On February 10, 1949, a brand new play made its premiere at the Morosco Theatre in New York. The playwright was rising star Arthur Miller and the play, of course, was Death of a Salesman.
Like every new play that launches into the public eye, Death of a Salesman could have been a huge flop. Instead, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson hailed it as “one of the finest dramas in the whole range of the American theatre,” and it has gone on to become a literary and theatrical classic. In 2011, Milwaukee Rep produced it on the Quadracci Powerhouse stage.
Needless to say, Milwaukee Rep was excited that, when approached about a commission, playwright Eleanor Burgess (The Niceties) pitched the idea for Wife of a Salesman. The women at the center of Death of a Salesman caught Burgess’ attention: the doting wife Linda and the unnamed but narratively pivotal figure of the Woman. Burgess wondered: What does the American Dream look like for women? And what would an encounter between these two iconic, but under-realized characters bring forth?
What resulted was the first iteration of Wife of a Salesman. Over the course of the play’s four year development, numerous major life changes happened to all of us–Burgess especially, as she wrestled with suddenly raising her first child in the middle of a global pandemic, while also juggling a career as a theater and television writer. But these major life changes ended up generating some major changes to the plot of the play. And as Burgess kept digging into Miller’s text, she found new, exciting ways to explore, expand, and eventually explode this canonical story into something even more resonant for contemporary audiences.
*** MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW ***
Wife of a Salesman starts off with a bang: the Wife confronts the Mistress in her Boston apartment. Over the course of the play the two women verbally (and sometimes physically) wrestle with each other, unpacking their identities as wife, mother, lover, and worker in a world that forces women into clearly defined roles and punishes those who step outside of them.
Then the play “breaks” and we meet Heather and Violet, two actors portraying the Wife and the Mistress in a stage adaptation of Wife of a Salesman. As the story reveals more about their lives–Heather juggling a sick kid at home while trying to stay focused on a run-through of the play, Violet desperately hoping for a TV role while debating if she wants kids–they are held up against the characters they’re portraying. In these four women, separated by seventy plus years, we witness generations of women reflecting and refracting as they contend with eerily similar topics across time and space.
Heidi Armbruster, who plays Wife/Heather, says the meta theatricality was what drew her to the story. “By juxtaposing working women in the Golden Age of Americana with working actresses in 2022, Eleanor has given us a brilliant commentary on how much has changed and how little has changed…I am struck by how very relatable the Wife and the Mistress's story is to me–and to modern women. I think Eleanor has done a fantastic job of opening up the archetypes of Wife/Mother and Sex Object to make them complicated, nuanced, and ultimately familiar to modern audiences.”
Bryce Gangel, who plays Mistress/Violet, agrees, speaking personally: “What does it mean, as an actress, to be trapped within the expectations of female characters in the classic American theatre canon? Archetypal female characters run rampant within the canon. The fully realized humanism imbued in male characters is not often shared with their female counterparts. It's been a fun challenge to lean into the archetype of "mistress" and to also break free of it.”
Breaking out of preconceived roles and identities is central to the story of Wife of a Salesman. The team discussed many big questions during rehearsal: What are the stories we’ve been taught to believe about our lives? About the kinds of lives we should want or can have? Can we change the narrative of our lives? What happens when we try?
Death of a Salesman deeply digs into narrative–the stories Willy Loman has been told about how his life would turn out, and the stories he must continue to tell himself in order to live with the result. Wife of a Salesman similarly unpacks this struggle, doing so specifically for the women who so often didn’t get to take charge of their own narratives.
This topic has been particularly resonant for everyone working on bringing Wife of a Salesman to life on Milwaukee Rep’s stage. As women continue to confront the challenges of being female both in the home and the workplace, as the pandemic threw working mothers particularly into moments of crisis, a play that gives voice to that struggle feels especially relevant and resonant for contemporary audiences.
“How has the balance of career and family changed within the past 75 years?” Gangel asks. “And how has it stayed the same? How does capitalism continue to inform us and our relationships–to ourselves and each other–and also how does it set us up to play and get played?”
Wife of a Salesman evokes countless exciting and complex conversations. But Burgess’ skill lies in asking more questions than she answers, questions the team hopes audiences will be chewing on long after leaving the theater.
“I hope audiences walk away talking about how women's lives have changed in the last 70 years,” Armbruster says. “[The characters] hold a mirror up to each other and themselves. And I hope that the audience can feel the mirror that Eleanor's play holds up to them.”
Gangel adds, “In many ways, I hope that audiences leave asking the same questions they ask after seeing the tragedy of Willy's downfall in Death of a Salesman! I also hope that audiences contemplate what it means to be a woman, a mother, a person with ambitions and dreams in the world, but specifically this country.”
Just like Death of a Salesman, Wife of a Salesman is a new play launching out into the world, its future bright but unknown. The importance of new work for sustaining the theater ecology and contributing to the future of the literary canon cannot be overstated. Every classic was once a new play, and every new play comes into existence because of what’s come before.
“Canon is another word for infrastructure,” says Armbruster. “And what a delight it is to see Eleanor take our shared history and manipulate it to her purposes. To reconstruct, reconstitute the building materials she's been given, and to build something new and quite extraordinary. She invites her collaborators and the audience to play a game with her. To reimagine our shared history together.”
Deanie Vallone spent the past five years working in New Play Development on staff at Milwaukee Rep. She is now a Milwaukee-based freelance dramaturg and writer. Currently, she’s working as the dramaturg on Wife of a Salesman. You can reach her directly at email@example.com.
To learn more or purchase tickets to Wife of a Salesman click here.