Miller was obsessed with the idea of writing a tragedy about a small man, challenging the received wisdom that tragedy has to be built, as in ancient Greek and Renaissance drama, around an immense protagonist, a protagonist of regal bearing, and so what we get in the modern age, with peewees substituting for giants, can’t be real tragedy. He needn’t have tried so hard. I don’t think many theater lovers would dispute the notion that Hedda Gabler and The Wild Duck are tragedies, or The Sea Gull and Three Sisters, orMiss Julie and The Father – or, to bring the discussion into twentieth-century American theatre, Awake and Sing!, A Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day’s Journey into Night. The problem with Death of a Salesman isn’t that it doesn’t feel like a tragedy; it’s that the writing is painfully banal and that Miller also wants the play to be a critique of the American Dream, and its point of view is terribly confused. You can hear Miller’s anger but you can’t always tell whether it’s directed at the misguided values of American society that doom the Willy Lomans of the world to failure or at Willy for buying into those values. And you can’t begin to imagine what he wants us to think about Linda, Willy’s loving enabler, who is also in the position of telling off his negligent sons – and to whom Miller gives the valedictory Requiem speech after Willy finally succeeds in killing himself in his car.
|Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield|
Miller’s master was Henrik Ibsen (he’s responsible for the adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the Peoplethat is most often read and produced in the U.S.), and like Ibsen he harks back to the authors of the well-made plays that engaged nineteenth-century audiences – the same audiences that Ibsen enraged, beginning with A Doll’s House and Ghosts, by playing with the conventions of the well-made play and undermining its melodramatic assurance about how the characters ought to behave. A key element of the well-made play that Ibsen deepened was the influence of the past on the present, which displays itself in the form of sinister secrets that get revealed in the course of the narrative. Since Miller was writing in an era when Freudian psychology was infiltrating popular American culture, he and some of his contemporaries (Sidney Kingsley in Detective Story, produced on stage the same year as Salesmanand filmed quite faithfully by William Wyler in 1950, comes to mind) added a modern wrinkle by making the secrets Freudian ones. “Willy, what does he have against you?” Linda asks her husband in bed after the return of their elder son Biff, the high school football hero who threw away his life in his senior year and whose latest visit home, like every previous one, has set off acrid scenes between father and son like tripped landmines. We don’t learn the answer until act two, in one of the flashbacks that haunt Willy through the play (along with fantasies in which he asks counsel of his older brother Ben, whose African diamond fortune is a significant piece of supporting evidence for Willy’s claim that in America a man can triumph beyond his wildest dreams). Biff, recruited by the University of Virginia, flunked math, so he hustled up to Boston to find his father, his hero, the man he believed capable of miracles, and beg him to talk to the teacher. There he found Willy in a hotel room with a scantily clad female buyer, and, deciding that after all his father wasn’t the sort of man the math teacher or anyone else was likely to listen to, he skulked home, burned the sneakers with “University of Virginia” printed on them in the furnace, and turned into a tormented wastrel and a thief.
|Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman|
|Director Mike Nichols|
At first Hoffman seems to be working way too hard: the part is a bear and you get the sense that he’s huffing and puffing his way up to it. But that may be just his vocal attack, his way of dropping his lines like bricks, as if he were trying to crash through a concrete wall. It takes a while for the performance to take hold. But the intensity of his inner focus is arresting from the outset, and the way he escalates speedily to Willy’s explosions is startling – the whole room seems to go dark when he gets there, as if the force of his anguish had short-circuited every other electric current in the vicinity. He doesn’t do much with the “death of a salesman” speech early in act two (the story about the aging salesman, Dave Singleman, whose popularity and success Willy has romanticized, a story that he holds to him like an amulet). But otherwise the second act is all pay-off from the labor he’s put into act one. His moments of excited hopefulness (urging the teenage Biff onto the field to groove off the love of the crowd) are marvelous; so are the moments when his focus moves ominously off into the distance. He gets Willy’s overemphatic jokiness – his strained efforts at charisma – and his boisterousness, his bull-in-a-china-shop quality. It isn’t a poetic performance, except perhaps for the longing “How do we get back to the good times?” speech to Ben; Hoffman isn’t an especially poetic actor, which is perhaps why Brantley at the Times also thought Hoffman was miscast as Jamie in the Robert Falls revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. He wasn’t; he just got at the character in a different way than Jason Robards had in the movie version, and here he isn’t concerned with Miller’s ersatz poetry, or in the possibilities for grandstanding theatricality, which was Lee J. Cobb’s trump card. Hoffman drives himself at the role, and after a while it becomes clear that his approach is an actor’s metaphor for the character, who charges and charges at an impenetrable obstacle until he just wears down and collapses.
|Finn Wittrock as Happy|
It’s fascinating to see a recreation of Jo Mielziner’s design for the 1949 production. Originally Miller titled the play The Inside of His Head and Mielziner had in mind an expressionistic set in the shape of a man’s skull. What he came up with next was a multi-level reproduction of the Loman family home with a scrim to stand in for the the fourth wall, and the combination of suggested realism and expressionism seems right for the style of the writing, which keeps breaking out of realism into scenes that tell us what’s going on in Willy’s mind. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting really brings the set to life when gobos of leaves play over the scrim during the springtime flashback and we get a glimpse of the idyllic, outdoor-centered family life that Willy and Biff, at different times, ache to return to – but that we know was always blighted by self-delusion and always doomed.
The Best Man is an old-fashioned three-act play by Gore Vidal that embellishes political melodrama with sharp, juicy dialogue. The setting is a presidential convention in Philadelphia in 1960 and the two front runners are Bill Russell, former Secretary of State, a middle-aged Adlai Stevenson type, a pensive intellectual who quotes Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell, and Senator Joe Cantwell, a young, charismatic Joe McCarthy type who has built a political career on the invention that organized crime is a puppet institution for the Communists. The other main characters are Arthur Hockstader, the ex-president whose voiced support for one or the other candidate would guarantee his nomination, and Alice Russell, Bill’s estranged wife (the conflict between them is Russell’s infidelities), who has agreed to reunite with him in order to help him run for president. Vidal wrote the play with actors in mind – the kind who can hold a house to attention with a combination of wit and style. Franklin Schaffner filmed it in 1964, to entertaining effect, with Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Tracy and, in a rather mysterious, wavering performance, the English actress Margaret Leighton. The last New York revival, in 2000, featured Spalding Gray, Chris Noth, Charles Durning and Michael Learned, and it wasn’t memorable. The current one – the play tends to show up during election years – pits John Larroquette as Russell against Eric McCormack as Cantwell; James Earl Jones plays Hockstader and Candice Bergen is Alice. Hardly profound theatre, but this version is lively and enjoyable.
|James Earl Jones|
|Candace Bergman & John Larroquette|
The plot goes a little haywire in the last act, when, after Cantwell has succeeded in making Marcus’s evidence against him look shoddy, Russell decides to use it against him anyway. It feels as if Vidal rearranged the order of the scenes by accident. But his dialogue still draws laughs. Wilson enhances the entertainment quotient by turning the interior of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre into a replica of a convention hall (Derek McLane designed the set), with TV monitors everywhere broadcasting news coverage of the event and boater-clad ushers sporting Russell or Cantwell campaign buttons. And the indispensable Ann Roth has done wonders with the women’s costumes; Lansbury must have hooted when she saw the two peach dresses Roth had prepared for her, and when all three of the female characters are onstage together for an interview the combined outfits are such an eyeful you don’t know where to look first. The Best Man is no classic but it hands you a perfectly good time.
- originally published on April 9, 2012 in Critics at Large.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.