Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the American play that defines our theater, making it great and profoundly humane. If I had to choose between the major work of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill or Mr. Miller, I would always put Death of a Salesman highest. No play ever changed the world, but some have changed the way we see the world, and the way we see ourselves. More than any other great classic I know, Death of a Salesman quite simply breaks our hearts.
Mr. Miller has written eloquently about the theater, pointing out his admiration of Ibsen and epic Greek drama, but he is not a complicated man. He writes from experience–the family in Salesman is based on Mr. Miller’s despairing, suicidal uncle, his two sons and his suffering wife. And he writes straight from the gut, unafraid of the direct pull of honest emotion expressed by so-called ordinary people. Willy Loman, a “low man”–not a god or a king, but an Everyman.
The perceptive English critic Michael Billington wrote with a sense of wonder about Death of a Salesman that it “puts an amazing amount of America on to the stage.” It tells the story of the last day in the life of an American dreamer, the salesman, Willy Loman, yet it disturbs us on many levels. It’s a chronicle of one anonymous man’s crackup–Arthur Miller’s original title of Salesman was The Inside of His Head . (Thank God he didn’t use it.) It’s also a domestic tragedy of family life, of guilt and need and primal love, of the yearning between fathers and sons:
“Pop, I’m nothing!” Willy’s son, Biff, pleads furiously. “I’m nothing, Pop. Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it anymore. I’m just what I am, that’s all.”
As played by Brian Dennehy and Kevin Anderson in the 50th-anniversary revival of Salesman on Broadway, that scene is almost unbearable. Biff breaks down, holding on to his father. “What’re you doing?” Willy says, bewildered. “What’re you doing? Why is he crying?”
“Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?”
And Salesman is, of course, an unapologetic critique of “the wonder of this country”–the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream. The moral seriousness of Arthur Miller–call it conscience–can turn preachy. It’s become quite fashionable to glibly patronize his political views as mere polemic or old hat. But who else has written such enduring dramas about capitalist greed ( All My Sons ), the Communist witch hunts of the 1950’s ( The Crucible ) or the steep price of the McCarthy era ( A View From the Bridge )? No, Mr. Miller’s moral universe is not so easily dismissed, not so irrelevant as a dated sermon.
In a 1950’s essay, he wrote of Death of a Salesman : “Willy Loman has broken a law without whose protection life is insupportable if not incomprehensible to him and to many others; it is the law which says that a failure in society and in business has no right to live. Unlike the law against incest, the law of success is not administered by statute or church, but it is very nearly as powerful in its grip upon men …”
Willy protests: “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” But the prideful Willy never was a success, only a failure. Which is why–in Arthur Miller’s universe–attention must be paid. “I don’t say he’s a great man,” goes the famously compassionate speech of his long-suffering wife, Linda. “Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”
“Charley, the man didn’t know who he was,” says Biff Loman at Willy’s grave. He was a sham. But what does this salesman actually sell? Mr. Miller doesn’t tell us, and perhaps there’s no need. Willy Loman is selling himself–like every salesman, including Presidents. Willy himself is the commodity, riding on a smile and a shoeshine–until he’s used up and spat out.
Our first sight of Brian Dennehy’s salesman is of a shadowy colossus silhouetted in the darkness against the bright headlights of his car. It’s a startling, near mythic image, and the heft of the man signals a giant fall. When he lugs his two suitcases, the weary weight of his life hangs in the defeated, exhausted balance.
For those of us who saw Mr. Dennehy as the arriviste merchant Lopakhin in Peter Brook’s 1988 production of The Cherry Orchard , the poetry within this fine yeoman actor will come as no surprise. Where he touches us so deeply is in his naked emotional rawness. I felt he paced Act I a little cautiously, as if holding something in reserve for the big arias of Act II. But Mr. Dennehy has produced a monumental performance.
He is honest in everything he does–from Willy’s utter, tragic bewilderment, to his burning agitation, to his ultimate Lear-like madness in the garden scene when Willy plants seeds in the darkness, pathetically planting a future, some rootedness, some desperate meaning to his futile life.
I much preferred Mr. Dennehy’s Everyman to Dustin Hoffman’s Dustin Hoffman in the 1984 Broadway production of Salesman . The technically brilliant Mr. Hoffman is invariably Mr. Hoffman in disguise. But Mr. Dennehy moves us precisely because he’s devastatingly real. And nowhere is he more effective than in his tremendous scenes with Kevin Anderson’s Biff. The two of them stamp Robert Falls’ production with its heartbeat of self-delusion and failure and ferocious love.
The cast is splendid, and my doubts in places aren’t decisive. Mr. Anderson’s Biff is a most effective, emotionally true performance, but he is almost too much the jock, lacking only the delicacy or refinement that often accompanies fallen favorite sons of rich promise. Elizabeth Franz has been raved about by many of my colleagues, but her Linda Loman is too twitchily neurotic for my taste. She holds little in reserve, including her inner despair. Ms. Franz’s Linda is no passive doormat, however. This frail protector-wife could knock her two wastrel sons senseless, and in the “attention must be paid” scene, she practically does.
I found Mark Wendland’s scenic designs too busy at first (and that Loman kitchen has never been cooked in). Why is the house impressionistic, and the car real? No matter. The revolving set successfully mirrors the rupture within Willy’s psyche, the blur between past and present, until everything floats unhinged in the void between reality and dreams. There is excellent work, too, from lighting designers Michael Philippi and composer Richard Woodbury.
In the end, though, we return to the play, and we are reminded that Death of a Salesman is arguably the greatest play of the 20th century. We know its flaws . And with each throw of the dice, with each new production, we think what might have been done differently, as we do with a Chekhov or Ibsen, or any masterpiece.
In many ways, this important production marks a coming home for Arthur Miller. Until recently, his plays have been far more celebrated abroad than at home. The English, in particular, have always valued his narrative form and public conscience. The dramas are a forum for debate. The English have also felt comfortable with Salesman ‘s tragedy of the American Dream; it made them feel superior. But post-Thatcherite England has changed dramatically, becoming Americanized. We are all salesmen now.
So this classic drama speaks to us as urgently as it ever did. And all family wars and disappointments and yearnings are eternal.