Can Willy Loman find success in the land of the "iron rice bowl"?

Playwright Arthur Miller, who created Willy in "Death of a Salesman" to illustrate the limits of the American dream, said today his hero's search for self-identity should have just as much meaning behind the Bamboo Curtain once the play opens May 7.

"Of course, it's about American society," said Miller, the first U.S. playwright to direct his own work in China, "but I have a feeling the audience out there is going to discover Chinese society."

Miller, in his first press conference here, said he initially despaired of making the necessary cultural translations. "I'm not worried anymore."

Miller was invited to stage his bleak drama here at a time of official disdain for Western society. After a flurry of cultural openness, the communist regime once again is portraying capitalist lifestyles in darkest tones.

But the New York writer, who has never before directed "Death of a Salesman" in a foreign tongue, said his play was too universal to be exploited for narrow political purposes.

"The play is dealing with the problem of contemporary man's inability to find some meaning in his existence," he said. "It can't be made into propaganda because it's too deeply felt."

How will he explain Willy to a Maoist society, where there are no traveling salesmen and where almost every adult possesses an "iron rice bowl"--guaranteed job and pay--regardless of merit?

"Of course, the salesman idea is a metaphor. It is the whole process of selling yourself, of finding your identity through what people think of you. This goes on in China and everywhere else."

Miller speaks not a word of Chinese. he communicates through Ying Ruocheng, one of China's leading actors, who translated the play earlier this year.

Ying, a pudgy thespian who was seen by American audiences as Kublai Khan in last year's TV mini-series "Marco Polo," organized the production and cast himself as Willy. He said he prepared for the role during a recent five-month tour of the United States, where he observed salesmen, watched 1940s movies and spoke to American actors who had played the part.