Friday, December 3, 2010

Say Something

I taught Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman for over 20 years. Never got tired of listening to the lines either, though I must admit, I was always conscious of where I needed to be by the time a class period ended. That makes for hoping something I know will happen does happen before the bell rings. It means, too, that some discussions have to be revisited because getting back into the moment will take 24 hours.
Still, it all got done and I can truthfully say that it was a rare student who didn't find something to relate to in the anguish of the Loman family.
I thought about teaching the play this week because of a few discussions I've read and had lately about substance. In this tabloid Twitter technological trifecta that is media today, there is much that passes for journalism, that passes for drama, that passes for a good story that is featherweight. Sadly, that's just the way most folks like it.
When I taught "Salesman" I began with a little story that needs to find itself into these pages. Before Act 1 began, I told my classes about my friend Ed Robbin. Ed and I were featured players in a performance called "An Evening with Woody Guthrie" that survived in many bars, taverns, community theaters, fund raisers, benefits, and campus auditoriums throughout central and northern California from 1979 until about 1986. Ed knew Woody; in fact helped put him on the radio when he first got to California. He joined our little troupe when it was evident that his recollections and stories of the Depression era would really provide a contribution to the overall production. Ed died shortly after we stopped playing the circuit of clubs and coffeehouses but during those years we became good friends. His experience as a writer and theater director were an added bonus. So it was no surprise when Ed asked me to accompany him one night to a preview of a major new play in San Francisco. The playwright shall remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, he's a known award winner and very much alive. On this particular evening the director invited audience members to remain after the final curtain and participate in a discussion about the performance. Ed indicated he was interested. We found our way to the first few rows center stage in the Geary Theater (I'd never been that close before) and soon the director came out. The curtain opened and the cast were sitting in a half circle on chairs right in front of us. A question and answer session ensued. Within a few minutes Ed raised his hand and all present turned to look at this 76 year old, long white hair covered by a navy blue seaman's cap. Ed's olive skin, the deep set lines in his face, the pleasant smile, the distinguished look all made him attractive. People waited anxiously for him to speak because, simply put, he just looked like somebody important. Ed rose.
"You're all very good," he said to the cast nodding his head as he panned the group. "But the play doesn't day anything."
"A play has to say something; this play doesn't say anything."
With that, Ed smiled politely and said, "c'mon Bruce, I'm ready to go now."
I know he was right; the play didn't really say much. I'd tell this story to my classes and then hold up a copy of "Salesman."
"This is a play that says something."
As a writer, Ed's little escapade has never left me. Seems like there are a lot of emperors out there today, and they've all got new clothes.

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