On Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  Is there any greater icon of the American Theatre than this playwright?  … than this play?  Directed by Mike Nichols?  Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman?  It was an opportunity not to be missed, and the bottom-line sole reason I’ve jumped in for more New York theatre so fast on the heels of my January visit.

I first read Death of a Salesman in high school, when I had no idea what the big fuss was about or why I should care.  My faithful father never messed with other women (that I knew of), and Biff was a jerk.  I read it again in college, and it began to dawn on me that maybe I’d been somewhat naïve.  So I watched the film with Lee J. Cobb two or three times.  After I began a career as a Vermont English teacher, I came down to New York to see George C. Scott play Willy at Circle in the Square.  Sometime in the 70’s, I also saw Zelda Fichandler’s production at Arena Stage in Washington.  In the mid-80’s there was Dustin Hoffman’s Willy, both at the Kennedy Center and on TV.   And finally, back on Broadway, I saw Brian Dennehy’s powerful interpretation of the role in 1999.  By this time I had come to understand that Willy and Hap and Biff were in me, in my father, and in my son, and I in them.  Just as they and Linda and the neighbors are inside everyone’s human struggle to make something of ourselves that we are not, and the lies we tell when we fail.  How universal is that?  There’s a reason the play was such a success in China.

I once came close to meeting Arthur Miller, by then a personal idol, as he polished notes with his director for Mr. Peters’ Connections, a kind of evolution of his Salesman themes.  I approached him like a schoolboy might approach his ex-wife, Marilyn herself, and like a schoolboy … chickened out.  I’ve directed his All My Sons, and The Crucible twice.  Miller’s writing, his struggle with the elusiveness of telling the truth, has been a major motivator for my own  struggle through the process of playwriting.  And if I don’t get to play Willy Loman onstage myself before I develop palsy and lapse into dementia, I’ll no doubt have my own nervous breakdown.

Jo Mielziner’s Designing for the Theatre: A Memoir and a Portfolio has been in my library for years, on its cover his brilliant scene design for Death of a Salesman, lovingly recreated by Brian Webb for this current production. Then there’s Mike Nichols, of course, who suddenly emerged from the obscurity of stand-up comedy in the late 60’s to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, and who immediately went on to assume a throne at the top of American directors in demand.  And finally there’s this brilliant cast:  Andrew Garfield, our upcoming new Spiderman, in a stunning portrayal of the angst stemming from disappointment in our parents and in ourselves; a powerful turn by Linda Emond as Willy’s wife Linda Loman; Finn Wittrock, who makes Hap seem like someone we all know; and a supporting cast of competent, hugely talented professionals who provide the punching bags for Willy’s anger and depression.  And most of all, at the top of the heap, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

No one who has witnessed the wide range of Hoffman’s contributions to theatre and film over the past twenty years would deny that he is at the top of the list of American talents: Witness his on- and off-Broadway theatre work, and his fifty-plus films already, among them  Scent of a Woman, Hard Eight, Synecdoche, Doubt, Capote, Charlie Wilson’s War, Cold Mountain, The Savages, Pirate Radio, The Ides of March, and Moneyball.  Both an Oscar and a Tony winner, he’s still only 45 years old.

And therein lies the rub.  Hoffman has garnered some less-than-enthusiastic reviews for his portrayal of Willy Loman, “because he’s not old enough.” Lest we forget, Lee J. Cobb was but 36 when he originated the role.  I could not disagree more with the age argument.  Besides, Hoffman, in his typically professional preparation, has perfected the speech and movement patterns of a tired and prematurely old man.  The problem seems to be his boyish face, still without the lines of worry and depression that might be inherent in the role he plays.  He has not painted them on artificially, apparently having made a clear decision that he’s better off playing the role as he is, without the artifice of makeup.  He’s right.  No one would have been fooled, and the honesty of his portrayal would have been compromised.  The man is a master, smooth rosy cheeks and all, and that’s all there is to it.

This very special production will go down as one of the finest audience experiences the theatre has offered to me.  Of course, so did the Brian Dennehy, and Dustin Hoffman productions.  Thank you, Arthur Miller, for all you explored, and created, and spoke out about.

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1 Response to On Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”

  1. patti stark says:

    I would love to see it, as PSH is one of my favorites. I got in on the tail end of an interview that NPR did with him a few days ago regarding this play, and was shocked to hear who it was; he sounded so old. Now I understand why. I also liked him in Magnolia. (Tom Cruise was in it also, and it was one of his best performances ever. He’s not a favorite, but I was impressed with this) Thanks, Bill.

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