It’s commonplace now to project Marilyn’s image onto Arthur Miller’s work, and successive productions have flirted with the connection. His most famous play, Death of a Salesman, was written in 1948, three years prior to his first encounter with Marilyn.
However, Wife of a Salesman – a new feminist take on this American classic, now playing at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois until April 3 – seemingly alludes to her in its reworking of a minor character, as Chris Jones suggests in a rather acerbic review for the Chicago Tribune.
“Eleanor Burgess’ Wife of a Salesman has a fascinating premise: What if Linda Loman, the wife of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s great drama Death of a Salesman, showed up at the home of the unnamed woman with whom Willy had the affair that wrecks his family? What would she say? What might she do?
In academic circles, Linda Loman is typically referred to as a problematic character, being as it appears that Miller has written her with little agency over her own life; she’s merely an enabling mouthpiece for the men in her family, a standard seminar view goes. I’d argue that’s a simplistic reading of Linda, a woman who thinks and speaks deeply of existential, political and social matters, but that’s not my issue with this show.
Alas, the character that emerges in this work is yet more of a stereotype than the one in the original play; such are the perils, of course, of riffing on the work of great writers. Instead of Linda (Kate Fry) with agency, we get Linda as a stereotypical 1949 wife, stiff attitude, prim suit and all, arguing with a woman who feels like a charmless ersatz version of Marilyn Monroe (Amanda Drinkall). Miller didn’t originally give The Woman much stage time, but she’s still more complex than the character presented here.”
Other reviews – notably, by women – have been more favourable. “The stereotypes couldn’t be more glaring,” Catey Sullivan writes in the Sun-Times, “but the dialogue is so smart and so empathetically acted by Fry and Drinkall, you can almost overlook the fact that the show’s foundation appears to be comprised of stale tropes older than the Old Testament.”
And the Daily Herald‘s Barbara Vitello adds that “both characters are more complex than they initially appear, which is especially evident ‘post-twist’ when the play delves more deeply into the women behind The Wife and The Mistress to reflect the challenges women faced during Miller’s era and the challenges they face today.”