Mizuno is looking perplexed. He’s playing Stanley, the waiter, in my production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman for Tokyo’s Institute of Dramatic Arts (DARTS). Like other members of the cast, when he doesn’t have an American image to apply to his role, he applies a Japanese one. Thus, his waiter is a model of quiet politeness. I’ve just explained (through Numasawa, who has also translated the text for this production) some of Stanley’s less Japanese traits. But either my explanation is obscure or something is being lost in translation, because Mizuno’s expression is still quizzical, and his Stanley still tidy. Finally, I simply say, “Please wipe your nose on your sleeve.” Mizuno’s incomprehension jumps 10 points. Then I demonstrate, giving the gesture a good, loud nasal snort. Looking totally bewildered, he makes a dutiful, if tentative, attempt to copy me. There’s a small ripple of laughter in the rehearsal hall. A light begins to dawn in Mizuno’s eyes. I’m asking him to be a bad waiter, and his reward for this most un-Japanese behavior is the gaijin (foreigner) director’s approbation and the amusement of his fellow thespians.
The next day Mizuno takes Stanley a bit further. As he picks up a menu to offer to Willy Loman’s son, Happy, he gives the table a couple of perfunctory slaps, scattering some imaginary crumbs. The acting company is convulsed, and I can tell there’ll be no stopping him now. He’s been wearing a waiter’s tunic in rehearsals, and now it begins to sprout food stains, a new one each day. A button mysteriously disappears from it, and he’s begun, with Numasawa’s permission, to use some informal slang that delights the cast and will guarantee hearty laughs from the audience night after night. He serves the Lomans drinks, three at a time, by sticking his fingers in the glasses and lifting them in one clump. Finally he gives the menu he’s used to banish imaginary crumbs a quick dusting on his rump before he offers it to Happy!
There are other Japanese stereotypes that have been applied to performances which need some correcting. Linda’s first impulse is to be the obsequious wife, kneeling before Willy to take off his shoes and making “attention must be paid” a tragic lament, rather than a call to action. Miss Forsythe and Letta begin by being giggly Japanese schoolgirls, the ones who, marching by in their school uniforms, assault American gaijin with happy shouts of “Herro!” But there are some Japanese images which work perfectly and must be kept in this seemingly most American of plays. When Akira Kume as Willy meets his sons in that same restaurant scene, his revelation that he has been fired has all the anger and pain I’ve seen in American productions, but also an utterly Japanese loss of face. Sandwiched in tightly between his sons at the small table, Willy’s shame before his offspring is truly heartrending.
I have come to Tokyo to complete an exchange of directors, DARTS artistic director, Tetsuo Arakawa, having earlier staged The Führer Is Still Alive, by Tsuneari Fukuda, for my company, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. DARTS and MRT have been linked since my first visit to Tokyo eight years ago. Under the generous sponsorship of the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, DARTS has brought MRT productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Buried Child and The Glass Menagerie to Japan. But this is the first time I’ve faced an all-Asian cast and the first time I’ve directed through an interpreter. Arthur Miller had his own Asian adventure a year before me, staging his masterpiece in China (the experience is the subject of his fascinating book, Salesman in Beijing). Before I left, we met and Miller has cautioned me to watch out for the kind of scenery-chewing acting his Beijing cast wanted to do—and beware the wig-master, as he constantly faced the Chinese company’s intense desire to crown themselves in various bizarre shades of yellow and red.
Naturally, then, I’ve been cautious at my first conference with the costume designer. Clothes for the actors are to be chosen from the huge stock at a warehouse that also services television productions. I’ve insisted that there be no wigs, of course. But the problem of costume selection does highlight a knotty issue. Where is this production going to be set? I’m banishing some kinds of behavior, like Mizuno’s initial Japanese-style waiter, but I’m embracing Willy’s loss of face in the same scene. Somehow I must encourage what my cast brings in that illuminates the script while excluding those elements that strike me as being antithetical to the intentions of the playwright. My actors mustn’t ape American behavior, yet the production should be informed by an American sensibility. (If it isn’t, there seems little purpose in my having come here to stage the production.) It’s a balancing act, and so when the costume designer asks me how I want Letta and Miss Forsythe dressed I ask how such women might have dressed in Tokyo in 1949, the year the play was written. An embarrassed pause. I bite my tongue. In the defeated island nation of 1949 people wore rags. Not everything in Miller’s story has Japanese equivalents.
A comparable search for equivalents sometimes hamstrings the translation process. In one scene, Willy bitterly tells Linda that he has overheard a fellow salesman calling him a “walrus.” (Miller changed the original “shrimp” to accord with Lee J. Cobb’s ample frame in the play’s premiere production; Dustin Hoffman would reinstitute the word “shrimp,” and even have the heels cut off his shoes to emphasize Willy’s small stature.) But in Japan neither “walrus” nor “shrimp” has negative connotations and, further, Kume is of medium stature. We discuss various possibilities in rehearsal and finally Kume offers “demekin.” The others in the rehearsal hall erupt in laughter and I look around eagerly for an explanation. I’m informed that demekin means “bug-eyed goldfish”! Later I’m told that, as a child, Kume was myopic and his eyes bulged; “bug-eyed goldfish” was a term of torment applied to him by his childhood peers. In offering the word, Kume has done more than solve a minor textual problem—he’s become the first in the cast to make the work personal in public. It’s an important break in the company’s Asian reserve, our first step toward that special intimacy artists everywhere can share. Miller put it best when he said he went to China to direct Death of a Salesman (or, as the Japanese would say, Salesman No Shi) to prove there is only one humanity.
As for chewing the scenery, we experience our share. I remember going back to my hotel after the first read-through deeply worried. My cast had managed to run through every emotion known to man, all within the first 10 minutes of the play! But the problem is far more complex than the chauvinistic dismissal of Asian acting as overemotional. The bravura acting style that is one of the hallmarks of Chinese opera and Kabuki drama (especially the Samurai-like aragato style at which John Belushi poked fun on Saturday Night Live) was developed to meet the unique demands of those theatre forms. Much of Kabuki would be nonsensical, as well as extremely tedious, without the bold poses and mannered vocal cries of the actors. But applied to Salesman they can reduce the play to melodrama. And so I assign my actors as much business as possible, figuring if I can keep them busy they won’t have time to suffer so much. In fact, “Do more, suffer less” becomes the jocular watchword of the production. Nevertheless, the aragato style is to open up one wonderful door on the play.
Ask an American what Salesman is about and he or she will probably say it’s a play about a man who loses his dreams, or struggles to be “well-liked” by his sons and his society. Ask a Japanese and he or she may tell you it’s about a man who goes mad and kills himself. In five trips to Japan and constant attendance at Noh, Kabuki, avant-garde and Shingeki (or Western-style) theatres, I’ve rarely passed an evening where some character didn’t go out of his mind, or commit seppuku (ritual suicide) or both. In fact, Japan is currently faced with an alarming rise in the suicide rate among middle-aged men, the men who wrought Japan’s “economic miracle” after the devastation of World War II. These same men, faced with Japan’s current economic slow-down, are hurling themselves in alarming numbers out of windows and under trains rather than face debt for the first time in their lives. How like Willy! One professor, after listening to me lecture on the play, says that when he first encountered the play 30 years ago he saw it as a damning portrait of far-away materialistic America. Now he sees it as a portrait of present-day Japan.
And so it is that, in those scenes where Willy’s grasp on reality is weakening, Kume presents a bold rendition of Japanese-style madness. It’s exciting to watch and wholly appropriate to the play. Madness, after all, is a vital theme in modern American drama, and, if Willy had lived, one can imagine him shuffling past Blanche duBois and Mary Tyrone in some ramshackle mental hospital. The triumph of American acting, partly because of the infamous “method,” is the ability of our actors to relate to one another. But since madmen don’t relate, some American actors edge away from the arias of madness. Kume, so proud, so hopeful and so sad as Willy, is also the most insane Willy I’ve ever seen, but without diminishing his character’s humanity.
At the first rehearsal I asked the cast to tell me those things in the play that seemed the most foreign, most “American” to them. Uchida, who’s to play Willy’s neighbor and friend, Charley, with a warmth and casualness that would be at home on any American stage, tells me that no Japanese father would have dreams as big as Willy’s. Although a father and son, he continues, might be just as bitterly at odds, they would never express such feelings openly. In fact, Japanese reticence proves to be one of the most persistent stumbling blocks I’m to face in creating a spontaneous stage energy. It’s almost impossible to get actors to speak simultaneously in some of the play’s more heated exchanges or to touch and push each other in the boisterous American style. One day I suggested to Kume that he give Linda a gentle peck on the forehead as he’s on his way out of the house. Kume paused a moment, then slowly leaned over and carefully kissed a patch of air exactly halfway to his “wife”! I was assured, though, that by opening night he would make it “all the way.” Likewise, Taniguchi (as the Woman in Boston), uncomfortable with onstage affection for Willy, had to be coaxed into a series of gestures that would appear intimate to the audience. For example, during their first scene together I had Kume enter with several buttons open on his shirt and Taniguchi would then slowly button them up. She was actually covering Willy up, but to the audience the gesture bespoke intimacy. Like Miller’s Chinese “Woman in Boston,” she had to be assured that she truly liked, even loved, Willy before even this degree of closeness could be achieved. And a kiss between them had to be staged with her back to the audience to create the illusion of passion during what was really a very chaste embrace.
After seven weeks of rehearsals, opening night approaches with lots of nerves and high expectations. Nimura’s Linda has grown enormously. Her first work, when not awash in sentiment, was all dutiful compliance expressed in constant giggling. I told her to think of herself as 10 feet tall, not to lean towards her sons during the “attention must be paid” speech, but force them to attend her. By the close of rehearsals her cry of “kokoro o, soo, kokoro o…” sounded like the battle cry of some proud and dangerous bird 11 feet tall.
The day before opening I’ve discovered, on a small Japanese back street, the “Fox Bagel Company,” started by an expatriate of the Big Apple who was convinced that lox and bagels could become a favorite Japanese food (after all, McDonald’s took over the lead as the largest restaurant chain in Japan while I was there). And so I treat my cast to “what Willy and Linda might have for breakfast some Sunday morning in Brooklyn.” The cast carefully eyes the cream cheese. (Translating the joke in the play about “whipped cheese” has been a major struggle for Numasawa, the Japanese not being very keen on milk products and therefore pretty much lumping all cheeses together under one word which suffices for the bland white stuff sold in neighborhood corner stores.) I catch some of the younger members of the company sniffing at the cheese when they think I’m not watching, but by show time all the bagels, lox, cream cheese, tomatoes and onions have been devoured and seem to fuel the cast to give a solid rendition of the show before a quiet but respectful audience of students.
But there’s still much to be done before the opening. The set by MRT resident designers Laura Maurer and Tim Thomas looks splendid, except for the maze of painted fire escapes on the backdrop, intended to give a claustrophobic feeling to Willy’s world. The Japanese painters have misread the photos from which they were to paint; thus, there has been no differentiation between the fire escapes and the shadows they cast. The result is to move Willy to a fashionable section of Brooklyn where every apartment seems to have sprouted a rather large and fashionable terrace! An all-night painting vigil narrows Willy’s world back just in time.
With each of my opening night gifts (including several crocks of—what else?—Wisconsin’s best whipped cheese), I’ve enclosed a card bearing a photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge with a message of thanks inside. Kanao, who is playing Charley’s son Bernard, approaches me to ask, in his limited English, for an explanation of the expression “Break a leg,” which I’ve written on each of the cards. I ask if he understands “break.” Yes, he does. I point to my leg and, yes, he understands that too, but do I really wish him such a catastrophe just before the curtain is to rise? I explain the Western stage tradition of wishing an actor bad luck as a way of assuring good luck. And here I add a new word to Kanao’s English vocabulary: “paradox.” But by the time I arrive in the dressing room to wish everyone well, I’m greeted with big smiles and battle cries of “PARADOX, PARADOXI!”, as everyone holds their photos of the Brooklyn Bridge aloft.
I go into the auditorium and there are some friends from Tadashi Suzuki’s brilliant troupe, the Waseda Sho-gekijo. They’re about to leave for L.A. to perform at the Olympics Arts Festival, but they’ve found time to attend my opening. Shiraishi, one of the world’s most gifted actresses, presents me with a bouguet of flowers. It’s brave of them to come. The Japanese theatre world is one of sharp divisions and keen rivalries. (Later, they’ll be warmly toasted at the opening night party in a gesture of great generosity by Tetsuo Arakawa, DARTS artistic director.) And so my eyes jump back and forth between the stage and Shiraishi’s face, seeing what her reaction will be to this naturalistic American piece, so different from the stunning experimental work of the Waseda Sho-gekijo. But, as Miller says, there is only one humanity, and by the Requiem, Shiraishi and most of the rest of the audience are fighting off tears—and losing that battle as Nimura’s ravaged face utters the play’s last words.
In the dressing rooms the mood is victorious! I thank each of the actors individually, and where I feel a special rapport has existed I even include a light touch of my hand to their shoulder. But when I reach Kume, whose expressive face is, onstage, an encyclopedia of humanity’s emotions, there’s an indescribable feeling in his eyes which tells me more than words could. I embrace him. It’s the first hug this tactile American has had in two months among the reserved Japanese, and I suddenly feel Kume’s back and chest begin to erupt in huge sobs. The tears are for his triumph tonight, one the Japanese press will call one of the greatest in his long career, for the loss of the gaijin friend who must return to his theatre in Milwaukee; the embrace is that of a father wishing his son farewell and of, in Japanese style, a student thanking his teacher, though I have hardly been that. His tears are the finest gift I could have asked for on this opening night so many miles from home.
I’ve been asked by friends how I knew the Japanese would understand Salesman No Shi. It was only a hunch, of course, though a hunch encouraged by Miller’s report on his experiences in, admittedly, a very different Asian society. It was also a hunch but born of previous trips to Japan, when I’d seen office buildings, late at night, still full of white-shirted businessmen striving to get a little more accomplished; when I’d seen how every car owner with 10 minutes to kill would retrieve a rag and feather duster from his trunk and shine his car as Willy’s sons did the old family Chevrolet. But the hunch was really born in 1981, during a visit to the beautiful Ise-shima Peninsula. At the very end of the peninsula I was waiting for the last train back to the metropolis of Nagoya. The little town was closing up for the night, including one small but obviously prosperous pearl shop. Next to his shop, the owner was practicing his golf swing. Since the rocky coastal terrain prohibited the building of a golf course anywhere near his village, he was spending the last moments of twilight carefully driving golf balls, with great concentration, far into the ocean. I watched him as he drove ball after ball into the distance, each one disappearing with a faraway “plop.” This lonely shopkeeper had made me think of Willy Loman, who, while no doubt envying the extravagance of the amusement, would just as certainly have sympathized with a gesture of such grace and sad futility.
John Dillon is artistic director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
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