And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to life . . . . He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.--From "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller By Tracy Dahlby Washington Post Foreign Service
Like a consummate Yankee trader, Arthur Miller is convincing when he tells you his old friend Willy Loman is going to play as successfully to audiences in Communist Peking as he has in Peoria and hundreds of other American cities over the years.
Willy, the hapless hero Miller created in "Death of a Salesman," will move onto new turf here when the play about the dark side of the American dream opens at Peking's Capital Theater next Saturday. Miller believes Willy's family woes and his sample case full of broken dreams will prove as palatable to the Chinese as sweet and sour pork.
Five weeks into rehearsals with an all-Chinese cast, the playwright said, "There are some cultural differences about the way things are expressed, but the fundamentals are the same." In a society where traditional family ties are strong, he explained, "Willy is as Chinese as you can get. He's a papa."
"The business of the salesman isn't a problem," Miller says of a Communist country in which free enterprise is still officially frowned upon and a modest market economy is only slowly beginning to bud.
"Oddly enough," he goes on, "there are salesmen here," they just represent the country's state-run production units and farms. And the entrepreneurial urge, as he sees it, is deeply rooted among the Chinese.
"They invented what we call commerce. These are the guys who were sitting here 800 years ago, buying low and selling high. They know all about that. You go out on the street here on a Sunday . . . and you see hawkers and pushcart peddlers and it reminds you of the Lower East Side of Manhattan 40 years ago."
"That's not it, though," said the bluff, voluble playwright, pouring a glass of beer with Chinese-style courtesy for a visitor to his Peking hotel. "See, the thing that really gets them is the family, which is obsessive with the Chinese. That's where the culture renews itself."
Willy's dark mutterings in the play about the failed promise of a ne'er-do-well son appear to translate smoothly into the problem of a widening generation gap here brought on by China's drive toward a modern industrial economy.
Zhu Lin, who plays Willy's wife Linda in the Peking production, was quoted in the state-controlled press as saying, "Haven't we heard enough of how parents pin their hopes on their children and when the children fail, say, in college entrance exams, they maltreat their own flesh and blood? . . . That is why we can understand the feelings in the play."
There are also what Miller calls "parallel questions" of aging and the individual's quest for identity in a conformist world. Even in the "land of the iron rice bowl," where jobs and pay are guaranteed regardless of merit, older Chinese "lose their powers" just as does his down-on-his-luck salesman, Miller says, adding that "suicide is not unknown here."
"There's an inexorable process taking place in the play that will take place as long as men are born and grow old," he says of the universal qualities he hopes will guarantee packed houses when the theater doors open next week.
Appearing relaxed and confident in a rumpled cotton work shirt and a cardigan sweater, Miller says half jokingly, "More important, the Chinese are going to look at the play and say, 'This guy's getting $50 a week, he's got a refrigerator, a car and he owns his own house, and he's got trouble?' "
At the Capital Theater, Miller stands with arms folded in a center section of seats and, through a battery of interpreters, shouts directions at the stage where Willy's house in a New York neighborhood of the 1940s is swarming with Chinese actors and stagehands. While foreign reporters were allowed to view the first dress rehearsal here today, western television crews who refused to pay for filming rights were barred by Chinese theater officials.
The time-consuming linguistic hurdles have been only a small part of the cultural and artistic intricacies Miller has had to face in the making of a production in a country where few foreign plays are staged.
"I've practically had to design the costumes myself," Miller said in the earlier interview, because the average Chinese actor has "never seen a real dress. What they have seen is something your aunt would have worn 40 years ago. The women all show up with hairdos like Rita Hayworth."
Traditionally, he explained, "they've always performed western plays in white face. It's totally foreign to them to be Chinese in a foreign play." Miller has now persuaded his actors to give up their white chalk makeup and blond wigs, he said, "otherwise, I wouldn't know how to direct them to be Americans."
Adding to these difficulties is the highly stylized, melodramatic acting of the traditional Chinese theater.
"Another word for it, if you're trying to do anything that approaches realism," he said, "is just bad acting. They're telling the audience this is when you laugh and this is when you cry."
The theatrical gap is understandable, in Miller's view, because the Chinese "have been at war or revolution since the '40s, so there hasn't been much of chance to develop" a purely modern form of Chinese acting. "Now, they're trying to objectively figure out whether there is a possibility of a Chinese type of theater which would not simply be a repetition of . . . some American or French stuff."
During the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, which ended in the mid-1970s, the Chinese actors, directors, and playwrights "weren't allowed to be in flux for a long time. Now, there's no official government line. That's the one healthy thing. There's progress, it's more open."
Miller said the production has so far left him with "a sort of anthropological astonishment," something he and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, are planning to chronicle in a book called "A Salesman in Beijing," the official spelling of Peking.
"It will be the day-to-day uncovering of what goes on in the actors' heads in relation to the questions the play raises and how deep into the pysche they have to reach in order to come up with the performance," Miller explained.
In one scene, for example, Happy, Willy's younger son, tries to put the hustle on a young woman by telling her he is a West Point man.
"Of course, West Point is unknown here," Miller pointed out. "So I asked the actor what he would say to a girl if he were trying to impress her."
The actor told him he would say he had a father in Hong Kong, Britain's Chinese colony, which represents the forbidden glamor of capitalist lifestyles to many younger Chinese.
"I said, 'Okay, you think that and say the other.' This kind of telegraphic thing goes on eight hours a day here. Half the time we're in hysterics because of the Chinese sense of humor."
The appreciation of a casual joke, Miller is convinced, forms a durable link between Chinese and American cultures. In contrast to some European societies where he said individuals might take offense at the ribbing common to American humor, "the Chinese can laugh at themselves, kid themselves. We've got a terrific 'in' with the Chinese in that respect, culturally."
When "Salesman" was staged in the Soviet Union some years ago, Miller complained, Soviet producers made comic figures out of its characters in a well-orchestrated swipe at "monopoly capitalism." In contrast, he said, the Chinese "have not taken the slightest ideological position. They simply want the human communication to be made, and they say so openly."
One element that has not translated so successfully is the sexual explicitness of the American theater. Of the two steamy scenes involving Willy and his mistress, Miller said, "I am playing them slightly more chastely than they would probably be in New York at this stage, but no more than they were in 1949" when the play opened on Broadway. "It's just a matter of the native inhibitions of the actors. The point of the play is not to liberate the Chinese sexually. There's a certain etiquette that you sense that is very, very subtle of how a woman is handled."
Miller is one of the few living American playwrights who is widely known in China's hermetic intellectual circles. His plays "All My Sons" and "The Crucible" were produced here a few years ago. Ying Roucheng, a leading actor who was seen by American audiences as Kublai Kahn in the recent TV miniseries "Marco Polo," translated "Salesman" and did all the casting for the production. He gave himself the part of Willy.
The absence of political posturing about the play by Chinese officials is something of a surprise, observers here say, at a time when relations with the United States have been badly strained over the issues of political asylum and American arms sales to Taiwan.
"It's a bit like acting," said Miller of the apparent contradiction. "You've got the lines that you have to say and you've got the emotions that underline them and sometimes they're not always the same."
To illustrate the point, he said, "A larger number of Chinese are now studying in the United States than at any time in history. They really think we've got the modern age by the tail. They know we've got terrible problems . . . but there's no question they think that's where the future is."
Reflecting what he interprets as a greater openness to things western among the Chinese than during his last visit to China in 1978, Miller says the fact that the authorities have allowed a foreign production like "Salesman" to be staged here "is a terrifically good sign. The audience is apparently ready for new stuff beyond plays that corroborate some Marxist position."
"I just hope," he added, "the authorities are confident enough to let" the trend continue.