up." He added, "It's a bit like playwriting, you know. You get to a certain point, you gotta squeeze your way out of it."

The seeds of Death of a Salesman were planted decades before Miller stepped into his cabin. "Selling was in the air through my boyhood," says Miller, whose father, Isidore, was the salesman-turned-owner of the Miltex Coat and Suit Company, which was a thriving enough business to provide the family with a spacious apartment on 110th Street in Harlem, a country bungalow, and a limousine and driver. "The whole idea of selling successfully was very important." Just as Miller was entering his teens, however, his father's business was wiped out by the Depression. Isadore's response was silence and sleep ("My father had trouble staying awake"); his son's response was anger. "I had never raised my voice against my father, nor did he against me, then or ever," wrote Miller, who had to postpone college for two years - until 1934 - because "nobody was in possession of the fare". "As I knew perfectly well, it was not he who angered me, only his failure to cope with his fortune's collapse," Miller went on in his autobiography. "Thus I had two fathers, the real one and the metaphoric, and the latter I resented because he did not know how to win out over the general collapse."

Death of a Salesman is a lightning rod both for a father's bewilderment ("What's the secret?" Willy asks various characters) and for a son's fury at parental powerlessness ("You fake! You phoney little fake!" Biff tells Willy when they finally square off, in Act II). After the play's success, Miller's mother, Augusta, found an early manuscript called "In Memoriam", a forgotten autobiographical fragment that Miller had written when he was about 17. The piece, which was published in the New Yorker in 1995, is about a Miltex salesman called Schoenzeit, who had once asked Miller for the subway fare when Miller was helping him carry samples to an uptown buyer. The real Schoenzeit killed himself the next day by throwing himself in front of a train; the character's "dejected soul" - a case of exhaustion masquerading as gaiety - is the first sighting of what would become Willy Loman. "His emotions were displayed at the wrong times always, and he knew when to laugh," Miller wrote.

Every masterpiece is a story of accident and accomplishment. Of all the historical and personal forces that fed the making of Death of a Salesman, none was more important than a moment in 1947 when Miller's uncle Manny Newman accosted him in the lobby of the Colonial Theatre in Boston after a matinee of All My Sons. "People regarded him as a kind of strange, completely untruthful personality," Miller says of Newman, a salesman and a notorious fabulist, who within the year would commit suicide. "I thought of him as a kind of wonderful inventor. There was something in him which was terribly moving, because his suffering was right on his skin, you see. He was the ultimate climber up the ladder who was constantly being stepped on by those climbing past him. My empathy for him was immense. I mean, how could he possibly have succeeded? There was no way."

According to Miller, Newman was "cute and ugly, a bantam with a lisp. Very charming." He and his family, including two sons, Abby and Buddy, lived modestly in Brooklyn. "It was a house without irony, trembling with resolutions and shouts of victories that had not yet taken place but surely would tomorrow," Miller recalled in Timebends. Newman was fiercely, wackily competitive; even when Miller was a child, in the few hours he spent in Newman's presence his uncle drew him into some kind of imaginary contest "which never stopped in his mind". Miller, who was somewhat ungainly as a boy, was often compared unfavourably with his cousins, and whenever he visited them, he said, "I always had to expect some kind of insinuation of my entire life's probable failure."

When Newman approached Miller after that matinee, he had not seen his nephew for more than a decade. He had tears in his eyes, but, instead of complimenting the playwright, he told Miller, "Buddy is doing very well." Miller says now, "He had simply picked up the conversation from 15 years before. That element of competitiveness - his son competing with me - was so alive in his head that there was no gate to keep it from his mouth.

At first, the Manny Newman encounter inspired in Miller only the intimation of a new, slashing sense of dramatic form. The play's structure is embedded in the structure of Loman's turbulent mind, which, Miller says, destroys the boundaries between then and now. As a result, "there are no flashbacks, strictly speaking, in Death of a Salesman," he says. "It's always moving forward." In this way, Miller jettisoned what he calls "the daylight continuity" of naturalism for the more dark logic of dreams. "In a dream you don't have transitional material," Miller says. "The dream starts where it starts to mean something." He continues, "I wanted to start every scene at the last possible instant, no matter where that instant happened to be."

He picked up a copy of his play and read me its first beats: "Willy?" "It's all right. I came back." "Why? What happened? Did something happen, Willy?" "No, nothing happened." He added, "We're into the thing in three lines." His new structure jump-started both the scenes and the stage language, whose intensity Miller called "emergency speech" - an "unashamedly open" idiom that replaced "the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the natural". Willy dies without a secret; the play's structure, with its cross-cutting between heightened moments, encouraged the idea of revelation. The audience response that Miller wanted to incite, he said, "was not 'What happens next and why?' so much as 'Oh, God, of course.' "

When, early in 1948, he visited his cousin Abby Newman to talk about Manny's blighted life, Miller had just such an epiphany. Newman told him, "He wanted a business for us. So we could all work together. A business for the boys." Miller, who repeated Newman's words in the play, wrote in his autobiography, "This conventional, mundane wish was a shot of electricity that switched all the random iron filings in my mind in one direction. A hopelessly distracted Manny was transformed into a man with a purpose: he had been trying to make a gift that would crown all those striving years; all those lies he told, all his imaginings and crazy exaggerations, even the almost military discipline he had laid on his boys, were in this instant given form and point. I suddenly understood him with my very blood."

Willy Loman is a salesman, but we're never told what product he lugs around in his two large sample cases. Once, a theatregoer buttonholed Miller and put the question to him: "What's he selling? You never say what he's selling." Miller quipped, "Well, himself. That's who's in the valise." Miller adds, "You sell yourself. You sell the goods. You become the commodity." Willy's house echoes with exhortations to his two floundering sons about the presentation of self ("The man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.") and the imperialism of self ("Lick the world. You guys together could absolutely lick the civilised world."). In his notebook Miller writes, "Willy longs to take off, be great," and "Willy wants his boys prepared for any life. Nobody will laugh at them - take advantage. They'll be big men. It's the big men who command respect."

In Willy's frenzied and exhausted attempt to claim himself, Miller had stumbled on to a metaphor for a post-war society's eagerness to pursue its self-interest after years of postponed life. In Willy's desperate appetite for success and in the brutal dicta offered by his rich brother Ben ("Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way.") Death of a Salesman caught the spirit of self-aggrandisement being fed by what Miller calls "the biggest boom in the history of the world".

In the economic upheavals of the 1930s, social realism reflected the country's mood; plays held a mirror up to the external world, not an internal one. But in the post-war boom, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), written in what Williams called his "personal lyricism", suddenly found an audience and struck a deep new chord in American life. The plays were subjective, poetic, symbolic; they made a myth of the self, not of social remedies.

Indeed, the name "Willy Loman" was not intended by Miller as a sort of socio-economic indicator ("low man"). Miller took it from a chilling moment in Fritz Lang's film The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) when, after a long and terrifying stakeout, a disgraced detective who thinks he can redeem himself by exposing a gang of forgers is pursued and duped by them. The chase ends with the detective on the phone to his former boss ("Lohmann? Help me, for God's sake! Lohmann!"); when we see him next, he is in an asylum, gowned and frightened and shouting into an invisible phone ("Lohmann? Lohmann? Lohmann?"). "What the name really meant to me was a terrified man calling into the void for help that will never come," Miller said.

Willy is afflicted by the notion of winning - what Brecht called "the black addiction of the brain". He cheats at cards; he encourages his boys to seek every advantage. Victory haunts him and his feckless sons. In a scene from the notebook, Biff and Happy tell Willy of their plan to go into business. "Step on it, boys, there ain't a minute to lose," Willy tells them, but their souls are strangled by their father's heroic dreams, which hang over them like some sort of spiritual kudzu. In another notebook entry, Biff rounds fiercely on Willy: "I don't care if you live or die. You think I'm mad at you because of the Woman, don't you? I am, but I'm madder because you botched up my life, because I can't tear you out of my heart, because I keep trying to make good, be something for you, to succeed for you."

In dramatising the fantasy of competition, Miller's play was the first to dissect cultural envy in action - that process of invidious comparison which drives society forward, but also drives it crazy. "You lose your life to it!" Miller says of Willy's restlessness. "It's the ultimate outer-directional emotion. In other words, I am doing this not because it's flowing from me, but because it's flowing against him." He goes on, "You're living in a mirror. It's a life of reflections. Emptiness. Emptiness. Emptiness. Hard to go to sleep at night. And hard to wake up." In his mind, Willy is competing with his brother Ben; with Dave Singleman, a successful old salesman who could make a living "without ever leaving his room"; with his neighbour Charley, who owns his own business; and with Charley's lawyer son, Bernard. "Where's Willy in all this?" Miller asks. "He's competed himself to death. He's not existing any more, or hardly."

In his notebook Miller wrote, "It is the combination of guilt (of failure), hate, and love - all in conflict that he resolves by 'accomplishing' a $20,000 death". In death, Willy is worth more than in life. His suicide is the ultimate expression of his confusion of success with love and also of his belief in winning at all costs. As a father, he overlooked Biff's small childhood acts of larceny - taking sand from a building site, stealing basketballs, getting the answers for tests from the nerdy, studious Bernard - and Biff has continued his habit into adulthood, out of a combination of envy and revenge. A notebook citation reads, "It is necessary to (1) reveal to Willy that Biff stole to queer himself, and did it to hurt Willy," and "(2) And that he did it because of the Woman and all the disillusionment it implied." In the final version of the play, Biff, admitting in passing that he spent three months in a Kansas City jail for lifting a suit, tells Willy, "I stole myself out of every good job since high school!"

At first, Miller saw the $20,000 of insurance money as cash to put Biff on the straight and narrow. " 'My boy's a thief - with 20,000 he'd stop it,' " he wrote in the notebook. Instead, Willy's suicide - the final show of force and fraud, in keeping with his competitive fantasies - is pitched on a more grandiose and perverse note. In an early draft of the terrific penultimate scene, where Biff exposes Willy, there is this exchange:

BIFF (to him): What the hell do you want from me? What do you want from me?

WILLY: - Greatness -

BIFF: No -

In Miller's final draft, Willy, who will not accept his son's confession of thievery, takes Biff's greatness as a given as he visualises his own suicide. "Can you imagine that magnificence with $20,000 in his pocket?" he says to Ben. He adds, "Imagine? When the mail comes he'll be ahead of Bernard again." When he goes to his death, Willy, in his mind, is on a football field with Biff, and full of vindictive triumph ("When you hit, hit low and hit hard, because it's important, boy."). "He dies sending his son through the goalposts," Miller says. "He dies moving." Miller pauses. "I think now that Kazan had it right from the beginning. He said, 'It's a love story.' "

On the last page of his notebook Miller scribbled a short speech to give to the original cast after its members had read the play in galleys: "I want you all to know now that the cannons are quiet that this production has been the most gratifying I have known. I believe you are the finest ever gathered for any play and I am exceedingly proud and gratified not only for myself but for the American theatre." (The original cast included Lee J Cobb as Willy, with Mildred Dunnock, Arthur Kennedy and Cameron Mitchell.) In its passage to greatness, Death of a Salesman was enhanced enormously by the poetic set design of Jo Mielziner, who created a series of platforms, with Willy's house as a haunting omnipresent background. However, as Elia Kazan pointed out in his autobiography, "The stage direction in the original manuscript that Art gave me to read directly after he'd finished it does not mention a home as a scenic element. It reads, 'A pinpoint travelling spot lights a small area on stage left. The Salesman is revealed. He takes out his keys and opens an invisible door.' It was a play waiting for a directorial solution." It got it.

Death of a Salesman also got its share of bad suggestions. Kazan's then wife, Molly Day Thacher, who was a playreader for the Group Theatre and had some influence over Kazan, tried to get Miller, as he remembers it, "to cut out Uncle Ben, all the memory scenes, and simply make it a realistic little narrative". And the co-producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, nervous of a play with the word "Death" in its title, took a poll among theatregoers which asked, "Would you go to see a play called Death of a Salesman?" Nobody would. "They had a list of about 15 titles," Miller says. "One was 'Free and Clear'. I'll never forget that."

In the intervening half-century, the surface of American life has changed, but its mad competitiveness hasn't. "I'm not aware of any change in the way people look at this play," Miller says, but he admits that Willy's complaints about loyalty from the head office ring strange to contemporary ears. "Workers now - not just workers but management - know that nobody will have much pity for them." Last year, in a poll taken by the Royal National Theatre of 800 English theatre professionals, Miller was voted the greatest contemporary playwright; but in America, where in some quarters he's seen as a kind of Jeremiah, Miller is not accorded quite the same honour.

He ascribes his decline in popularity to the erosion of the "unified audience" that came with the rise of the avant-garde in the early 1960s. "The only theatre available to a playwright in the late 1940s was Broadway," Miller writes in the 50th-anniversary edition of Salesman. "That theatre had one single audience ... catering to a very different level of age, culture, education, and intellectual sophistication." He continues, "One result of this mix was the ideal, if not frequent fulfilment, of a kind of play that would be complete rather than fragmentary, an emotional rather than an intellectual experience, a play basically of heart with its ulterior moral gesture integrated with action rather than rhetoric. In fact, it was a Shakespearean ideal, a theatre for anyone with an understanding of English and perhaps some common sense."

But there was nothing Shakespearean in the response to "that damned disturbing play", as Kazan called it, on the night of its debut, 10 February 1949, in Philadelphia. "The curtain came down and nothing happened," Miller says. "People sat there a good two or three minutes, then somebody stood up with his coat. Several men - I didn't see women doing this - were helpless. They were sitting there with handkerchiefs over their faces. It was like a funeral." He continues, "I didn't know whether the show was dead or alive. The cast was back there wondering what had happened. Nobody'd pulled the curtain up. Finally, someone thought to applaud, and then the house came apart."

John Lahr, 1999. A longer version of this article originally appeared in the 'New Yorker'.