This week, our Study Guide writer Ed Franklin considers the transition from stage to screen...
A bit like a chip, there are certain play texts that are ubiquitous and Death of a Salesman is such a one. Seventy-five years after opening on Broadway, it's still regarded as a popular classic and is now available in various creative forms. Whether it's experienced as live in a theatre, as a broadcast on radio, or screened online or in cinemas, the essence of the play always seems to remain intact. In this week's blog, celebrated theatre director and academic Ed Frankin explores the play through the prism of our Broadway Digital Archive recording, providing salient insight into the differing value and experience that screen and stage both offer to teachers and students.
On being commissioned to write a pair of Arthur Miller Study Guides for Digital Theatre Plus, I was given a password to familiarise myself with the site’s content. Watching the productions available (something I probably did more often than I should when I was supposed to be writing), you come to understand the level of fidelity that Digital Theatre have - not just to the plays they record, but to the very theatrical essence of a production.
Watching The Old Vic production of The Crucible (which was staged in the round), or Timothy Sheader’s production of Into the Woods, (played out in the sylvan surroundings of Regents Park), it’s heartening to see that these filmed productions are so much more than recordings. Instead, they really aim to capture the theatrical conditions of the original performance - giving the audience a sense of what the live experience of watching it might have been like.
All this is, of course, is made possible by sophisticated 21st-century technology. What I think makes Alex Segal’s 1966 television production of Death of a Salesman, so remarkable to watch, is that you get to see the same principles that drive Digital Theatre today, at work 50 years ago. Although Segal’s film was made for television, it’s fascinating to observe the ways in which it attempts to achieve the same effects on screen that Miller intended Salesman to have on stage.
It helps that Miller wrote the screenplay, ensuring that though the script was abridged, little substantive content was lost. In addition, the film reunites the brilliant Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in the roles of Willy and Linda - roles they first played 17 years previously in the play’s original Broadway production - and assembles a fine cast around them, including a young Gene Wilder as Bernard.
But for students of the play, what’s most interesting is to examine how Segal makes Miller’s stage effects work on screen: the translucent walls of the Loman household are still there, allowing us to see Biff and Happy in bed listening to their father in the opening scene; lighting is still vital in manipulating the audience’s understanding of what’s real and what just exists in Willy’s head. There are times when filmmaking effects allow Segal to go even further than he would have been able to on stage: the characters that arrive in Willy’s mind, such as Uncle Ben and The Woman aren’t simply illuminated, but appear out of thin air!
Cameras will inevitably always mediate the experience of watching a film, in a way that doesn’t happen in theatre. Even in Segal’s film, there are moments when one longs for the slightly bigger picture that’s given to us by the on stage version of Salesman. But this works the other way around - in that there are just as many moments when a close-up on a particular character allows us a level of intimacy, which simply isn’t possible in a theatre. I, for one, won’t complain about the frequency with which Segal focuses in on Linda, who, in Dunnock’s performance, is a model of quietly painful restraint.
For students and audiences alike, Segal’s film is well worth seeing. Today, as my study guide on Death of a Salesman is published on Digital Theatre Plus, I hope that you will be as profoundly moved, surprised and inspired by Miller’s seminal play as I have been.