The Ghost of “Salesman”

This season, Mike Nichols has done a magical resuscitation of the 1949 Death of a Salesman, recreating the original pitch-perfect set and sound designs by Jo Mielziner and Alex North for his new revival. Nichols’ choice lends his production an intense melancholy—the play’s innate sense of loss is compounded by designs’ reminder that lost theater is lost theater: barring productions like this Salesman, most shows live on only in memory or photography.

Or, for that matter, drawing. In 1965 Salesman designer Mielziner published Designing for the Theatre: A Memoir and a Portfolio. This remarkable book—an absolute must-own for any theater-enthusiast—features an astonishing collection of Mielziner’s sketches and paintings for some of the 20th century’s most iconic shows, among them the original productions of The Glass Menagerie, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Gypsy.

Here’s Streetcar:

And Guys and Dolls:

But the crown jewel of the book is unquestionably Death of a Salesman. An extended essay details its entire design process, and several pages feature beautiful, full-color paintings (the image at the top of this post also serves as the book’s cover).

There’s plenty of great backstage dish, as well as some preliminary sketches Mielziner worked out with director Elia Kazan in Boston, September 1948.

Even if the waves of time do wash playgoing into a sea of forgetfulness, books like these stay that process, at least a little. So flip through the drawings, take a whiff, and ride back to the plays of old. It’s a melancholy ride, but a good one, too.


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