Death of a Salesman
I’ve already spoken about the celebrity experience i had after this show, but there is another story from that time yet to tell. Walking out of the Barrymore theatre post performance I was struck by a sight that stuck with me longer than seeing Sam Raimi or getting a signature from Spiderman- to-be Andrew Garfield and it involved someone who is a complete stranger to me even now. Stuck in the exit que, one of the last to leave by virtue of sitting in the first row, I saw a clerk trying to assist an old man bound an aisle-based wheelchair seat. She was having trouble though because he had covered his face with a hanky in order to hide either how much he was crying, or that he had tears in his eyes at all. The attendant leant in and gave him a hug, some human contact and then they passed through a curtain, presumably into the entrance hall.
It’s obvious that something in Miller’s masterful script struck him close to home; that this tale of Fathers, Sons and the high stakes game of genetic gardening that they all partake in hit him personally. Perhaps he, nearing as he was the end of his own life, had looked back for the first time on his own legacy and found it lacking, or perhaps he realized that the way he had heaped expectation on his own progeny was wrong; I cannot truely know. I can however tell you that he needn’t have hid his face whatever his fear, for we all of us felt much the same as we stood up to leave. We’re all of us either parents or children and all of us flawed, so we were all similarly shattered by the scenes on stage and in that way we were thus all bound together by it; the embrace and not the veil was the more apt image to use as metaphor for our shared experience.
I fear that I made a horrible mistake in booking Nichol’s revival of this play for my first Broadway experience, for how can anything else possibly compare? It was, perhaps, the perfect theatrical experience ( flaws and all). I was sitting front row, a little off to the side, but not overly so; close enough almost to touch the performers had I felt the need to, but also, as the bottom of the slope I was sitting in a veritable gutter for the tears that rolled down the aisles throughout. As someone who is, let’s say easily distracted, this is ideal though for I was able to immerse myself entire in the world of the play; for all but the first few minutes of each act I had forgotten that there even was an audience around me. More than ever this involvement is essential because the emotional experience of this Salesman is stunning and to miss out on any of it would be such a shame. It takes you in only to tear you apart in terrible and terrific ways.
While Nichols no doubt did a wonderful job of directing his style here is a mostly subtle one – he makes magic use of minutia, something like the closing of a cigar case is his version of dramatic punctuation, there is no need to exaggerate – his most major move being that of casting, he seems to have followed the admirable adage of simply hiring the right people and letting them do their stuff. The cast here is, god, I don’t know of a superlative strong enough. Some I expected great things from and got more than I ever could have imagined, others I knew nothing of and was most pleasantly surprised by. That they have the likes of John Glover and Fran Kanz in the ensemble for only minor roles, maybe a few minutes of major time each, says a lot about the calibre of the leads I think.
I’ve been so happy for Andrew Garfield these past few years, going from indie success in Boy A only a few years back to starring in one of the summers biggest pictures with Amazing Spiderman is amazing. Now though I can’t help but see it as a shame that his Hollywood career seems to be working out for him because young actors of his calibre are something that the current scene is sorely lacking. Biff is a tough role to play, he has inherited nearly all of his fathers flaws but fails to find any of the forgiveness that we give Willie for being old. I however was sold on him here, loving and hating him in equal measure, like one would their own brother or son; and when the final act came he handled the admittedly extravagant crying scenes with aplomb, unvarnished but never unbelievable. When he later stepped out in a trademark hoodie/jacket combo, British twang in tow , I almost couldn’t place him.
Then there is Hoffman, who is a very interesting choice to me for a number of reasons, none of which are reasonable. See the first time I ever saw this story was on DVD, a filmed version of Dustin Hoffman’s rendition. The second was during Synecdoche, New York in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a director who is putting on a new version of the tale, whilst simultaneously living one. Then there is this as the third. It’s just one of those too clean strands of coincidence that always catch my eye. Mysticism aside the man is phenomenal, he was already one of my all-time favorite actors but this, this is perhaps his best turn yet.
Willie is a wily character, turning on a heel from heartbreaking to hilarious and Hoffman never missed a beat; he nailed the comedic timing and had us crying with simple, silent glances. I don’t know what else to say about him, it’s something that you really just have to see to understand. If I wasn’t sold already though then i would have been by the fact that when he came out with the cast to bow his eyes were still wet and his mouth quavering; this isn’t something that he can just turn on and off, this role eats at him each night and we should thus be thankful that he continues doing it. That he can’t come out and smile to the crowd afterwards is only understandable.
Of course no narratological experience would be complete for me without some element of pretentious analysis and Salesman also provides a plethora of opportunities for this. Thematically it is a very complex and multi-faceted play that never quite points out its meaning in a plain-stated fashion; I think this quote from Garfield himself says it best:
“Death of a Salesman is as elusive as Shakespeare. Moments of clarity lead to confusion; it’s like one of those Whac-A-Mole games. You don’t ever want to feel like you’re done because you never are. And if you think you are done, you’re deluded and you’re not working as hard as you should.”
In this way and many others Millers work reminded me a lot of this year’s Mad Men, another work that leaves its meanings hidden in hypocrisy and ambiguity. Both pieces seem strongly occupied by the idea of time and it’s passing; for Willie, whose life flashes before his eyes, periods perverting one into another seamlessly ( one of Nichol’s only and outstanding stylistic flourishes is the way that these scenes wind together so well), time is perhaps the premier issue. His time has nearly passed, as has that of his generation of old workers and old values,and the new wave that has come in to replace him is not at all what he wanted or expected.
The play also plays with disappointment, something taken straight from Codfish Ball. As a Salesman Willie winds things up with his words, he imagines them as ideal and won’t hear of it whenever someone tries to point out a flaw. He becomes so reliant on these fantasies that whenever the disappointments of reality hit, even in minor ways, he dies on the inside; his dreams are all that hold him together because he really has nothing else and this dichotomy is fascinating. As is the way in which his hypocrisy has been split between his two sons; Happy is all front and facade as his name suggests, he wants only to console while Biff is constantly trying to break through with his facts, starting fights in the process; you could almost read the play as all internal if you wanted, that Willie’s brother is not the only imaginary figure.
I think though that the more apt option is the opposite of this, to take things as externally as possible, to read the play as the story of America and not simply an American. We only like things when they are under construction, when they are going to happen -Don Draper especially – and this to goes for there United States. These people were happiest when they had a new continent to explore and a civilization to raise; now that they’ve reached it, now that the epitome of their exploration is the tree in the backyard, they are cramped and discontent. The American Dream was enough to distract them through decades of turmoil, but now that they have the house in their hands they realize that it doesn’t really mean half as much as they thought that it would an that truth is tearing the new generation asunder.
The new America that this regime rules over is one that favors facts over familiar faces, one that cuts costs and goes for cents over dollars; something that we see now more than ever. The only area in which the play’s predictions become problematic is that today you can get by on a smile and knowing the name of the right person, that approach has come back in style for the luckiest few and it more than anything is killing us. Too much of the current market is based on dreams and imagination – stocks, bonds and numbers in a computer – we have since stopped favoring the tangible and that in turn has created a whole new generation of Willie Loman’s. We’re stuck in a most unforgiving cycle.
As grand and nonsensical as most of that may be Salesman is mostly a tight and tiny play and this is perhaps its biggest strength. Willie Lohman is a small man and thus his is tragedy on a small scale, but is no less devastating because of it. It’s a small story sure, but now more than ever it is one that we need to give out attention and no iteration of it could be more deserving than this one. Look at the length of this post alone if you need further inspiration, that’s how much I love it.