‘Death of a Salesman’ still relatable today
Arthur Miller’s greatest and most venerable play has returned yet another time to Broadway. Along with Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee, they represent the iconic American playwrights of the 20th Century.
“Salesman” opened in 1949 and has been revived via stage and film many times. I first saw it as a film with Lee J. Cobb when I was in college in the 1960’s on WCBS-TV’s then “Late Late Show.” I was blown over by its theme and aesthetic quality.
The protagonist, Willy Loman, now in his sixties, has returned from yet another canceled sales trip. He’s become exhausted from his many unrealized attempts to reach the attain his dreams, and one of his two sons, Biff who had shown great promise in high school is also going nowhere.
He goes to his company’s office and speaks to his former boss’s son and asks for improved assignments. His new employer, now a wealthy man, cannot understand Willy’s plight and reduces his schedule. Loman loses his temper and shouts, “Promises were made here!” He is now fired and depends on a friend to supplement his loss of income. (His friend’s son is seen as heading to Washington to argue a case before the Supreme Court. This is juxtaposed to Willy’s son, Biff who, well, is going nowhere.)
This play is now especially salient today, as many due to the economy (yes, even recent college grads) attempt in vain to achieve a dream they thought was theirs. Then, there is serendipity. Timing and just plain luck – at times out of our control – are important factors.
I have seen many versions of the play. I found Frederick March and Dustin Hoffman to be the best. Now the present incarnation: director Mike Nichols chose another Hoffman – Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both Nichols (who has directed many plays and films) and Seymour Hoffman are masterful in their artistic roles. Philip Hoffman doesn’t play his characters – rather, he becomes them. When I saw his film, “Truman Capote,” I didn’t know who the actor was until the final credits.
Then there is Mike Nichols. I saw an hour interview with him on the TimesTalks series. During Nichols’ closing remarks, he commented that Willy Loman was redeemed in the final moments of “Salesman.” Since it had become impossible for him to achieve the American Dream, his death at least brought him peace. And his son Biff was now liberated from Willy’s pressures and now had the potential to be liberated.
David Chowes, PCV