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October 26, 2012

TT: Willy Loman, zombie killer

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column, I consider what happens when modern-minded directors go too far in tampering with the shows they stage. Here's an excerpt.

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Simon Stone, the resident director of Belvoir St. Theatre, an Australian company, jumped head first into a pail of boiling oil when he took it upon himself to rewrite "Death of a Salesman." Not only did he cut the play's epilogue, but he altered the manner in which Willy Loman, Arthur Miller's protagonist, meets his death. In the original play, Willy dies in a car crash that may or may not have been intentional; in Mr. Stone's staging, he commits suicide by gassing himself. On top of that, Belvoir neglected to inform ICM Partners, the agency that represents Mr. Miller's estate and licenses his plays for production throughout the world, that Mr. Stone was altering the script.


No sooner did ICM get wind of the changes than Belvoir was informed that if the company didn't perform "Death of a Salesman" in its entirety--complete with epilogue--the production would be shut down....

Theater is about what works onstage, and not having seen Belvoir's production, I can't tell you whether it works better to drop the curtain after Willy takes the gaspipe. What I do know is that there's nothing even slightly surprising about ICM's absolute refusal to let Mr. Stone scrap the final scene of "Death of a Salesman." Few playwrights take kindly to such directorial monkeyshines....

It is, of course, perfectly commonplace for directors to "rewrite" Shakespeare, both by cutting his plays (many of which are, like "Hamlet," too long to be comfortably performed in their entirety) and by updating their settings, at times almost beyond recognition. The same is true in the world of opera. When Francesca Zambello staged "Billy Budd," Benjamin Britten's operatic version of Herman Melville's novel about life aboard the battleship H.M.S. Indomitable, for Houston Grand Opera in 1998, she described the production to me in four crisp words: "No boat, no uniforms." It worked, too!

Such productions, when done well, can offer fresh and illuminating perspectives on over-familiar masterpieces--so long as their creators believe in the underlying validity of the original text. But whenever you deviate from that text, you run the risk of twisting, even perverting its meaning....

At the same time, I also think that Messrs. Albee, Beckett and Miller would be better served if they and their posthumous representatives would lighten up and let directors, Mr. Stone included, do their damnedest. No, I don't want to see "Willy Loman, Killer of Zombies" on Broadway any time this millennium, but I do believe that great works of art can profit from radical reinterpretations that fling conventional wisdom out the window....

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Read the whole thing here.

An Australian TV report about Belvoir's revival of Death of a Salesman:

Posted October 26, 2012 12:00 AM

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