Life and Death on a Stage

3 Apr

February 10th, 1949 saw the first night of a new play directed by Elia Kazan.

As the final curtain fell, the cast was greeted by a stunned silence that stretched into eternity.

Then the auditorium of Broadway’s Morosco Theatre exploded with cheers and applause.

After many curtain calls, the audience still refused to leave.

Some of them were in tears.

And no one was sobbing harder than the producer, Cheryl Crawford.

She had been offered the chance to produce Death of a Salesman—and turned it down.

So Kermit Bloomgarden took a chance, and now he had produced the hit of the season.

Death of a Salesman would win a bucketful of awards including both the Pulitzer and the Tony for best play.

It would make a star of actor Lee J. Cobb and cement the reputation of its author Art Miller.

And it would live among the contenders for best American play ever written.

When Crawford passed on the play, such acclaim seemed unlikely.

Death of a Salesman is a serious play.

The title is not in the least metaphorical, spoiler alert: the salesman dies!

The play chronicles the splintering of the American dream.

Critics have debated whether it’s a tragedy, or a play with tragic elements, but it is certainly a depressing play.

On top of this non-commercial story, the plot unfolds in layers of present time and flashbacks, a device borrowed from the movies.

Not everyone was convinced this could work on stage, or that audiences would understand when a scene was supposed to be taking place.

Investors had committed to the project, sight unseen, based on the reputations of those involved.

When they actually got to read the play their reaction was not altogether positive.

Some reduced their investment.

Others pulled out all together.

In terms of financing this was a hiccup, but the doubts, as doubts often do, became contagious.

Kazan decided Miller should rewrite the play in chronological order.

Reluctantly Miller agreed.

It took Bloomgarden to get the project back on track.

After reading the new draft he said succinctly, “This piece of shit I will not do.”

He arguably saved a masterpiece, but then it was his turn to have doubts.

The word “death” in the title was off-putting, and Bloomgarden wanted a new title.

This time it was Miller’s turn to stand his ground.

He pointed out a current flop called: A Smile of the World as proof that a happy title didn’t guarantee a hit.

These stutter-steps, doubts, half-doubts and reaffirmations will be familiar to anyone who works in a creative industry.

It’s not unlike the dynamic in many agencies.

Get the combination right and the campaign’s a hit.

Get it badly wrong and you’re looking for a job.

It takes strong stomachs.

The salesman died, but there was a birth to celebrate too.

As Garson Kanin observed, “At the time the play was in rehearsal he was only a playwright named Art Miller.

After it opened he became Arthur Miller.”

 

 

 

 

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