I was quite little when I saw the first revival with George C. Scott as Willy Loman, but I remember him being very growly and manly. The productions starring Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy were extremely powerful, but what’s most unique about Mike Nichols’s revival is that the actors seem to be living the play rather than simply playing their parts. Moments of sheer truth stretch on and open into pits through which the viewer must fall into the chasm of poetry that defines Death of a Salesman.
My aunt, my father’s sister Joan, has said the current production comes closest to the original. It’s not a replication, but it’s certainly a channeling—an invocation—of the play’s original force.
The recipe for how Mike and the cast have achieved this is as mysterious as the origin of the play, which I think remained opaque even to my father. Arthur knew where the characters originated, he knew how he developed the idea, but there was something about the way the play came to him which was, for want of a better word, magic.
He writes in his autobiography, Timebends, that he modeled the Lomans on the neighbors he grew up with in Brooklyn. He describes going into a neighbor’s garage and asking to borrow a shovel. The shovel was hanging over his head but he told my father, “I don’t have a shovel.” From there stemmed the idea of a fabulist, a man who lives in this alternate reality. I think my father drew inspiration from his neighbors, but there was no real recipe for Salesman. Like all great artists, he was kind of possessed by his work.
I remember hearing stories about the original production, specifically about the scene when Linda Loman has that intense moment with her boys in Act II and throws the flowers that Happy brings home in the trash. Elia Kazan, the director, kept having her say her lines faster and faster to the point that she almost couldn’t get the words out. He wanted to eliminate any sentimentality in the scene and let the sheer power of the language speak for itself. They also debated whether or not to keep Uncle Ben’s character. Kazan’s wife thought he was too surreal and took away from the play’s sociological grip. I think the story feels so real to people that despite its theatricality and surrealism, they often dwell on the realism. Critics, for example, have complained about Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a character 20 years older than him.
Hoffman is almost unbearably true as Willy; he’s utterly naked but constantly manning the emotional synapses routed through Willy’s mind. He leads the cast deep into a domain of totally unmannered and profound acting that you really don’t see in theater very often because it’s almost impossible to sustain. And yet Phil and the other cast members do to the extent that you almost worry for their health. You can see how one might have a nervous breakdown at a certain point.
Death of a Salesman has always been gripping, but our current economic climate makes it all the more devastating for modern audiences. The dream of success remains the American Dream, but the idea that success is more likely to end in disappointment is a reality of our times. The notion that people are disposable is terribly difficult to swallow, but it’s true.
Every artist recognizes a little of Willy Loman in himself, and I don’t think my father is an exception. Willy is selling himself, but also a vision of himself. Essentially, he’s selling air. There’s no rock bottom for Willy. Any artist or businessman who makes something out of nothing has been there at one point or another.
As a writer, I appreciate the greatness of Death of a Salesman, but there’s something about this production—what happens on stage from moment to moment—that’s just incredible. I don’t think I’ve seen theater like this in my life. I’ve seen the show three times, and every time the actors seem to be crawling deeper and deeper into it. I actually find it quite painful, but I still feel compelled to see it another time. Then Act II opens and I think, Oh my God, I don’t know if I can go through this again!