A Few Words on “Death of a Salesman”

Last weekend, I was in New York to see the Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Catch-22”) and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willie Loman. I was blown away by his performance, became even more enamored of another actor in the show, and walked out of the theater with thoughts of a broken political system and the rage it has inspired in activists at both ends of the political spectrum.

You cannot have a discussion about today’s best living actors without including Philip Seymour Hoffman. From his Oscar-winning role in “Capote” to his scene-stealing supporting roles in the films of P.T. Anderson, every Hoffman performance is unique and memorable. He can play a sensitive hospice worker (“Magnolia”) as well as a desperate, conniving thief (“Before the Devil Knows Your Dead”). He can do comedy (“Pirate Radio”) as well as he can do drama (“Doubt”). So you can see why he could not pass up the opportunity to put his stamp on perhaps the most iconic American theater role for male actors. Most memorably, the role of Willie Loman was played by Lee J. Cobb (the first to play Loman on Broadway), George C. Scott (1975), Dustin Hoffman (1984), and, ahem, Kevin Kline (1992). Philip Seymour Hoffman lives up to the promise and history of the role, however, by adding a decidedly new wrinkle to a character that has already been exhaustively dissected.

Hoffman’s Willie is a man on the edge of unbridled rage, long suppressed and finally released as his fantasies dissipate. Nichols and his cast portray Willie and Biff as dual protagonists dancing around the truth. Willie is searching for his fantasy to be reaffirmed; Biff is looking to tear it away to discover something real underneath it. For much of the first act, Garfield actually steals the show, bringing a fresh, modern angst to a role that is more relevant than ever. Children are increasingly living with their parents well into adulthood. In Biff, thirty-four-years old and back at home, Garfield digs deep beneath this modern stereotype and highlights the confusion and, ultimately, anger of an entire generation towards a complex and dangerous world. As an actor, he had flashes of brilliance in “The Social Network,” but he seems built for the stage, and for much of the first act, Hoffman wisely and generously cedes it to him.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield

But as Willie comes face to face with his own dream deferred in the second act, he explodes with anger and commands our attention. I have seen Willie played as a broken, old man, and Hoffman has quiet moments of defeat here, as well. But what I remember most from his performance are the moments in which he is faced with a reality he cannot contradict with fantasy. In these scenes, he explodes with a visceral, animal rage, and this is the modern wrinkle that Hoffman brings to the role. I could not help thinking about the angry, passionate, and sometime childish protests of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements. As opposed to the more dignified protests of the 1960s, today’s activists see in the activities of Wall Street and Congress the final nail in the coffin of the American dream, and their reaction, like Willie’s, is outrage.

He has been chewed up and spit out by the company he built, and his son, whose heart was saddled with Willie’s own dreams of success, has burst his final bubble: that Biff would succeed in ways that he never did. In the play’s next-to-last scene, Garfield, as Biff, tearfully and physically conveys the failures that he had previously hidden from his father, and Willie responds like a child backed into a corner. After a brief moment of honesty, Willie reverts to the fantasy that he has lived with for so long. In fact, he holds onto this fantasy to the bitter end, but he sacrifices everything to maintain it.

In a way, we are doing the same thing as a nation. Low-income and middle-class Americans continue to buy the idea the American dream can happen to them. We buy it when we watch “American Idol” or “Entourage,” about a poor boy from Brooklyn who becomes a movie star. We buy it when working-class people support tax policies that favor the wealthy. We buy it when we believe, every four years or so, that a presidential candidate will do something to help us in his first or next term. And we end up with a broken system that never gets fixed.

I was surprised to learn that “Salesman” was written in the years following World War II and first produced on Broadway in 1949. “Salesman” must have been painfully subversive at that time. The middle-class was expanding rapidly due to the GI Bill, and the American dream was, at least on the surface, becoming a reality for many young people. But Biff, a member of that Greatest Generation, serves as a warning to those who think that success – whether in war, government, or sales – can ever be maintained on self-confidence alone. As our nation struggles with debt, unemployment, and systemic corruption, “Death of a Salesman” remains as relevant and as painful as ever.

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2 thoughts on “A Few Words on “Death of a Salesman”

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