Anachronism of a Salesman

Two actors on stage, one hugging the other
Anthony Lapaglia and Josh Helman in Death of a Salesman

I saw the Sydney production of Death of a Salesman with Anthony Lapaglia in it. It was an interesting production. It suffered from being too faithful to the play as originally imagined, with uncreative staging. The costumes were faithful to the ’30s and ’40s, and the set was surprisingly static, with limited use of projection or dynamic elements.

The performances were great throughout, though. Alison Whyte fully inhabits the character of Linda, Josh Helman does a great job as Biff, and Anthony Phelan (one of the best vocal talents in Australian acting) brings a ghostly gravitas to the role of Willy’s brother Ben.

The play’s themes about escaping grinding precarity, forging a better life, and avoiding parental disappointment seem more relevant now than at any time since Miller wrote it. But the costuming and staging make it unlikely that the audience would recognise any of that in the play.

This is a pity. By failing to update the production design, the markers of racism and precarity are entirely invisible to a 21st-century audience. In 1949, the playwright David Mamet described Death of a Salesman as:

“the greatest American play, arguably, is the story of a Jew told by a Jew and cast in “universal” terms. Willy Loman is a Jew in a Jewish industry. But he is never identified as such. His story is never avowed as a Jewish story, and so a great contribution to Jewish American history is lost. It’s lost to culture as a whole, and, more importantly, it’s lost to the Jews, its rightful owners.”

Though this may have flown over the heads of most of the clueless 1940s U.S. audiences, some might have recognised themselves in Willy and Biff Loman. None would in this production.

Racism, classism, and precarity are still experienced by workers everywhere. By the security guards we pass every day. By the workers who take care of our old people and children. By the warehouse pickers and delivery drivers who bring us our purchases. By most of us.

Death of a Salesman still has important points to make about the meaninglessness of superficial charm and chasing material gain at all costs. By staging it as a historical piece, this production obscures its most powerful messages.

This post first appeared on Ben Harris-Roxas' blog at

Kevin Kline playing Willy Loman in the movie Soapdish
Kevin Kline playing Willy Loman in Soapdish (1991)
Ben Harris-Roxas @ben_hr