Death of a Salesman article in Newsweek

A Nation Of Willy Lomans

With a stellar cast and economic struggles ripped from today’s headlines, Mike Nichols’s revival of Death of a Salesman is Broadway’s hottest ticket.

by  | March 12, 2012 1:00 AM EDT

The curtain will lift in 90 minutes on Death of a Salesman, Mike Nichols’s latest production, but the celebrated director exudes lunar calm. It’s not hard to guess why. With an announced 14-week run, the revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, with Nichols directing an A-list cast—including Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role and Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man) as his estranged, embittered son, Biff—has audiences salivating. The first six preview performances grossed $613,569, topping every Broadway competitor but the hit War Horse, the 2011 Tony winner.

The previous night, when I attended the show at the Barrymore Theatre, online scalpers were demanding as much as $750 a ticket for two hours and 40 minutes of wrenching intergenerational warfare. When it ended, Miller’s daughter, Rebecca, her cheeks stained with tears, rose alongside her husband, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, to applaud the emotionally spent actors. Even the critics—barred from the theater until March 10, five days before the opening—seem more eager than skeptical. Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, both of The New York Times, have already written articles remarking on the eerie timeliness of Miller’s play and its dissection of the American Dream and its steep costs on Willy Loman and his struggling family.

Illusions of Security

“It’s very much a moment for this play,” says Nichols before the start of the evening’s preview performance. Was he thinking about the sagging economy in 2010 when he first announced plans to restage Miller’s play? “Of course,” he replies. But the theme of selling reaches further. “Everybody’s Willy Loman on Facebook. Everybody’s a salesman. We’re a nation of Willys.” That includes Nichols himself. “I’m selling Salesman right now, talking to you.”

Previous revivals of Death of a Salesman in 1984 and 1999 met with acclaim, yet a curious odor of disrepute clings to Miller’s play. Of the three acknowledged masterpieces of American theater—the others are Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (all three were written in the 1940s)—only Salesman has absorbed almost continual detraction, dating back to its first production

Few denied its power, but in contrast to O’Neill’s harrowing grandeur and Williams’s lyric flights, Miller’s work is solidly earthbound. Even as the play captivated audiences and swept up prizes, sophisticated critics noted that it seemed curiously out of date. At a time when America was galloping off on a spree of unparalleled prosperity, the Lomans, in their dead-end Depression funk, seemed worn relics of an earlier age of protest theater, the kind who inhabited the dramas of Clifford Odets, only depleted of proletarian passions. “Arthur Miller is Odets without the poetry,” the influential critic Robert Warshow wrote in 1953.

Today it all looks very different. Miller has been reborn a prophet of our times, precisely because his Depression roots sank so deep. His own family’s struggles “left me with the feeling that the economic system is subject to instant collapse at any particular moment,” he told an interviewer in 2001, “and that security is an illusion which some people are fortunate enough not to outlive.” The concrete facts that demoralize the Lomans ring frighteningly true today, in the aftermath of our own Great Recession: the staggering weight of the couple’s 25-year mortgage and other unpaid bills coming due, with no escape so alluring as the payoff on the life-insurance policy that tempts Willy toward suicide at age 63.

The Hard Sell

What Warshow and others missed was that Miller’s play isn’t ideological at all. There is not a whiff in it of anti-capitalist “critique.” Its subject, at once deeper and less abstract, is the American myth of self-invention or reinvention, the dreams and delusions it fosters in us, which lead us away from our true selves. “Willy has chosen to follow the craft that is not a craft, and he has a craft,” Nichols says. “The sad thing about it is, as his sons know, there are things he’s very good at—carpentry, building, putting in a ceiling in his house. But he doesn’t have any respect for that. What he thinks is important is to be able to sell, to convince, to charm, and it’s one of the things that’s wrong with us now. If you go into any office and ask people, ‘What exactly is it that you do?’ they either say, ‘I record the numbers, and then I put them in another book,’ or they say, ‘I have ideas. I have ideas for commercials, promotion.’ We basically are promoting our product.”

One of Miller’s most inspired touches is that he never tells us, nor do we think to ask, what’s inside the heavy sample cases Willy lugs into the house and then on the road. We don’t ask because the answer is obvious. The “product” he’s peddling is himself. This is the theology, still with us today, of the post-Depression middle class, and its scripture was written not by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations but by Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and Bruce Barton (The Man Nobody Knows, in which Jesus is described as “the founder of modern business”). In his own mind, Willy Loman is not an “entrepreneur.” He is a buccaneer “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” Nichols sees Willy’s pathetic need to be “well liked” as the forerunner of today’s fixation on celebrity. “It’s the American need to be known that led to Kardashians everywhere, and the wish to be a salesman that led to everything that’s going on, from Facebook onward.” Miller, Nichols adds, “predicted all this.”

A Master of Storytelling

Nichols is 80—a shocking datum to anyone old enough to remember when he was one of show business’s few credible laureates of the youth culture in landmark movies like The Graduate, with its Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, and Carnal Knowledge, with its clinical depiction of sex. Both those films are now more than 40 years old—chronologically far closer to the world of Death of a Salesman than to the 21st century. Nichols himself is only 16 years younger than Arthur Miller, and the two were longtime friends, neighbors in Connecticut.

It is startling how much history Nichols contains. The evidence is everywhere, whether in the news of the “other” Hoffman (Dustin, an unknown when Nichols gambled on him in The Graduate) making his directorial debut with Quartet, or in the latest Oscar by Meryl Streep (whose collaborations with Nichols include Silkwood and Angels in America). Yet Nichols seems to have defied time. The round face is wrinkled, but youthful energy pulses in his voice, which has the same comical modulations, at once impish and fastidious, that first brought him fame in the improvisational skits he did with his partner Elaine May in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when the couple lampooned the neuroses and narcissism of the hypereducated urban elite.

Nichols’s many triumphs in comedy have obscured his actual theatrical origins, when he was immersed in the techniques of his idol Elia Kazan and his teacher Lee Strasberg, both masters of a psychologically centered approach to the stage, guiding actors ever deeper into the recesses of a play, “so you’re not just saying words but are creating ‘the event,’ which is basically what are they really talking about, what is really happening under the words,” as Nichols puts it today. This is, of course, “the Method,” associated with self-lacerating actors like Marlon Brando. Nichols’s innovation was to combine it with the stylized wit of another mid-20th-century legend, Billy Wilder, “my mentor,” he says today. “When I got to Hollywood he was the most hospitable, the most helpful.” The two, though separated by 25 years, were both refugees from Nazi Germany. Both also had the outsider’s appetite for studying New World mores and mannerisms overlooked by homegrown Americans.

It was Wilder, too, who helped unlock the mysteries of film craft, telling Nichols, as he was about to begin work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first film: “Don’t forget you have to leave some string for the pearls.” It remains “the single most useful thing anybody said to me,” Nichols says today. String? “Structure,” Nichols explains. “You’ll have all these wonderful moments—these shocking scenes, these hilarious scenes, these heart-wrenching scenes, as people now say (we used to say heart-rending). Don’t forget to leave narrative that connects these pearls.”

Tragedy and Humor

I mention to Nichols that hearing Philip Seymour Hoffman barking out Willy Loman’s lines of blustery cheer—the worse things get, the more emphatically he insists he has chosen the right path—reminded me of an observation that Miller’s exact contemporary Saul Bellow once made: “A good American makes propaganda for whatever existence has forced him to become.” “That is Willy Loman, exactly,” Nichols says. “He has to romanticize the corner in which he’s been placed.”

Nichols also agrees with Bellow that it’s a distinctly American trait. “We’re the first people who celebrated their freedom. In celebrating the freedom we probably gave up some and began to bind ourselves in new ways.” We bind ourselves to, among other things, a delusory ideal of self-sufficiency—the false pride that compels Willy to refuse a job when he’s offered one by the neighbor he admits is “the only friend I got,” even as he cadges weekly $50 handouts from that same friend. More remarkable still is how Miller, Nichols, and the superb ensemble of actors lift these travails onto a plane very close to tragedy—and, like so much tragedy, lit with flashes of humor.

BlackBerry Nation

And there is always the play’s eerie prescience. In one scene Willy’s boss, Howard, the fatuous entitled son who has inherited his father’s business, delightedly shows off his newest gadget, a wire recorder. “This is the most fascinating relaxation i ever found … they’re only a hundred and a half … you tell the maid to turn the radio on when Jack Benny comes on, and this automatically goes on,” he says with Mitt Romney obtuseness to a man at a loss to scrape together $16 to repair the family refrigerator.

The scene has always been affecting—Willy had been hoping to talk the boss into giving him a job in the home office, so as to be spared his grueling hours in the car. Today it gains added power from our realization that a wire recorder is the radio-era equivalent of a DVR, a foretaste of the technological revolution that brings new wonders but shuts down our human connections. Howard’s ears, so attuned to his mechanical toy, are closed to Willy’s human pleas. “It’s the thin edge of the wedge,” Nichols says of this scene. “It’s the beginning of what’s led to everybody having a BlackBerry.”

‘Attention Must Be Paid’

Time and again, Nichols makes us see our own world in Miller’s. Members of both the Tea Party and Occupy movements will wince at the cries of Willy’s wife, Linda, that “attention must be paid” to her suffering husband. Meanwhile, the two immature 30-something Loman sons, with their comic-book nicknames Biff and Hap, are the ancestors of today’s “early adults,” bunking at home in their boyhood beds, unequipped to make their way in an unwelcoming world.

Most remarkable of all is how fluidly all this comes at us—the facts of the Lomans’ fate folded into the spell of a story that itself feels mythical, each scene looping from present to past and back to the present again, but with no hint of confusion or disorientation. “It’s a dream play, and nothing in it is literal,” Nichols says of Salesman. The characters “don’t exactly talk regular prose. They find a more anxious language, a heightened language, because they’re in an emergency, a crisis. It’s 24 hours at the end of which a guy dies.”

Like his mentors Kazan and Wilder, Nichols is known as an “actor’s director.” Yet when we spoke he said surprisingly little about his cast—apart from noting that he had asked Hoffman to play Willy and that Garfield’s volcanic second-act explosion is to be expected of an actor groomed on the British stage.

Nichols’s deepest passion is for Miller’s text, which he says he has read “countless times” and finds today a more lasting artistic statement than Williams’s. “I love and admire Streetcar, but I’m not drawn to it,” he says. “Also, we don’t have Blanche anymore. That genteel lady, who f–ks everybody [and] represents the Old South, doesn’t exist. Sexual mores have changed. The South has changed. White gloves have changed. Everything has changed,” Nichols remarks. “But Willy is still all around us.”

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