Last week we had the unforgettable experience of attending “Death of a Salesman” at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City. One of my absolutely favorite plays has been revived five times on Broadway, broadcast in several television productions and produced twice for the silver screen. Starring some of the most highly regarded actors in the US, “Death of a Salesman” still electrifies 63 years after its debut in 1949. This Arthur Miller tragedy is as timely as the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Sixty-three-year old Willy Loman (the magnetic Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the central tragic figure who has a fire in his belly. Broken by the optimism essential to being a successful salesman, Willy Loman’s blood pumps with the belief that he can make things happen, can dream the impossible dream, almost surely a self-willed delusion. Willy is a hope-inflated man who has injured his family gravely. His wife (played by the luminously reserved Linda Emond) brings an iron-strength to her role as protector of her husband’s fragile mental health. She is also an unsung hero. We feel an ache for her when all the air goes out of her husband with her famous warning, “Attention must be paid”.
But the story belongs to Willy Loman and to his older son, Biff (brilliantly acted by Andrew Garfield of “Social Network” fame). The searingly brutal father-son relationship takes center stage in the most devastating emotional outbursts between the loneliest of lonely figures–Willy–and the disillusioned, lost Biff. The words, like shards of glass, are gut wrenching.
But there is also another, younger son, Hap aka”Happy”, (the remarkable Broadway debut of Finn Wittrock), the outlier who follows in his father’s footsteps but is ignored nonetheless. All four main characters harbor unspeakable, unhealed wounds. Hoffman, as Willy Loman, hides his self-doubt from both sons while outwardly projecting the optimism so essential to “sell”: “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Only his wife, propping up his ego, listens to his insides crumpling, his waning faith in the system he believed would always support him: “There were promises made.” And Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, understands: “You have to have the ability to believe in yourself enough to go out there and make it happen.”
There are things that have happened–that can’t be spoken of–and that is the tragedy. The Loman family is disintegrating in spite of their efforts and intentions. Biff is blind-sided by his father’s callous lack of respect for his mother, Hap wants to be the success his father coldly ignores, and Linda just wants to make it through another day with her Willy. “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him”, she says– but one link in the chain affects the others.
Willy’s misdirected pride inevitably causes him to disintegrate. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unique contribution to this classic drama is that he acts without soliciting pity or conveying self-loathing. We left the theater with a tremendous sadness for someone who strived so exhaustively for the American dream.