It has been said that every night Death of a Salesman is performed somewhere in the world. It has connected with the hearts and minds of people everywhere. While critics have debated whether or not the play is a tragedy, a piercing social commentary, an affirmation of the American spirit, or a depiction of the salesman's life, individuals around the world have been emotionally touched and intellectually challenged by the drama's poignant portrait of human beings just like themselves.
Playwright Arthur Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for this play, which premiered in 1949 and garnered both a Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The drama was made into a film in 1951, has been translated into 29 languages, and is a staple item in the repertoire of professional touring companies around the globe. This film is directed by Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) and was originally presented on September 15, 1985, on CBS Television.
Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman) is a gung-ho salesman who after 34 years with a company has been taken off salary and forced to work only for commission. He is deeply hurt and humiliated by this state of affairs and justifiably worried about his financial future.
Willie's younger son, Happy (Stephen Lang), is somewhat successful in business. His other son, Biff (John Malkovich), has tried a variety of unsatisfying jobs over the years and is now home again, a broken man at 34. He is resentful of Willie's high hopes for him and still angry over the dark secret he discovered about his father years ago.
Willie's long-suffering and loving wife, Linda (Kate Reid), tries to mediate the conflict between Biff and his father, but the resentments are too deep on both sides. When Willy is fired from his job, Charley (Charles Durning), a long-time friend and neighbor, offers him employment but Willy refuses.
Buoyed by another pipedream of success the kind his father has fed him all his life Biff tries to get a loan from a former employer to start a new business. But as always, he fails. In a heroic attempt to open Willy's eyes to the truth of both their lives, Biff reaches out to his father in love. But Willy, whose mind is failing, has decided to commit suicide to get the insurance money for his family.
No matter how many times one sees Death of a Salesman, it continues to yield new meanings. In this version, Willy, Biff, Linda and Happy all struggle mightily with change. Arthur Miller in Salesman in Beijing tells the Chinese actors working on the play, "The salesman motif is in some great part metaphorical; we must all sell ourselves, convince the world of a persona that perhaps we only wished we possessed." Willy goes to extreme measures to be accepted by others and counsels his son to pay attention to appearances and making a good impression. But, of course, this comparison strategy only leads to immense disappointment. Willy eventually comes to see himself as a failure and even senses that he is a stranger in his own family. Volker Schlondorff draws out fine performances from the entire cast, especially Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.