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Arthur Miller discusses working in China

BROADCAST: Jan. 22, 1984 | DURATION: 00:53:05


In 1978, Arthur Miller saw a play in China and was asked to offer his expertise critique. A few years later, Arthur Miller was asked to direct "Death of a Salesman" in Beijing. Complimentary tickets were given away to the audience for a preview performance. Arthur was appalled at the audiences' behavior as they talked throughout the entire presentation. Miller's main concern was that his play would be seen as a political statement instead of a work of art. However, opening night arrived and his play was very well received.


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Rich Warren [music playing] Welcome to the "Studs Terkel Wax Museum". Each week at this time we present a program of vintage Terkel, the best programs Studs has produced during the past 30 years. On today's broadcast, he interviews playwright Arthur Miller, discussing Arthur Miller's experiences directing "Death Of A Salesman" in Beijing, China.

Studs Terkel Arthur Miller and his wife, Inge Morath, a very superb photographer, were not too long ago in China, where "Death of a Salesman" was performed. And that in itself is a story and a memorable one. It will be in a forthcoming book of Mr. Miller's published by Viking. But a recent issue of "Vanity Fair" had excerpts of it, and so I'm delighted that Arthur Miller is my guest today, and perhaps can reflect on his experiences in China and "Death of a Salesman" in Chinese. Arthur Miller, in reading the article, of course I'm overwhelmed by the piece in, in Vanity Fair, how it came to, what an experience. So American a play, a classic, but American, "Death of a Salesman" in a wholly different culture.

Arthur Miller Well, it is a different culture, but the life underneath was related to ours, or ours related to it, and that it wouldn't be all that impossible to make the play understood in China and felt in China, because I guess I was relying on the fact that the family is the cl -- at the center of the play, and the family in China is an extremely important thing. I was always--has always been and despite certain attempts to dislocate it, it remains the center of life.

Studs Terkel So we, we're talking about, then of course there's a family, the Loman family and I suppose the family in China goes back long, long before America or the Western hemisphere, you know, ever dreamed of families, though perhaps Indians did way back. So we have to come back to the idea of "Death of a Salesman", an American play, a Western, let alone American play. It was not too long ago was the Cultural Revolution in which everything Western was pretty well obliterated. How this came to be, we got to start from the beginning, don't you, how this play came to be done and then what happened when the play went on.

Arthur Miller Well, when I was in China in '78, they were then just beginning to consider the possibility of doing a foreign play there, a Western play. They had done Gorky and they had done Chekhov, and a couple of Russians things because the Russians had introduced them, in effect, to this speaking theater as opposed to the singing theater, opera. And so their repertoire was fundamentally 19th century Russian. You could say there was Ibsen, too, maybe one or two German classics, but they had no touch whatsoever with the contemporary theater anywhere. And when I was there in '78, they were beginning to break out and I saw a production there of a Chinese classic contemporary Chinese play, and I had some criticisms to make of it at their behest, and we got to talking, the head of the Chinese theater organization, and one thing and another, we became friends and they began to talk about doing a play of mine there. But it seemed like light years would have to pass before we could do such a thing because their acting is totally at variance with any kind of realistic acting. It's highly stylized, poetic, and quite beautiful, but it's just of a different order. So then a year or two passed, and Ying Roucheng, who is, plays Willy now, was then going to play in the American television--

Studs Terkel Marco Polo.

Arthur Miller Marco Polo, he played the Emperor, and he speaks fluent English. His father was thr proctor of Beijing University, and the grandfather established Beijing University, and he is a family of -- he's from a fam-family of scholars, so he, he was very learned as well as a damn good actor. Anyway, he came here and brought with him Zhao Yu, who is nominally the head, he's now in his middle, late 70s of the whole Chinese theater, and we got to close relations, and finally they decided they would do "Salesman". They originally thought to do "All My Sons", which is a more conventional kind of realistic play to which they are accustomed. But now developments have occurred so rapidly in China they felt that they might swing "Salesman" provided I would direct it. And that's how it happened. I, I, they wanted a challenge that would be worth accepting.

Studs Terkel 'Cause you keep a sor --a sort of diary and, at least I get that from the "Vanity Fair" piece, and I assume your book will be there, and there's a great deal of astonishment to it, and there's humor to it, and unexpected. A play about a salesman, lets -- now we know that they're aware of family, I should say. So a play about a salesman, we're talking about the People's Republic of China, a communist society. Salesman! Commercial

Arthur Miller Yeah, well, that, that was the one thing that everybody said they could never translate into Chinese conc -- into a Chinese concept. I frankly didn't think that was possible, because when you, you have an exchange of goods, you have implicitly a salesman, somebody is, is, is selling the stuff. Now as it happened in the few years that passed since '78, vast changes have occurred in Chinese economy. For example, as somebody said to us when we were there, "We don't have many salesmen, but we got a lot of buyers." The city of Beijing sends out buyers all over the surrounding provinces to bring, to buy up food supplies for Beijing. There are now salesmen because there are competing factories. See, they've, they've taken, they've tried to break down the central planning to a degree. So consequently, there's a certain amount of competition. For example, there are three factories: one in Tientsin, one in Shanghai, one in Beijing that make the same refrigerator much as we do in Indiana, California, and wherever. It's fundamentally the same machine, it has three different labels on it. But in, the one made in Shanghai is the one that works. The other two are garbage. Now, to sell the other two, is quite a job of salesmanship, see. So they've got that now. And the idea of a salesman is no longer that remote, but I think there's something in the human animal which after all, you know, the socialization of man took place around marketplaces, and that went on from time immemorial. The idea of selling something is, is not an American invention, it's just that we have elevated the salesman to being the prime symbol of our technological civilization here and in Europe, incidentally.

Studs Terkel So, in China, of course, there are many small entrepreneurs.

Arthur Miller There are now. If you go out--for example, you go out on a, on a street in certain neighborhoods they have pushcarts, just like they did on the Lower East Side in New York or anywhere else in a big city. And these guys are selling everything from shoes to slippers to socks to trousers to sweaters, anything.

Studs Terkel Now on that very theme, we'll, we'll leave the stage and your rehearsals and what happened during "Sales" for a moment. Your observation of the streets of Beijing and you say the excitement, the different things going on at the same time, reminded you so much of your father's tale and all his friends' tales of the New York Lower East Side at the turn of the century.

Arthur Miller Yeah. They live--in decent weather there's a lot of living on the street. People, one guy whom I describe in the book brushing his teeth over a sewer grating, and his elbow is about an inch away from a passing bus.

Studs Terkel And of course all this talking and conversation is going

Arthur Miller It's very lively, it's, it's wide open, kind of -- you know, it's like many third world countries of which China is one, it's just a bigger one. There's a lot of crowding. They are desperate for housing space and consequently, at the least opportunity, they pour out into the streets where they carry on all kinds of businesses.

Studs Terkel So in these circumstances, in this huge city, Beijing, capital of a country of 1 billion people, that means what, four United States'.

Arthur Miller That's right.

Studs Terkel Is "Death of a Salesman" not too long after the Cultural Revolution, and we'll come to the poetic part of the play, too, but now we come to Western people interpreted by Chinese actors. Now, what hap--a Chinese actor through the past number of years has interpreted a Western character in a certain kind of costume.

Arthur Miller Well, they, their convention was that if they were going to play a Westerner, not just an American but a European, any non-Chinese, non-Oriental, put it that way, they would get themselves chalked up. It's, it's equivalent, a little, to our blackface comedians or, or actors who portrayed Blacks in American culture.

Studs Terkel In the minstrel shows.

Arthur Miller And the minstrel shows and I'm sure on the stage. They would, and still do, they chalk their faces up and outline their eyes to make the eyes look larger so they're rounder, and wear these horrific wigs, which are simply ghastly in my opinion, usually of light hair because they, of course no Chinese has light hair. So the most un-Chinese thing you can do is put on light hair, and it's all rayon and nylon, and it's just horrible. So I told them when we started that this problem we would solve very simply, and that was that they were going to be Chinese playing this part in the play, and I didn't want any wigs, excepting for Willy, who was a younger man, he's about Dustin's age, in fact, and had a dense hair, closely-cropped black hair. Well, not closly-cropped, it was a, a normal haircut, but it's of course black, he's not, he's only 45 or six or whatever he is. And he wasn't about, I wasn't [gonna?] put a wig on him. Well, this was simply unbelievable. The, the idea of putting, of going on a stage without a wig to them is like going on naked, and consequently they wear wigs in normal Chinese plays. A wig is fun. I, I once had a little conversation with an actress in the play. And I said, "What is all this about a wig? Why, why is there so desperate to have wigs?" She says, "Well, it makes you look different, you have fun, and it just--makeup." See? But I felt that in doing so they would alienate the audience from the characters in it. And I didn't want them to look at the play as though it was happening totally abroad, totally in a foreign country. I wanted them to identify with those people. So the only wigs I allowed finally, there were a lot of fights, well, not fights, but they just, they couldn't believe that I was serious. So they kept making these wigs up and appearing every few days with a new set of wigs and trying them on and looking in the mirror and you know, I'd made this beautiful speech about the internationalism in this play and that we were all going to show that it was one human race. But they were acting as though there were at least two, one was Chinese and the rest was

Studs Terkel It's kind of sudden you say, how can they--the point is, they want to--they obviously wanted to be American. You know, it's about how can they be American? So they put the wigs on. And you said something rather interesting, you said, "Be Chinese."

Arthur Miller That's the best way to be American. Because the theory behind our production was that there's one human race, that we would penetrate Chinese etiquette, Chinese way of behaving, make an American or Western way of behaving but we would arrive at the same place finally. We would arrive at the same human psychology underneath and, indeed, that's exactly what happened.

Studs Terkel You know, we're going to come to the reaction of the audience, well, this is leading up to opening night and after. I'm thinking about the rehearsals now. So here it was an interesting problem, you from the United States, distinguished American playwright, whose plays have been performed in different countries of the world, but never, or a play of this contemporary nature in China, in a wholly different culture. So we have the wig problem. We have the costume, we have the makeup problem, we have a question now of references. How do you do it, for example, when Happy, the second son who is devil-may-care, doesn't give a damn, is going to make those two girls in that restaurant, he wanted to show he's a big shot. In the American play, he says, "Well, you know when I went to West Point," now how, obviously this means nothing to China, so what, how does that work?

Arthur Miller Well, I did not want to translate the references into Chinese references. I thought it would be confusing. So I left the West Point in, but the problem was, to get the actor to act the way the American would in relation to West Point, to think of West Point as a rather distinguished place, it would give him a distinction. So I said to the Chinese actor, who never heard of West Point, didn't know what that meant. I said, "Well, what would you do if you were trying to pick up a girl and make yourself more important in China? First of all, do people pick up girls in China?" And they all laughed, of course, they do it all the time. He said, "Well--

Studs Terkel This is denied by the government, but it's there.

Arthur Miller Well, the government denies everything. I mean they, this was perfectly understood. The picking up of the girl, absolutely comprehensible. But as this actor said to me at one point, I said, "Well," because I was having trouble with him, trying to relax him and make him into a, a more devilish fellow, and he was being quite formal about the whole thing. He, he could be cast for a diplomat. We finally, I must say with some regret, but not too much, he, he got sick. Then we replaced him with a guy who was exactly on the nose. See? However, he said something wonderful. I said, "Don't Chinese young men ever think this way?" He says, "Yes, they do, but they don't behave this way." [laughing] He says the thoughts are the same, but the behavior is different. Anyhow, I, I tried to find a parallel reference to rest -- West Point in China, and he said, "Well, what you would say is that you had a father in Hong Kong."

Studs Terkel Now you see, this is interesting to me. This tells me a lot of things, doesn't it? That that's a sign of status. A father in Hong Kong. We know that something from Ameri -- America is status. Being there, one of the kids still had the label on the lens of his glass. It said "Made in USA."

Arthur Miller Right.

Studs Terkel So, so being in Hong Kong is a sign of prestige.

Arthur Miller Meant he had, meant he had money. It meant he, he was, had a certain finesse. He could maneuver.

Studs Terkel So this means a lot even in the People's Republic of China.

Arthur Miller Oh, sure. You know, we, we fell for the propaganda that was put out by both ill-meaning and well-meaning Americans and Europeans, that somehow a total and irrevocable transformation of the human being had taken place. And that there would no longer any recognizable continuity between the past and the China of Mao. And of course, if you look more closely, you'll see that the ones who knew this best, that it had not happened, were the Chinese. Because there would never any cessation in the propaganda in China against what it happens, was the human side of humanity.

Studs Terkel Of course, we know also very conservative society through the centuries, too.

Arthur Miller Yeah. It's the most successful feudalism in the history of the world. It's the one feudalism that worked.

Studs Terkel But coming back to the play. Techniques and movements. Now, Willy meets a woman in a Boston hotel room, this is Willy's unfaithfulness to Linda discovered by the boy, by Biff of course, and in the American play, Willy at one moment they have [unintelligible], he's kissing the woman. How did that work?

Arthur Miller Well, they had to do it with a certain finesse which I must say was quite beautiful. They could not emphasize any lascivious side to the relationship, although he kissed her. But there was a tendency to sort of turn it away from the audience. And I must say, it made it sexier. You see? And she developed a way of coming onstage, the woman from Boston, in something I've never seen before, and that was--see, they wanted to poeticize it, which is just what it should be, because first of all it's a fantasy, it's a memory and Willie, of Willie, and it goes back into his remote past. She arrives on this--she suddenly showed up, this actress, with a long chiffon scarf which of course flows very fluidly in the air, draped over her shoulders and out across her arms and she entered the scene slowly whirling as she laughed. And this was her invention. And she arrived, as she's supposed to be looking into an invisible mirror. And she arrived before that mirror very beautifully. It was rather like a, a dance, and went into the scene see, and then she, at the end she'd whirl away.

Studs Terkel You know, it seems to me what the Chinese have done is, if anything, they've italicized the poetic aspect of

Arthur Miller Yes, that, that -- you see, the, the strength of the Chinese theater, of its traditional theater, is its poetry. Their acting is, in our terms, non-realistic and rather leaning toward a kind of expressionism. Which is endlessly fascinating. However, they also want -- see, they, from their, in their terms they haven't yet developed a contemporary style. They don't feel that they can grapple with contemporary Chinese life in a convincing sort of a way. Now, what they have got are the traditional Ibsen/Chekhov methods of acting. See, they, they think that they are doing Stanislavski, that's what they train as, but I didn't see too much evidence of it, really. They lapse right back into a Chinese kind of presentational acting instead of representational. They're facing the audience a lot.

Studs Terkel As you say that, I remember something you said the last time you appeared in the program, when you and Inge Morath were here with your last book together about China. Her photographs and your text, and that was -- you watched a Chinese actress tell the Chinese actor a tragic tale, and the Western reaction would be for him to react facially, that is, his shoulders would slump or he might cry. But in this instance the Chinese actor expressing grief did a complete, without changing, he did a complete somersault in place. Of course that was stunning.

Arthur Miller Yeah. Well, you see that has nothing to do with, of course, realistic performances, but it's, in many ways, more interesting. However, they're trying to find a ground, an aesthetic ground upon which they can develop a Chinese style. Now, my feeling was that they had to avoid simply following the contemporary Western styles, because it will get them -- well, it will end up doing what we do, which is okay, but it's, I don't think it really expresses their, their soul.

Studs Terkel One, one more aspect, expressing their soul in this matter of action and movement and reaction. There's one moment when out of the dream, the fantasy Willy Loman is a successful brother Ben, and in the American version, Ben does something with Biff. How, how to defend yourself. Biff takes a swing and he does something and the next thing you know, Biff is on the ground and he pulls out his cane sword. Now, how was it done there?

Arthur Miller See, they don't fight with their fists, and consequently when I tried to direct a mock fight, it was obviously not comfortable for them. So I remembered suddenly that they have a lot of violence in Chinese opera, but it's gorgeously stylized. As you know, if anybody's seen some of their theater, the women especially are the generals of the armies, and they are the great sword fighters, and one woman will be fighting six men with swords, and it's a ballet. So they are accustomed to this make, kind of make-believe, and this, it suddenly occurred to me, well, it is a kind of magic fight in "Salesman", too. Willy dreams of it as a magic fight, so I had them, Biff approach the older man, the older man suddenly clenching his fist, makes a sudden movement toward Biffs forehead. But of course he never touches him, and Biff suddenly grabs his head as though he'd been struck hard.

Studs Terkel It's a Chinese

Arthur Miller It's a Chinese actor, and he then took a leap backwards and landed on his back, which would be enough to kill any member of Equity, and ended up slowly spinning on the floor. It was gorgeous. I said, "How many times can you do that before we have to get another actor?" And he said, "No, I, I can do that as much as we need to." And we got talking, it turns out he had been a member of the People's Liberation Army in the antitank corps, and they have short-range antitank weapons, they only fire from close. And so the training requires that he fire the weapon and then leap out of the way, a long leap for safety. So, that's how he got to learn this.

Studs Terkel But, again, we come to the poetic, the dance nature, that seemed a natural for "Sale", seemed to add another dimension to "Death of

Arthur Miller It does. It's a, it was, it was just gorgeous some of the movement.

Studs Terkel Well, now we're going to come of course to the audience. First of all, you're rehearsing for how

Arthur Miller In their terms, we had a short rehearsal. It was two months.

Studs Terkel Two months is a short

Arthur Miller Yes. Six days a week, six hours a day.

Studs Terkel Well, how was the interplay between you, the American playwright/director with interpreter of course, and the cast?

Arthur Miller I think, and I was told later that my rapport with them was as, as great as it would be if not greater as it would be with an American group because they, first of all, that they help each other a lot. They are constantly taking notes. It's a serious business, a rehearsal. They--I'll give you one quick example. There was a fellow sitting in the corner throughout the rehearsal. And I, I was so busy and occupied I couldn't ever really inquire as to who he was, but he was there taking notes. He must have had a mountain of 500 pages, and turned out he was Willy's understudy. And before we opened, Ying Roucheng playing Willy came over to me and said, "You know, I think we'd better run him through it once, so you can see what he does," and I thought, "Oh, my God, I haven't even rehearsed this guy." And I was sort of thinking it'd be awful, I have to go back to work and teach him the whole role. I was exhausted by this time. So I said, "Okay, you do this scene, this scene, this scene, let me see what you can do." He was simply magnificent. He knew every move, he knew every vocal emphasis, he had the hat in the right hand because Ying Roucheng had it in the right hand. He sat in exactly the corner of the table where Ying was sitting. There was literally step by step, but furthermore in many ways he was better. He had a grandeur that was -- he did certain things that brought me to tears, that we had not yet realized to that degree. And this man had never played, he had not been rehearsing with any stage manager. This was all out of his notes. It was simply an incredible performance.

Studs Terkel That was amazing, so he of course, there is the matter of taking notes.

Arthur Miller Well, see, technically they are very profoundly trained. But sometimes it serves them badly. For example, they will technically do something in ten minutes, but if you watch it carefully, it can be rather empty.

Studs Terkel Ah.

Arthur Miller You see?

Studs Terkel Yeah. Now this was one of your cha--I noticed in your diary or part of it, this was one of the things that you were worried about. They're doing it technically, but will they get the inner meaning? And of course they did as

Arthur Miller They finally did.

Studs Terkel But you had -- so what were your thoughts during this time? Oh, there's one -- before the audience comes in, the previews, the wigs were a big thing in their lives. Wigs! And you said, "No!" And what was their -- now they assumed then the play was doomed.

Arthur Miller Well, they, they didn't think that -- they were very worried as to where this play was finally going to be located in the audience's mind. Where are we? Are we in New York? Well, how can we be in New York and they're all Chinese? See? We can't be in Beijing, because this sort of thing doesn't happen in Beijing. And I said, "We're in a plane of the imagination. We are in a new country. That only existed because we created it." That didn't satisfy everybody, but since I was adamant, that's the way it was going to be.

Studs Terkel And, so, now we

Arthur Miller Turned out that that's where we were, and it was perfectly satisfactory.

Studs Terkel And of course, by the way, this, this is a very suspenseful tale. And now we come to the first preview before an audience and back to China. And now you've finished the rehearsals. You yourself have a little, [laughing], a little tremor there, wondering what's going to happen?

Arthur Miller Well, you see, before we had begun this whole adventure, I had been told by some of the experts in China, the Westerners, that they would never dig this play, that it represented things like, for example, an important element in the story is the, the insurance policy. Well, there's no insurance in China. There is, there's plenty of suicide in China. There always has been. That they know about, but there is no, there, there's no insurance, and the whole ownership of the house and the rest of it -- there's a lot of social things which either have no existence or have ceased to exist in the last few years. Well, as it happens, for example, while we were there, turns out I used to read the people's, The China Daily every day, which is an English language, a Beijing newspaper. I read with great joy that they're, that for two years now they have been selling life insurance in China. They also sold pigeon insurance.

Studs Terkel Pigeon

Arthur Miller Yeah, well, of course a person's pigeons are his most treasured possessions. You know, they're flying pigeons, you find them in -- as in our slums, by the way. A lot of guys on, on the roofs running their pigeons all over the neighborhood and stealing pigeons from each other, see, and, and, and luring somebody else's pigeons. So, well, it's the same deal there, they're doing that all the time. Anyhow, so now they had insurance, which was a surprise to the cast, because they didn't think so. The question was do -- would they pay off if he killed himself? See? Etcetera. So aside from that, though, the, the Western expert said, "I had to put in the program a very detailed summary of the play and to tell them how to receive it. And one of them, a cultural consort the, one of the embassies said, "You have, you have to remember it's a very primitive audience. They are far more primitive than you would imagine," culturally primitive, that you had to explain everything six different ways, and that was appalling. I thought, "Geez, we'll never get past that." Well, I didn't put anything in the program, but Ying Roucheng wrote an essay of some sort which, when I read it I wondered if it would really help in this regard because it was quite a sophisticated essay. Anyhow. That was one worry, whether they were going to dig this thing at all. The

Studs Terkel That attache was dead wrong.

Arthur Miller Absolutely

Studs Terkel See, that's how much they know.

Arthur Miller Nothing. They're living in China for six, seven years and talk to every other foreigner but never a Chinese. As it turned out, as the American ambassador said to me, that we, Inge and I, Inge speaks Chinese, had a closer and deeper relationship with Chinese people than anybody in the wo -- in the foreign colony, because I could talk to them about their own memories, about their own connections with phenomena, their psychological connection, which normally you'd never be able to do. Anyway, we arrive at the first preview, and I simply was shocked, appalled, overwhelmed with defeat because they never stopped talking.

Studs Terkel During the, during the--

Arthur Miller During the performance. Never stopped talking. In fact, in, in the course of this play, the two sons, Happ and Biff, are in a bedroom talking. That is, as of now. The scene ends and we pick up Willy Loman in his kitchen downstairs. In a few minutes he's been talking to himself. He evokes the memory of his sons when they were teenagers, and from the wings, these two same actors appear in more juvenile clothing, acting like teenagers. The house fell to pieces. The uproar [laughing] in that audience was, you couldn't hear a thing. The dialogue went out the window. How did they get down?

Studs Terkel You mean, they were talking out loud at the performance?

Arthur Miller Oh, yeah, about like this, you see, well, "What is, what is he doing? Look at him, was over there"! [laughing] Could they have -- this was translated to me later, by, by other Chinese, they were saying, [laughing] "No, it's not the same actors, they got two other actors!", "Well, how could they get two of them and they look exactly like the other ones!"

Studs Terkel And this is during the play.

Arthur Miller Oh, of course. I thought, here goes the whole play. And then I dread it because, in a short while, these two guys are going to appear again as of now in that bedroom. And of course, 15, 10 minutes later, there they are in a bedroom. Pow! We're off to the races again. [laughing] "How did they get up there? Is it the same two actors?" Well, I thought what

Studs Terkel By the way, they also were changing seats a lot.

Arthur Miller Oh, yeah. They, they, they, they like it -- you know, you're in a theater. They, they they want to be where the other guy is, and the other guy wants to be where they are. So there's a constant, it's like Grand Central Station.

Studs Terkel [Laughing] During the play.

Arthur Miller During the play. As well as, I noted in an earlier book, in Chinese theater in general, the only quiet comes at the intermission. [laughing] They continuously commenting on the costumes, on the value of the actors, on the story, they're explaining -- of course, they bring babies. The babies are vomiting, they're yelling. People are spitting all over the place.

Studs Terkel But there's something you

Arthur Miller But they're watching all

Studs Terkel That's the thing. Even though all this disturbance is driving you obviously crazy, this is going on, they still are aware of the play.

Arthur Miller In the interval I went backstage and I was simply appalled. And I went into, there was one dressing room where four of the male actors were dressing, and they were all excited. And I said, "Well, what the hell did we do this for?" They said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, that uproar!" They said, "Oh, they're being quite all right. That's not very loud." But he said, Ying Roucheng said, "But they're not coughing."

Studs Terkel Oh, coughing would be

Arthur Miller I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "When they're coughing, then you're in trouble. But they're not coughing, they're just yelling. That's good, they're interested."

Studs Terkel They're yelling, what you say they are watching the play.

Arthur Miller They're watching--

Studs Terkel By this, this first preview, were not the intellectuals, these were--

Arthur Miller Well I'll tell you, I'll tell you what happened. Finally, the truth came out. See? A tremendous interest was developed by the time we opened, in this play and this production. Everybody wanted to go. So what they'd do? They gave out and sold tickets. Some of them were given to the various organizations that supply that theater with chickens, vegetables, gasoline, diesel oil, everything. It's a large theater building, tremendous building, and there are hundreds of people involved. In China, if one guy can do the job, four guys are hired to do it. It's a real featherbedding system, which is one of the reasons the, the efficiency isn't what it might be. So, these guys have never seen a play. They have been in a theater, they, they'd seen broad farces and Chinese -- they'd seen some operas, but they'd never seen a talking play with no music.

Studs Terkel So it's like a certain American audience going for the first time, we know this in the WPA days, the federal theater, saw a play for the first time in their lives.

Arthur Miller That's right.

Studs Terkel And this is that--

Arthur Miller That's right. But in addition, as Ying Roucheng said in speaking of the universality of certain human thing--

Studs Terkel You, you're referring to the actor who translated and played Willy.

Arthur Miller That's right. He said -- and of course, the worst audience is the one that doesn't have to buy its tickets.

Studs Terkel Now the second night. Second, not the opening, the second preview night.

Arthur Miller Well, I should add that at the end of the play -- see they, last buses are ten o'clock in Beijing. After that, you walk, or if you bring your bicycle, you go on a bicycle. So we ended about five minutes to ten. And we started at seven o'clock. And those seats, when they stand up, the buffer -- see, on any seat, ours included, there's a rubber buffer there, so when the seat is flipped up, it bumps against a rubber bumper and it doesn't make a noise. Well, they've long since been worn out. So what you've got is steel hitting steel, and it sounds like a rifle range, and they're going out BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM! [laughing] See, that's the way they get up. And they're fleeing for this bus. That's, that's the applause.

Studs Terkel That was the applause.

Arthur Miller See? Well, we're really sunk. It's all over. Well, the second night, however, was now a paid audience, and a large segment, maybe 15 percent, let's say, were the intellectuals, as these are writers, they're engineers, they're more educated people. And it was, I would say, 80 percent quieter, but intellectuals talk to each other, too. It was only after a while that the audiences quieted down. And now I was told later that they are more or less silent as they watch

Studs Terkel Now we come to the opening night, and now we come. Now you're still wondering, well, it's a little better, but you're still wondering. Now we come to the opening night.

Arthur Miller Well, on the opening night it was anything you could ask. They were, the audience was simply beautiful. It was -- they dug everything you could tell from the reaction. They were with it all the way, and this was the general public.

Studs Terkel But now--

Arthur Miller Plus, plus a certain number of newspaper people and diplomats and so on.

Studs Terkel But now we come to something the key. It's seemingly, it's an American situation. And now we come to the Chinese recognizing the universality and the emotion. Re -- passing through town was a very gracious and gifted editor of one of the Chinese magazine's foreign language Jean Chung, and she was there opening night, and she said it was indelible. And the emotion, the open weeping, as an American audience that opening night and other nights with "Salesman", so here came the moment thing.

Arthur Miller Well, it was, it proved everything I had hoped. The reactions, not only in general but in detail, the humor in the play, a lot of people forget because it's so sad, there's a lot of funny stuff in that play. Every moment that you could conceivably laugh, they laughed. They understood it profoundly, and they were moved by it as much or more than any other audience. And if it proves anything, it's simply that there is one human race. And I, I, you see, they had an ideological problem here; the worry was that the -- and it should be explained, there are no professional critics in China, there have never been. The criticism is written by political people or by literary people who are interested in this particular subject, may write one review in ten years, that, that's not their line of work. And so what worried us, and particularly Ying Roucheng, was that they would simply take a doctrinaire position toward it to show you that this is what happens in the United States with an older person. Well, they didn't do that. And he thought that they didn't do it partly because he kept warning them that they had to look at this play as a work of art and not as a political statement, because in China, as a result of the training of 40 years but also by their historic educational system, everything is a political metaphor no matter what it is. It can be a mathematical formula. They can transliterate it into some kind of political quantity. So their first question about any work of art, any poem, any picture, anything, a vase, was: What is the message? It's a bit like a religious society which always wants to know: Is it good for God or isn't it good for God? And of course if you do that with any work of any complexity, you can come up with an answer. It may have nothing to do with the work at hand, but there it is a form of satisfaction in being able to formulate it into a, a simple quantity. Anyway, they didn't do it, which was quite surprising, and he thought, Ying thought that they didn't do it, that is, they didn't try to politicize it. Because they sensed from the first five minutes that it was a, so to speak, a free character, that is, he was so full of contradictions, as Willy is, that they got swept away by the fact that he was a free quantity floating in space. That he was really looking at life moment to moment, and that the author's guiding hand wasn't delimiting his vision. And they got that. That was what was exhilarating about it. The result was that a lot of the writers, I'm told, were very excited about it, because they, it freed them.

Studs Terkel Ahh. Now we come to it. What does it do? This -- now we come to the residue. What does this do for Chinese theater and approach to plays of this sort and playwrights in China?

Arthur Miller There have been, I'm told, in fact I still get the China Daily at home, they send it to me, and in two different reviews that the reviewer has noted that they are direct imitations of "Death of a Salesman", which is great. I mean that it, it's had a tremendous impact apparently that quickly. These are two new plays by young writers. In other words, they're trying to break out of the simple realistic formula.

Studs Terkel And they see Willy of course, the big thing is Willy Loman, they see as Chinese as well as--

Arthur Miller Well, the place has, as one of the guys, one of the audience said to an American reporter, China's full of Willy Lomans. That is, people who are both for positive and negative reasons incapable of simply living within the iron bounds of the given reality and are beginning to fantasize themselves out of it.

Studs Terkel How is that? There's one line in your, in your piece here in Vanity Fair about, in China, too, the, the many Willy Lomans says, "Look at me!" You know, or something of the thing, even though it may be this cooperative communal society, at least outwardly [unintelligible] politically, they had indivi--Hey, wait a minute, you know.

Arthur Miller Well, the thing is that in any society, and this one is no exception, people want to realize themselves, they are not quite satisfied to remain on a dead level. They want their children, this is most important, they want their children to live better than they have lived. They want them to accomplish more than they accomplished, and they want even honors that they never won. There's a phrase in China: a man has a son and he wants him to be a dragon. The dragon means "numero uno."

Studs Terkel That's it. I'll be darned! Number one there too.

Arthur Miller And he wants him to excel. And Inge was talking to women who said, "Willy Loman is just like my mother. Pressing us all on to excel, to do something extraordinary, to win the medal. To do this, to do that, and this is--

Studs Terkel To excel, in order to excel you have to sell, we come to the salesman again, they're selling themselves, too.

Arthur Miller And this is not invented in America, by any means.

Studs Terkel So this is part of the story of "Death of a Salesman" in Beijing, China, and Arthur Miller is my guest, and he and Inge Morath did the book, her photographs, by the way, which are excellent, and the text of Arthur Miller's. Any postscript to add? Anything?

Arthur Miller Well, I, when we left, it just occurs to me to say this, that all we, we were there in May of '83, that's when we, the play went on, and then we returned immediately to the States. Within a, oh a month or so I began reading stories in the press that they were reverting to a campaign of, well, they were apprehensive of new repression. Because when we were there, as I report in the book, the idea was that, while they had no legal protection against suppression of stuff, more than one person said there is no Chinese with the prestige that Mao had to suppress a work. This doesn't mean that legally they couldn't do it, but that they would never be able to get themselves together anymore to do that, to suppress a book or, or run a play off the stage. But after we got home, I read in the papers that they were mounting a campaign against foreign pollution of culture, which is an ominous sound. However, "Salesman" was not bothered, and I don't know of any actual case of suppression. There may, may have been, but I, I haven't heard of it.

Studs Terkel Can't go back, can it? To

Arthur Miller Well, they say no. They, they keep saying no. See, for example, I'll give you a quick one. They have no avant-garde in China. They probably never did in the sense that we have it in the West. Everything is officially printed in short, but now in the last few years since Mao died, individual organizations, could be a bakery union, could be a, a co-operative in an apartment house, it could be anything that has an official status, is a recognized social unit of any kind. They'll have a small hall or a large hall in, on the premises, and they let this hall out to actors who want to put on a show. And these actors are unsupervised. They write the play, just the way we do down in Greenwich Village or I'm sure in Chicago or any other place. And they -- it's all spitballed, it's all thrown together. They're not necessarily reviewed, however, two of them, of these types of productions, have become big hits in the big theater on the so-called you might say the Broadway theater of China, which is the theater where my show plays, and they are, for them, very radical plays, which question profoundly the, the wisdom of the leadership.

Studs Terkel Yeah, so that's, that's fascinating, that is happening.

Arthur Miller That's changed. That's a new note. See, that would not have been possible during the Cultural Revolution or before. You would have to have had the imprimatur of the party before anything could be

Studs Terkel Situation fluid as we say.

Arthur Miller It seemed that way when we were there. Now, China is a big snake, you know, and a snake moves from left to the right as it goes along the ground. And China ain't gonna stop changing. And so to say that this is now guaranteed forever, it would be, would be foolish.

Studs Terkel One thing we know, that "Death of a Salesman" opened a window, but certainly an exhilarating experience for the people who saw it, and the -- as well as for the playwright.

Arthur Miller It sure was. It was a great, great experience.

Studs Terkel Arthur Miller, Xie

Arthur Miller Xie Xie.

Rich Warren [music playing] Next week on the "Studs Terkel Wax Museum", we'll present the late playwright Tennessee Williams discussing his reflections on life and turning 70. The "Wax Museum" is a weekly program featuring vintage Terkel, award-winning documentaries, voices from Studs' best-selling books, historic interviews and other programs listeners have judged the best of his broadcasts over the past 30 years. The series is produced from the original WFMT Chicago broadcasts. Now, this is your host and producer Rich Warren, hoping you've enjoyed today's program and that you'll join us again next week. This is the WFMT fine arts network.