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The Reception of Arthur Miller's All My Sons and His Most Celebrated Play, Death of a Salesman

Hano Pipic

The diploma thesis will examine in detail Arthur Miller's plays All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, examining the response and criticism which these dramas received in America and comparing them to the production and reception on the theater stages of Vienna from the late 40s to the late 90s.

These plays, considered mirrors of American life, have touched and moved audiences throughout the German speaking world. The grand success of Miller's Death of a Salesman at its premiere in the Theater in the Josefstadt on 4 April 1950 had not been a foregone conclusion as the average Austrian usually "speaks with condescension if not contempt, about the American business man" (Barnett). However, after its staging the swelling applause did not cease until the actors had appeared for an incredible 22 curtain calls (Murphy). How could the play's cultural relevance to a country that does not have a fetish about business success in the same manner America does, be explained, and how could Miller's play have such an impact on the first night of its staging? Did the Viennese recognize Miller's protagonist as one of their own? In what way was Miller's play used by Communists as propaganda as confirming their premise that Willy Loman, "is destroyed in his struggle to survive in a 'jungle society'" (Barnett) thereby etching the stereotypical notion of the ruthless American capitalist society in the minds of Austrians?

Also, has the translation of the play made it more universal due to an inability to convey proper renderings of Americanisms to a strictly Austrian audience?

I will compare the staging and reception of the play in various Vienna theatres and relate the production and the critical reaction to the 'Zeitgeist' and to the political and cultural situation in Austria at the time.

In All My Sons, produced in 1947, Miller exposes capitalism and the morality it imposes on people, tackling the theme of personal responsibility in a world that values the dollar or the deal, placing personal success over morality. For this reason, the American authorities, right after the war, forbade its performance in the occupied territories for fear of a possible anti-American propaganda effect. After its eventual staging Austrian critics had to arrive at a decision as to whether Miller's play should be viewed as an anti-capitalist work spiced with political dogmatism or as a piece written by a poet depicting a social landslide caused by a man's Ibsenesque life-lie. Is Arthur Miller a political agitator or a vigorous upholder of absolute ethical norms? The thesis will outline the various answers directors gave to these questions and the various interpretations the play received on the Vienna stages. Indeed, as becomes obvious from the reviews, Austrian audiences during the post-war period were upset by the dilemma of Joe Keller's war profiteering, and related Miller's portrayal of an all American family to their own war experiences, viewing the topic as universally valid and significant.

I want to examine whether such a response of appropriation and identification is typical of Miller's Viennese reception in general: was Miller predominantly perceived as an American playwright depicting the American way of life (and thus basically alien to the Austrian experience) or as a world dramatist concerned with universal questions of human life?


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