'Death of a Salesman' -- with a Peking twist

This spring Willy Loman, American's most celebrated salesman, will unpack his sample cases and post handbills in China. The Peking People's Art Theater, China's largest acting troupe, has invited playwright Arthur Miller to direct in late March his ''Death of a Salesman,'' which captured the Pulitzer Prize in 1949, the same year Mao Tse-tung ''captured'' China.

If the thought of Willy, the blundering Brooklyn salesman, bickering over football and Chevrolets with sons Biff and Happy - in Mandarin - sounds foreign, look at it from the Chinese point of view, says Mr. Miller. ''Right now, China is attempting to create a consumer society and already has plenty of Willy Lomans running around.''

''The Chinese tell me 10 years ago this play wouldn't have been possible because of its open conflict between father and son,'' Miller says. ''The actors couldn't have played and it would have been impossible for the audience to listen. Now family conflict there is more open; children are often in an adversary position to their parents.''

This spring will be Miller's second trip to China. He visited the People's Republic of China in the late 1970s with his wife, photographer Inge Morath. The two collaborated on the book, ''Chinese Encounters.'' According to Miller, his interest in China was first sparked in 1947 by Edgar Snow, who was then courting Lois Wheeler, the female lead in a New York production of Miller's play ''All My Sons.'' Mr. Snow, the American journalist who chronicled Mao's famous ''Long March'' in his book ''Red Star Over China,'' also married Miller's leading lady.

While the dramatist will be assisted in Peking by a Chinese director fluent in English, he still considers the project ''full of unknowns,'' not the least of which is the stage set. ''It is rather symbolic and important that the only object in Willy Loman's kitchen is a refrigerator,'' he says. ''There was no sink, no dishwasher, nothing else.''

''The Chinese, however, want to include every kitchen appliance ever invented ,'' says Miller in his Brooklyn brogue. ''To them that looks very American and they envy the human efficiency of all those appliances. It is the promise of the future. They think it's great an American can walk into a restaurant and have lunch in 20 minutes. Generally, the Chinese spend more time preparing and eating food than anything else and that drives crazy the guys who want to boost production.''

Will the playwright surrender to those coveted trash compactors and toaster ovens? ''I'm going to try to keep that stuff off the set,'' he says, ''but I'm afraid it will be a lost cause. In the old classical Chinese plays, when a character came on stage with something valuable, he would pick up the silverware , for example, at one end of the stage and make a curving path toward the footlights so everyone could see. That's one of the reasons they want to show all these kitchen appliances.''

''Salesman,'' of which some 3 million paperback copies are now in print, has been translated into Chinese, published in Hong Kong, and ''unofficially'' distributed in China, said Miller. Also now available in Chinese is Miller's ''The Crucible,'' which is currently playing to rave reviews in Shanghai.

''The Crucible,'' written during the hysteria of the McCarthy era, is based on the witchcraft trials of 1692 in Salem, Mass., and portrays the havoc sown by the vindictive Abigail Williams claiming witches are loose in the village. ''The play,'' Miller says, ''is the exposure of paranoia, but the Chinese think it's about the Cultural Revolution'' in the late 1960s when Mao and his Red Guards ruthlessly purged conservative elements of the Chinese Communist Party. ''The Crucible,'' said Miller, is taken by the Chinese as a political allegory in which ''the young people, under the guise of orthodoxy, attack the older generation and accuse them of a secret conspiracy to destroy society.''

China, of course, is not the first country to make political hay of ''The Crucible.'' ''It frequently plays in Latin America,'' says Miller, ''either just before or just after a revolution, but never during a dictatorship. For that reason it hasn't gone to Cuba.

''Often, a regime seizes power in the name of protecting the country from a hidden plot. The military says it is taking over to forestall a coup by the devils. After the fall of a dictatorship, intellectuals reach for the play to reinforce libertarian ideas.

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