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Arthur Miller's Chinese idiom for an American classic

Arthur Miller is engaged in what he calls a ''fantastic adventure'' to direct his play ''Death of a Salesman'' in China. Every morning from 9 to 12, and every evening from 7 to 10, Mr. Miller directs an all-Chinese cast in rehearsals that will go on until early May. Mr. Miller speaks no Chinese, and the only member of the cast who speaks fluent English is Ying Ruocheng, who both plays Willy Loman and interprets for Mr. Miller.

But the playwright, sitting affably with Mr. Ying on a sofa at a recent press conference in the Capital Theater, seemed optimistic that ''Death of a Salesman'' would appeal to Chinese audiences as it has to audiences all over the world since it first opened on Broadway in 1949. After all, he said, the play was ''built around very fundamental family emotions which expand out into society. The Chinese, after all, are practically inventors of the family.''

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And Americans, a reporter suggested, are inventors of the salesman. ''I question that,'' Mr. Miller shot back. There were salesmen in China when Marco Polo arrived, he noted, and today, ''If you go down the street, you see a number of salesmen.''

''Of course,'' he continued, ''the salesman is a metaphor in any case. It's the whole process of selling yourself, of finding your identity through what other people think of you. And this is going on in China as it goes on everywhere else.

''It's a fantastic adventure - to find out what their (Chinese) parallel feelings, experiences, and thoughts are to what is in the play. It's the first time I know that a given text has had to be interpreted by Chinese and by me - an American, a Westerner - and come out in the same place. It's never happened before. We interpret novels, and interpret many other things - but doing it (staging the play) is a whole other thing.''

Was he not afraid, Mr. Miller was asked, that Chinese media might use his play to portray American society in a bad way?

''That didn't bother me,'' he replied. ''It's really no secret any more that the West - and I think the whole world - has a problem as to how society is to serve people and how the human being is not to be wasted. . . .

''What the play's doing is to deal with contemporary man's inability to find meaning in his existence - and that's true of Sweden, Italy, England, the US, and (is) probably true here. Of course, the play is about American society, but I have the feeling the audience is going to discover Chinese society in it. They are going to identify with the people and their dilemma.''

How had Ying Ruocheng and his fellow players of the People's Art Theater decided on staging ''Death of a Salesman,'' Mr. Ying was asked.

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''The chief value of a play like this,'' the actor replied, ''is human relationships - the alienation of the individual from society - which I think is a universal thing. Besides, if we put on a foreign play, we want to learn something from it. We want our young playwrights and directors, who have come out of the desert of the Cultural Revolution, to see as much as possible.''

Mr. Ying, whose Engish is absolutely idiomatic, is of Manchu descent. He played Kublai Khan in the Italian-Chinese television spectacular ''Marco Polo'' and has starred in many other films and plays. He is a founding member of the People's Art Theater, which makes its home in the 1,225-seat Capital Theater and which is probably the most innovative of Peking's drama groups.

Mr. Ying has done a fantastic job of translation, Mr. Miller said, so that all the rhythms of the original English are preserved. Without knowing Chinese, Mr. Miller said he can tell at any moment exactly at what point of the play his actors are.

He is not asking them to act like Americans. ''We won't have false noses and that kind of thing,'' said Mr. Ying.

''I'm not trying to make anybody believe they're seeing Americans on the stage,'' Mr. Miller continued. ''I have the right to ask these Chinese actors to be as Chinese as they ought to be, to feel as Chinese as they ought to feel. I only ask them to understand what the relationships (within the play) are . . . . I think if I succeed the production will make the statement that human beings are human beings, that cultures are tremendously different, but underneath there is Homo sapiens. He is there, and I'm hoping to reach him.''

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