Arthur Millers play “Death of a Salesman” is a well-recognized drama, yet it has been controversial due to the ethnicity of the actors performing it. Critic John Lahr believed that Millers play “Death of a Salesman” could not be preformed by black actors. This is a play with universal themes, such as the “American Dream”, but the American Dream was different for African Americans back then, than what it is today in modern society.
In the Hard Sell “A black Death of a Salesman” August Wilson argues trying to portray the black experience, culture and history, as part of the human condition through a play conceived for white actors is a denial of black experience, culture and history. John Lahr agrees and furthers this point by saying: “To replace the Jewish Willy Loman with an African-American is to change something elemental in the nature of the play’s lament… This sense of expectation and entitlement was simply not shared by the African Americans in 1949. (Lahr,2) I agree with both of these critics because there are specifics in “Death of a Salesman” that would not seem to apply to the African-American experience in the middle of the 20th century. For example when Biff dreams of returning to Texas to become a rancher, you cannot help but wonder the potential fate of a young African American embarking on journey like this and how unlikely this would be in 1949. “The losses that Miller contrives to heap on Willy- salary, job, dignity, filial affection,” says the critic, are not things that African Americans were experiencing or even had the entitlement to worry about back then. Lahr, 3) The main theme seen in “Death of a Salesman” is the American Dream which is universal, therefore many people may argue that it can be preformed by a black cast. But the defention of the “American Dream” was different for African Americans in the 1940’s. The American Dream for most people was to achieve financial success and material comfort, which is demonstrated in this play. The American Dream for African Americans during this time period was equality and freedom.
Willy Loman struggled to make ends meet as a salesman for his family, but African Americans could barely get a job or housing. At this time Jim Crow laws were in effect in some states therefore blacks and whites had different and separate lives. Employers could legally refuse to consider black applicants for jobs and landlords could refuse to rent houses to black people. The chances of you seeing a black salesman back then wasn’t that likely. African Americans have such a different events on their timeline than Jewish people.
Therefore “Death of a Salesman” does not make any sense being preformed by black actors because of the time in history that this play takes place. Some critics argue that there are some Jewish-American lines in the dialogue of the play such “Why do you get American when I like Swiss? ” “How can they whip cheese? ”, that hint the main charcters are jewish. (Miller, 6,7) Not to mention Miller himself grew up in a Jewish family, therefore it is not surprising the fact that he incorperates a Jewish-American dialogue.
In this play it was clear in the socal role, the social class, and the diologue that “Death of a Salesman” was an ethnically implicit play. This play being preformed by black actors gives off the perception that everything was good and everyone was equal in the 1940’s, which sadly was not the case. It conceals the struggle that African Americans had to overcome before even thinking about the American dream that everyone else wanted. Using African Americans to replace Jewish actors for this play is like using a Jewish actor to play Rosa Parks in another play.
It is not logical and does not make any sense. It is easier to see beyond skin color in some plays than others, but I believe that Death of a Salesman is one of those play in which you cannot. This play cannot cross racial boundaries. If it would have been written in the later 90’s, then it could have worked being preformed by black actors, because after the gained their rights they finally had a shot at the real “American Dream” that everyone was trying to achieve. .