A Nation of Willy Lomans

By Tanenhaus, Sam | Newsweek, March 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Nation of Willy Lomans


Tanenhaus, Sam, Newsweek


Byline: Sam Tanenhaus

With a stellar cast and economic struggles ripped from today's headlines, Mike Nichols's revival of Death of a Salesman is Broadway's hottest ticket.

The curtain will lift in 90 minutes on Death of a Salesman, Mike Nichols's latest production, but the celebrated director exudes lunar calm. It's not hard to guess why. With an announced 14-week run, the revival of Arthur Miller's 1949 classic, with Nichols directing an A-list cast--including Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role and Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, this summer's The Amazing Spider-Man) as his estranged, embittered son Biff--has audiences salivating. The first six preview performances grossed $613,569, topping every Broadway competitor but the hit War Horse, the 2011 Tony winner.

The previous night, when I attended the show at the Barrymore theater, online scalpers were demanding as much as $750 a ticket for two hours and 40 minutes of wrenching intergenerational warfare. When it ended, Miller's daughter, Rebecca, her cheeks stained with tears, rose alongside her husband, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, to applaud the emotionally spent actors. Even the critics--barred from the theater until March 10, five days before the opening--seem more eager than skeptical. Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, both of The New York Times, have already written articles remarking on the eerie timeliness of Miller's play and its dissection of the American Dream and its steep costs on Willy Loman and his struggling family.

Illusions of Security

"It's very much a moment for this play," says Nichols before the start of the evening's preview performance. Was he thinking about the sagging economy in 2010 when he first announced plans to restage Miller's play? "Of course," he replies. But the theme of selling reaches further. "Everybody's Willy Loman on Facebook. Everybody's a salesman. We're a nation of Willys." That includes Nichols himself. "I'm selling Salesman right now, talking to you."

Previous revivals of Death of a Salesman in 1984 and 1999 met with acclaim, yet a curious odor of disrepute clings to Miller's play. Of the three acknowledged masterpieces of American theater--the others are Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (all three were written in the 1940s)--only Salesman has absorbed almost continual detraction, dating back to its first production.

Few denied its power, but in contrast to O'Neill's harrowing grandeur and Williams's lyric flights, Miller's work is solidly earthbound. Even as the play captivated audiences and swept up prizes, sophisticated critics noted that it seemed curiously out of date. At a time when America was galloping off on a spree of unparalleled prosperity, the Lomans, in their dead-end Depression funk, seemed worn relics of an earlier age of protest theater, the kind who inhabited the dramas of Clifford Odets, only depleted of proletarian passions. "Arthur Miller is Odets without the poetry," the influential critic Robert Warshow wrote in 1953.

Today it all looks very different. Miller has been reborn a prophet of our times, precisely because his Depression roots sank so deep. His own family's struggles "left me with the feeling that the economic system is subject to instant collapse at any particular moment," he told an interviewer in 2001, "and that security is an illusion which some people are fortunate enough not to outlive." The concrete facts that demoralize the Lomans ring frighteningly true today, in the aftermath of our own Great Recession: the staggering weight of the couple's 25-year mortgage and other unpaid bills coming due, with no escape so alluring as the payoff on the life-insurance policy that tempts Willy toward suicide at age 63.

The Hard Sell

What Warshow and others missed was that Miller's play isn't ideological at all. There is not a whiff in it of anti-capitalist "critique. …

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