The Chinese production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by the playwright, opened on May 7, 1983, at the Beijing People’s Art Theater, and played continuously to packed houses through the fall. The production, co-sponsored by the Center and the Chinese Theater Association, was hailed in the Chinese press as the most significant cultural event in China since the Cultural Revolution. Performed in Chinese, it spawned an explosive growth in contemporary vernacular theater.
The idea for this unique collaborative venture grew out of a conversation among Arthur Miller, Center Director Chou Wen-chung, Chinese playwright Cao Yu, and Ying Ruocheng, when Cao and Ying visited New York in 1980 as guests of the Center. Ying, China’s leading actor, played Willy Loman in the production. He visited the United States for four months in the fall of 1982 as Edgar Snow, Visiting Professor of Theater at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and began to prepare a new translation of the script. The Center sent to Beijing set designs and photographs of previous productions, tapes of the incidental music, and stage props unavailable in China such as a football, helmet, and shoulder pads.
Miller eagerly anticipated the experience of directing his prize-winning 1949 play with an all-Chinese cast and crew. The production marked the playwright’s first experience in directing his signature piece in any language at all, let alone in Chinese.
The production marked the playwright’s first experience in directing his signature piece in any language at all, let alone in Chinese.
Miller had first visited China in the fall of 1978 with his Austrian-born wife, photographer Inge Morath. On that trip, the Millers met many luminaries in Chinese theater, including Cao Yu, Ying Ruocheng, actor-director Jin Shan, and director Huang Zuolin. Miller’s notes from that trip and Morath’s photographs were published in 1979 as a book, Chinese Encounters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
To celebrate the opening of the play, the Center organized a special tour of China for a delegation of artists and art patrons. The Center also arranged for correspondent Bill Moyers and a CBS television news team to film final rehearsals and cover the premiere. Miller kept a journal during his six-week stay in China. The diary, illustrated with photographs by Inge Morath, was published in 1984 under the title, Salesman in Beijing (Viking Press).