Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: “Death of a Salesman” in the Original

Joseph Buloff’s Yiddish production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the most ambitious undertaking of the current Yiddish theater season, is now being played at the Parkway Theater in Brooklyn. George Ross finds that seeing the play in Yiddish reveals it in a new and somewhat unexpected aspect.

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A thoroughly satisfying translation is a rare thing in the theater, and even rarer in the Yiddish theater. However, if Toyt fun a Salesman at the Parkway Theater in Brooklyn (through February 4 and perhaps longer) is nevertheless a unique experience, it is not for either of these reasons. Nor is it simply the fact that one finds it so apt, so almost inevitable, that this play of a Wandering Salesman should be presented to a Jewish audience. What one feels most strikingly is that this Yiddish play is really the original, and the Broadway production was merely—Arthur Miller’s translation into English.

The vivid impression is that in translating from his mixed American-Jewish experience Miller tried to ignore or censor out the Jewish part, and as a result succeeded only in making the Loman family anonymous. What we saw on Broadway was a kind of American Everyman, an attempt at generalization which in fact ended in limitation. Not knowing who Willy Loman really was, what his real relation to American culture, we had to conclude that he was just what he was labeled—a salesman, and not a very bright one; and that his problems were those of a salesman. So, after all, the man who is supposed to have summed up the play by remarking, “That New England territory never was any good!” hadn’t really missed the point. As for whatever was not included in the generalized “salesman,” there we found ourselves saying, “Well, that’s Willy Loman’s character”—but here, too, we drew a blank. For, actually, what is character stripped of a particular milieu and culture? Americans, especially, manage better to be convincing when we are told what else they are besides “Americans,” and to cut humanity down to the “common man” is to lose the human. Willy Loman’s fate might have held a richer meaning—both particular and general—if we had known what he was besides a “salesman.”

Clifford Odets—I mean the Odets of the 30′s—comes to mind as a near relation of Miller’s and points a lesson. Whatever else we may think of Odets as a playwright, the authenticity of his flavor and coloring, the realization of character and milieu, come from what he knew intimately with his physical and cultural senses; Arthur Miller, one feels, has almost deliberately deprived himself of some of the resources of his experience.

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In the Yiddish production, what is inherently there may for the first time be seen full-bodied. The great success of Joseph Buloff’s production is that it brings the play “home.” The effect is remarkable. Buloff has caught Miller, as it were, in the act of changing his name, and has turned up the “original” for us. Where it fails of being the original, one tends to blame Miller’s faulty English “translation” and Buloff’s too exact fidelity to it. American tough talk and sex talk, for instance, become clumsy and embarrassing in Yiddish. “Strudel” in English might connote sensuality; in Yiddish it barely gets beyond being strudel. To speak of a whore as a shtik flaish is more savory but less brutal than the American “pig.” American whores somehow become almost chaste in Yiddish, American sports less physical, less “rah-rah.” Buloff was right to leave out the business of the bicycle-riding exercise and the school pennants, but in spite of such paring, such scenes don’t succeed: Yiddish seems incapable of dealing with these areas of American life.

On the other side of the balance, and weighing much more heavily, is the ease and grace with which the rather plain and often unidentifiable English becomes familiarly rich Yiddish. Except for the characters of the young men (Biff becomes Bill and Happy becomes Harry) and the loose women—there is the added difficulty that good young Jewish actors are harder to find than good young American actors—the language has a fluency and felicity which Miller might well envy. Particularly in the character of Willy Loman, whom Joseph Buloff acts as well as translates brilliantly: Willy speaks and behaves in Jewish idiom much more comfortably and eloquently than in American—and note that the translation is almost literal. Willy’s repeated claim that his son has failed to find himself “for spite” becomes more connotative when “for spite” becomes “af tsuloches”; so many of a Jew’s catastrophes seem to happen “af tsuloches.” And Linda’s (Willy’s wife) impassioned “attention must be paid,” while not at all unlikely in English, is not so embedded in the language and so frighteningly strong as “gib achtung.” Here, and in many places, one felt in the English version as if Miller were thinking in Yiddish and unconsciously translating, as Odets often did more consciously; and sometimes when his English filters through the density of his background, it succeeds in picking up flavor on the way.

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But beyond the apparent enhancement of language, of which I have given only a few characteristic instances, Toyt fun a Salesman is larger and more significant than Death of a Salesman by the discovery of Jewish character and Jewish situation in the play. How much more suggestive than Miller’s bare hint of the salesman as poet-idealist living dangerously on a smile and a shoeshine, is the Yiddish Willy Loman, a Jewish salesman in America striving proudly and defensively to hold together his scattered family and himself, wandering off through all the cities with nothing really to sell but good will, trying desperately to be “known,” “liked,” accepted, and incidentally “not laughed at.” Recall also Willy’s exaggerated Americanism and his excessive attachment to his father through his older brother; his intense preoccupation with American sports and American gadgets, the “well-advertised refrigerator”; his unhappy dependence on the pinochle-playing Charley and on Charley’s yeshiva bocher son, Bernard.

And for the Jewish Willy, aren’t there added interesting implications in his failure to become something he isn’t, in his failure to know who he is, in his final division into two sons, one an unsuccessful sensualist, the other a bankrupt idealist? Even in the Yiddish, these elements are mere suggestions, and granted it is more the business of a play to suggest than to analyze—still one feels they might have been made with even sharper point if Mr. Buloff had felt freer than the English play allowed.

Something else, too, happens at the Parkway. The unalleviated grimness which never really attains to tragedy in the Broadway production slips here quite naturally into the moods of irony and pathos so familiar to Jews, and the whole tone is lightened in the way that Jews have always made their best jokes out of their crudest experience. It is lightened, moreover, in favor of a deeper pathos rather than the more spurious “tragedy” of the English. And this pathos, I might add, is what the audience at the Parkway saw, indeed came prepared to see. It is for them, after all, a play about a Jewish family, not about an unsuccessful salesman, and they indicated freely their understanding of the problem of the threatened family when a son denounces his father, when a mother denounces her son, when a son and a father fall sobbing desperately into each other’s arms.

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It’s unfortunate that Buloff, who is a fine J. actor, does not have the better company and more finished production that he deserves. His own acting is in the line of good Jewish realism. It is that larger, more lavish realism akin to the French, Italian, and Russian styles rather than the English and American which is so often both repressed and fussy. It is a physically generous style, but no less attentive to small natural detail and delicate psychological modulation. There was no need to explain Willy’s schizophrenic conversations split between the real people and his dream people as a literary device or a stage convention; these speeches were right and necessary, as were also his frequent complete surrenders to dream. And they were lighter than on Broadway, I believe, because of the appropriateness of this grander realism to the expressionist-realist style of the play itself.

Luba Kadison’s Linda had quite as much force, feeling, and style as Buloff could have required. The same cannot be said for the rest of the support, except perhaps for Sam Gertler’s Charley, who in fact added dimension to the role. Gertler’s Charley was thoroughly smug and defiant in his ignorance of things American, especially sports, and he was smart enough to be sympathetic with rather than insulted by Willy; I seem to remember the Broadway Charley as less complete, quieter, almost apologetic, and not so fully in relation to Willy. Nathan Goldberg as Uncle Ben might have been more sinister and David Ellin as Bernard might better have suggested the earnest, the serious, the mental.

The set is a frugal copy of the original and the lighting gives little more than what is required in the script. The skeleton frame of the house is never quite part of the dream to which it belongs. The Yiddish theater in general finds it difficult to take properties and decor very seriously. The audience at the Parkway found the famous stage set which requires Willy to walk around through a skeleton doorway into his kitchen instead of by short cut through the imaginary wall quite funny. They found funny, too, Buloff’s sensitively stylized fits of confusion; at one such moment a lady behind me remarked that he must be a shiker. I suppose it’s a matter of a haimishe audience refusing to see unhappiness as “neurosis,” plain tsores as “maladjustment.” What I myself found funny was that Yiddish should have no word for “salesman,” unless it be “sale-es-man.”

I don’t think it would be altogether too facetious to propose as an interesting project to Arthur Miller that in the light of this production he make another try at a more imaginative translation of his material into English; the attempt might result in a more authentic and, by that same token, more moving play than we saw in the production on Broadway.

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