THIS IS AMERICA —Michael Walkup, Production Dramaturg, Yale Repertory Theatre
Arthur Miller sets Death of a Salesman, his exploration of the elusiveness of the American Dream, in the quintessentially American city of Brooklyn. (Actually, the term “city” only properly applies to Brooklyn until 1898 when it officially became incorporated as one of New York City’s five boroughs.) Brooklyn occupies Kings County on eighty-one square miles at Long Island’s western tip and is connected to neighboring Manhattan by three bridges, one tunnel, fourteen subway lines, one ferry service, and a pugnacious wariness of being consumed by the cosmopolitan bully across the East River. We recognize Brooklyn from images of its high-stooped brownstones and eponymous bridge, as the setting for numerous sitcoms from The Honeymooners to The Cosby Show, and as the home of Brooklynese, a much-imitated accent popularized by Hollywood through surly WWII soldiers and down-on-their-luck street toughs.
Brooklyn’s many distinct neighborhoods offer snapshots of the American melting pot. The ethnic communities of Brooklyn were for decades synonymous with their neighborhoods’ names—some still are. There have long been Jewish residents in Brighton Beach and Flatbush; African Americans moved into Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsvilleafter WWI; Italians still congregate in Bensonhurst; and Vinegar Hill near the Manhattan Bridge used to be known as Irish Town. Though the quiet of these Brooklyn neighborhoods is sometimes disturbed by intense parochialism, the borough is united in its resistance to being ranked second after the more genteel Manhattan.
Such pride and doggedness have earned Brooklyn its reputation as the hardscrabble borough of striving families. There’s more space here, and it’s cheaper by the square foot. There are more family-friendly businesses, and fewer skyscrapers blotting out the blue.
The first half of the twentieth century saw Brooklyn in ascendance: the Brooklyn Navy Yard brought thousands of workers to the borough during the two World Wars, and new subway lines built in the 1930s made for an easy commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan. A spike in housing construction after WWI expanded the borough’s residences so that by the mid-1920s it surpassed Manhattan as the most populous borough of NYC, a predominance it maintains to this day. Kenneth T. Jackson, a NYC historian, claims that as many as one-quarter of allAmericans can trace their heritage to one-time Brooklyn residents.
Because of its role as a way station for such a large portion of the population, Brooklyn boasts a number of iconic American landmarks. Ebbets Field—home to the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 to 1957—bordered diverse neighborhoods in central Brooklyn until it was demolished to make way for high-rise apartments.
Prospect Park, a 19th-century city-beautification project designed by the same architects as Manhattan’s Central Park, spans 585 pacific acres just blocks away (the architects considered Prospect Park the more successful project). Coney Island, at the south tip of the borough, was home to such classic amusements as the Cyclone roller coaster and the Steeplechase, and every summer visitors elbowed each other on the boardwalk waiting in line for a Nathan’s hot dog.
Death of a Salesman opens in the Loman’s home in Brooklyn in 1949. The small, single-family unit is described by Miller in a stage direction as crowded on all sides by the “towering, angular shapes” of new apartment buildings. Miller never specifies in which neighborhood the Lomans live, rather his play evokes an almost mythic Brooklyn.