The Pursuit of Happiness
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman receives new life on the stage of Max Reinhardt’s former Theater in Berlin, the Deutsches Theater. Premiered in 1949, this piece is possibly Miller’s most well known work and one for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Despite being translated into another language (a version by Volker Schlöndorff and Florian Hopf) this quintessentially American drama, under Bastian Kraft's direction, does not fail to captivate its audience and inspire thought. Willy Loman’s unsuccessful pursuit of happiness and his family’s desperate struggle to realize the American Dream remains incredibly moving and potent. Death of a Salesman is the story of the loss of identity, as Loman himself becomes a victim to the unattainability of the American Dream and its utter dependence upon financial success as a basis for fulfillment and happiness.
The spartan and minimalistic stage design of Ben Baur contrasts sharply with the grandeur and finery of the theater’s main house. Upon a barren and revolving stage floor a simple wooden table, four chairs, and a hanging lamp are placed. The whitewashed, high walls of the deep stage and singular entrance at the extreme of upstage-center present a very open and cavernous setting. The lighting design of Cornelia Goth utilises a liberal amount of footlighting to cast large shadows of the figures onstage onto the walls. This in combination with the projections of Stefan Bischoff and the revolving stage creates a dreamlike backdrop in which Willy Loman’s delusions reign free and allow for an almost seamless transition from one scene to the next. These transitions are occasionally supplemented by a jarring and shocking musical accompaniment. This is reminiscent of Bertold Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt, which seeks to hinder or disrupt the audience’s emersion and “make the familiar strange” in order to provoke a response charged with social criticism.
The language of the piece, having been translated into German and reworked, does a fine job of respecting the integrity of Miller’s original text. The simple, truthful and yet naturally conversational style does the show justice. Willy Loman as portrayed by Ulrich Matthes is not only believable in his distress and confusion, but also at times sympathetic and charming. He is a man as alive in the past as he is in the present. We see him suffering under delusions of his own success and witness his inability to accept the choices of his son Biff, played by Benjamin Lillie. As his tragic end draws near the audience is left desperately hoping for a turn in the tide. Perhaps his wife Linda, skillfully portrayed by Olivia Grigolli, says it best, “Be loving to him. Because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”
Kraft’s adaptation of the piece begins where most others end; at the funeral of Willy Loman. This serves from the very start to destroy any misconceptions of his the fate. Forgotten, penniless and misunderstood Willy at his death is the antithesis of his dream, which as his son Happy puts it is, “the only dream you can have-- to come out number-one man.” At the end of a 36-year-long career on the road Willy has achieved no such success. When after being fired, he is confronted by the negation of his delusions and the denial of his most cherished dream, his world simply unravels. For his suicide disguised as a traffic accident seems his only escape and the money from his life insurance policy the only means of providing for his family. Willy remarks about the tragedy of it all saying, “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
Although at times the challenges of blocking such an intimate piece on a very deep stage seems a constraint to the cast, the simplicity of the scenic design and language allows for an emphasis on the reality of each moment. The skilled ensemble of the Deutsches Theater along with the support of the Universität der Künste Berlin and the direction of Bastian Kraft create an original yet truthful and compelling portrayal of Miller’s timeless and well-known work. As Miller himself once said in regards to Death of a Salesman, “When the acting is terrific, the whole thing works.”
photos | ©Arno Declair