'Death of a Salesman' still strikes relevant chord on Broadway
“Oh boy, oh boy,” he mutters quietly to himself at his empty table.
It could be a scene set today, but it's 1949 and it's Arthur Miller's play, “Death of a Salesman.”
A Tony Award-nominated revival of the drama currently on Broadway is one of many shows this season that mirror today's tougher times — not only economically, but in a subtle way, socially and politically.
Willy Loman is a man destroyed by his own stubborn belief in the glory of American capitalism and its spell of success. The show works in current day on a micro level; Loman the salesman could be any a middle-class man crushed under the recession. But it also could be a macro-level symbol of the smoke-and-mirrors sham of subprime mortgages. When Willy's dream world collapses, so does his life — not unlike our economy.
It was something Miller, who wrote the play at 33, never expected.
“I couldn't have predicted that a work like 'Death of a Salesman' would take on the proportions it has,” Miller said in an interview in 1988. He died in 2005. “Originally, it was a literal play about a literal salesman, but it has become a bit of a myth, not only here but in many other parts of the world.”
Mike Nichols, director of the revival that critics have hailed as devastating, said the play remains relevant while other shows recede because it's about two universal themes: The economy, yes, but also fathers and sons.
“Some great plays are left sort of where they happened, because the world changes, and then they can be great plays, like 'The Importance of Being Earnest,' but the society has changed,” Nichols said in a recent interview. “You can't say that's what things are like now. But you can with this — it remains frighteningly apt.”
The play at the Barrymore Theatre stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the doleful Willy Loman and we watch, transfixed, as he descends, beaten by his own mind as well as by life, until the inevitable bottom. “My God, Willy Loman is my father,” one audience member whispered to another during a recent performance. “And Biff is mine,” the other replied, referring to Loman's eldest son, the source of Willy's pride, delusion and his greatest disappointment.
The production hews close to the original that starred Lee J. Cobb and was directed by Elia Kazan. The set is a recreation of the original design, a skeleton with wood and steel giving way to abstract girders and silhouettes of trees.
Nichols, who directed the film “The Graduate” and the play “Barefoot in the Park,” said he wanted to stage the show in part because he felt Hoffman was meant to play the lead role and it was right for this period we're in.
“It seemed apt for the moment for now, for the time,” he said.
The idea of selling to Nichols seemed more relevant today than ever. Drug companies sell on television, televisions are sold on the Internet. And everyone is selling himself — and can pretend to be whoever he wants to be, Nichols said.
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