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Theater

'A Salesman' Lives On In Philip Seymour Hoffman

When Philip Seymour Hoffman took the stage on March 15 in the new revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, he became the fifth actor in 63 years to walk the boards of Broadway in the shoes of the blustery, beleaguered salesman, Willy Loman. In the last six decades, each incarnation of the play has resonated with a new generation of theatergoers.

There are lines in Arthur Miller's 1949 masterpiece that sound like they could have come right out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Miller knew plenty about the characters on Wall Street. He was born in the Bronx in 1915 to a wealthy family. Then his father lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Seventy years later, at his home in Roxbury, Conn. — not far from the cabin where he wrote Death of a Salesman — Miller told me the seeds of the play grew out of the Depression.

"I wrote it in '48, '47, which was objectively the start of the biggest boom in the history of the world probably," Miller said. "But it was also a time when a lot of people, including me, expected that we were going to go back into what we had been before World War II, which was a depressed country. Harry Truman thought the same thing. ... Most of the population was waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Miller never tells us what Willy Loman sells. But the playwright makes it clear that his character is at the end of his career, and end of his rope. As the play opens, Loman's salary has been cut and he doesn't know how he's going to pay his bills. Then, in the wrenching second act, his boss fires him.

"I put 34 years into this firm Howard, and now I can't pay my insurance!" Loman says to his boss. "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away! A man isn't a piece of fruit."

The 1949 play could not be more timely today, says New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood. "We've come through this very painful recession," he says. "And the main character is a man who's devoted his life to this company for 34 years, and suddenly finds himself not only drowning in debt, but ultimately, tossed out on his ear. ... I think that's something that a lot of people can relate to right now, unfortunately."

But audiences have always related to the plight of Willy Loman. The first Broadway revival was staged 26 years after the premiere.

"It's one of the great classic pieces of all time for my money," said the late George C. Scott, who directed and starred in Death of a Salesman in 1975. Time magazine called Scott's Loman "a performance of staggering impact. ... When his head is bowed, it is not in resignation, but like that of the bull bloodied by the picador, yet ready to charge again."

In 1999, Scott said the role took a lot out of him. He was in his late 40s, playing a man of 63. It was one of the "most exhausting" roles, Scott said: "You want to do things that are good, things that are positive. ... It is a very, very saddening occasion to do that play. To do it night after night after night can break down your optimism of life."

Isherwood says the play also had a countercultural resonance in 1975. "The idea that the American dream is achievable for everyone, the idea of the American dream as defined by being No 1, or being all-powerful is something to be achieved, and ... strived for constantly. I think in 1975, after Watergate and Vietnam, I think there was probably a strain in the culture that was ready to take another look at these kinds of ideas."

In 1984, Broadway took another look at Death of a Salesman. Dustin Hoffman played Willy Loman — a man who has spent a lifetime "on a shoeshine and a smile," striving to succeed by virtue of being well‑liked — and half a lifetime drilling those values into his two sons. Willy's son Biff was played by John Malkovich.

One reason the play has struck a chord with each succeeding generation is that it's so familiar. For more than half a century, Death of a Salesman has been required reading in high school English classes. Hoffman says it was the first play he ever read.

"Before I even thought of being an actor," Hoffman says, "I was in high school, and [the play] destroyed me, because I had an older brother. I had a father who was a traveling salesman. So the dynamics was very close to what I had experienced in my life up to that point. And I was actually in mourning for weeks after I read the play. Refused to tell my parents why I was so sad because I was afraid it would hurt them."

Even in the prosperous times — during the Reagan-Bush economic boom of the 1980s — the play again resonated with audiences, says Isherwood.

"The idea that a man's value is measured by how big his paycheck is is something that we always should be questioning," he says, "even in times of success. In fact, you know, when things are going well, it's maybe even more important to look at these kinds of issues."

The 50th anniversary Broadway production of Death of a Salesman was staged during the economic upswing of the '90s' dot-com boom. And again, the play proved prescient. Brian Dennehey played Willy Loman in 1999 — the production was a hit. But Arthur Miller said he never set out to write a popular play. He guessed that Death of a Salesman struck an emotional chord with audiences across the decades because of the central human dilemmas it explores.

"The family; the relations of fathers and sons; of wives and husbands; of man to his economy and his job; aging; the anomie that this system generates, where people simply get separated from themselves, and they don't know why they're alive, et cetera," Miller said. "It seems to have cracked the rock right down the middle."

Miller died in 2005. There's a painful irony to the current revival of his Death of a Salesman — the people the play speaks to most powerfully can't afford to spend $120 on a ticket to see it on Broadway.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. This week, a revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" opened in New York City starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is the fifth actor in 63 years to walk in the shoes of the blustery, beleaguered salesman Willy Loman.

Each iteration of Arthur Miller's play seems to have struck a chord with audiences over that time. Here's reporter Tom Vitale.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: There are lines in Arthur Miller's 1949 masterpiece that sound like they could have come right out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Lee J. Cobb originated the role of Willy Loman on Broadway, then reprised it for a record. Here, his character tells his brother and a neighbor about his son stealing lumber from a construction site.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

LEE J. COBB: (As Willy Loman) ...at least a dozen six-by-tens worth of all kinds of money.

EDWARD ANDREWS: (As Charley) Listen, if that watchman...

COBB: I gave them hell, you understand, but I got a couple of fearless characters there.

ANDREWS: (Charley) Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters.

ALBERT DEKKER: (As Ben) And the stock exchange, friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VITALE: Arthur Miller knew about the fearless characters on Wall Street. Miller was born in the Bronx in 1915 to a wealthy family. Then his father lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Seventy years later, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut - not far from the cabin where he wrote "Death of a Salesman" - Miller told me the seeds of his play grew out of the Depression.

ARTHUR MILLER: I wrote it in '48 - '47, which was objectively the start of the biggest boom in the history of the world, probably. But it was also a time when a lot of people, including me, expected that we were going to go back into what we had been before World War II, which was a depressed country. Probably most of the population was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

VITALE: Miller never tells us what Willy Loman sells. But the playwright makes it clear that his character is at the end of his career and the end of his rope. As the play opens, Loman's salary has been cut, and he doesn't know how he's going to pay his bills. Then, in the wrenching second act, his boss fires him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

BERNIE KOPELL: (As Howard) I've got to see some people...

COBB: (As Willy Loman) I'm talking about your father. There were promises made across this desk. You mustn't tell me you've got people to see. I put 34 years into this firm, Howard, and now I can't pay my insurance. You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man isn't a piece of fruit.

VITALE: The 1949 play could not be more timely today, says New York Times theater critic, Charles Isherwood.

CHARLES ISHERWOOD: It really speaks to the current moment, because we've come through this very painful recession. And the main character is a man who's devoted his life to this company for 34 years and suddenly finds himself not only drowning in debt but ultimately tossed out on his ear. I think that that's something that a lot of people can relate to right now, unfortunately.

VITALE: But audiences have always related to the plight of Willy Loman. The first Broadway revival was staged 26 years after the premiere.

GEORGE C. SCOTT: It's one of the great classic pieces of all time and, for my money.

VITALE: The late George C. Scott directed and starred in "Death of a Salesman" in 1975. Time magazine called Scott's Loman, quote, "a performance of staggering impact. When his head is bowed, it is not in resignation, but like that of the bull bloodied by the picador, yet ready to charge again." In 1999, Scott said the role took a lot out of him.

SCOTT: It's one of the most exhausting. And I was in my, what, late 40s or something, playing a man 63. But you want to do things that are good, things that are positive, although it is a very, very saddening occasion to do that play. And to do it night after night after night can break down your optimism of life.

VITALE: Critic Charles Isherwood says the play also had a countercultural resonance in 1975.

ISHERWOOD: The idea that the American dream is achievable for everyone, the American dream as defined by being number one or being all powerful is something to be strived for constantly. I think in 1975, you know, after Watergate and Vietnam, I think there was probably a strain in the culture that was ready to take another look at these kinds of ideas.

VITALE: In 1984, Broadway took another look at "Death of a Salesman." Dustin Hoffman played Willy Loman, a man who has spent a lifetime on a shoeshine and a smile, striving to succeed by virtue of being well-liked, and half a lifetime drilling those values into his two sons. Willy's son Biff was played by John Malkovich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Biff) Gee, I don't know...

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Willy Loman) Oh, and don't say gee. Gee is a boy's word. A man walking in there for $15,000 does not say gee.

MALKOVICH: (As Biff) Well, 10, I think, would be top, though.

HOFFMAN: (As Willy Loman) Don't be modest. You always started too low. Walk in with a big laugh. Don't look worried. Start off with a couple of your good stories to lighten things up. It's not what you say, but how you say it.

VITALE: One reason the play has struck a chord with each succeeding generation is that it's so familiar. For more than half a century, "Death of a Salesman" has been required reading in high school English classes. Dustin Hoffman says it was the first play he ever read.

HOFFMAN: Before I even thought of being an actor, I was in high school. And it destroyed me, because I had an older brother, I had a father who was a traveling salesman. So the dynamics was very close to what I had experienced in my life up to that point. And I was actually in mourning for weeks after I read the play and refused to tell my parents why I was so sad because I was afraid it would hurt them.

VITALE: Even in the good times - during the Reagan-Bush economic boom of the 1980s - the play again resonated with audiences, says Charles Isherwood.

ISHERWOOD: The idea that a man's value is measured by how big his paycheck is is something that we always need to be questioning, even in times of success. And in fact, you know, when things are going well, it's maybe even more important to look at these kinds of issues.

VITALE: The 50th anniversary Broadway production of "Death of a Salesman" was staged during the economic upswing of the 1990s' dot-com boom. And again, the play proved prescient.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

BRIAN DENNEHY: (As Willy Loman) All he has to do is go into any city and pick up a phone, and he's making his living, and you know why?

ALLEN HAMILTON: (As Ben) I've got to go.

DENNEHY: (As Willy Loman) Look at this boy. Without a penny to his name, three great universities are begging for him. And from there, the sky's the limit, because it's not what you do, Ben, it's who you know, and the smile on your face. It's contacts, Ben, contacts.

VITALE: Brian Dennehy played Willy Loman in 1999. The production was a hit. But Arthur Miller said he never set out to write a popular play. He guessed that "Death of a Salesman" struck an emotional chord with audiences across the decades because of the central human dilemmas it explores.

MILLER: The family, the relations of fathers and sons, of wives and husbands, of man to his economy and his job, aging, the anomie that this system generates, where people simply get separated from themselves, and they don't know why they're alive. It seemed to have cracked the rock right down the middle.

VITALE: Arthur Miller died in 2005. There's a painful irony to the current revival of his "Death of a Salesman." The people the play speaks to most powerfully can't afford to spend $120 on a ticket to see it on Broadway. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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