April 20A Play That Resounds
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine
Linda Emond and Andrew Garfield in "Death of a Salesman."
In Sunday's Arts & Leisure section, Charles Isherwood wraps up his coverage of "Death of a Salesman" by responding to some of the more than 600 reader comments posted here over the past few weeks. He also attends the current Broadway revival for a second time. He concludes that the play "remains a touchstone work of American drama that speaks as powerfully to readers and viewers today as it did to audiences in 1949, when Miller’s dissection of the moral rot at the heart of an average American family left audiences stunned by the force of its perceptions."
His full essay is here.
March 23Poster Critiques
By STEVEN HELLER
Aside from direct advertising, a theater poster must be a mnemonic or brand that when seen evokes a sense of the play without being excessively literal. It must entice while conveying basic information. In the original poster for “Death Of A Salesman,” Joseph Hirsch’s stooped-over Willy Loman condensed the play into a single, poignant gesture. Other designers and illustrators have attempted to achieve the same visual eloquence with varying degrees of success.
Now let’s see how successful are the students at Parsons the New School for Design. Following are Steven Heller's critiques of posters submitted to The New York Times. Mr. Heller, a co-chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts, is a former art director at the Times and writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review.
While a lovely illustration, the complexity of this scene is better suited to a book jacket than a theater poster. First, the typography is not well integrated into the image. The title is disconnected from both the image and Arthur Miller’s name, which is an essential bit of information. Incidentally, the red M is superfluous. While acting as the graphic twist that draws the eye, it is liable to distract the viewer and be the only thing that is memorable.
Second, and most important, the receding doorways are confusing, not in a conceptual way, but as excess levels of visual detail. Too many rugs, and the hint of the dresser on the right is unnecessary. Emptiness would be more appropriate. What does work well, however, are the briefcase and the hat rack. If they were the only props, the mind’s eye would fill in the rest.
Isabel Castillo Guijarro
This is a smart concept, though flawed design. If not for the way-too-small title, which typographically attempts but fails to relate to the heavier outline motif, this could have been a poster for “Invisible Man.” Of course, that was Willy Loman to a great extent. He was invisible to the world. So, despite the flaws this spare poster has resonance.
Nonetheless, God is in the details. If more care were given to the outline of the vest – the line weight should be more consistent with the spectacles – and echoed in the weight of the type, then it would have greater nuanced appeal. And, please, make Arthur Miller’s name larger.
The conceptual thinking behind this poster is more resolved than its execution. But if anything comes close to the Hirsch image, this does, albeit in a more contemporary expressionistic manner. The abstracted form is representational enough, so the viewer understands it is a crestfallen individual emerging from, or being drawn into, the abyss. It may be a little over-dramatic, but appropriate to the theme.
Still, as a poster it does not do its communications job. While Arthur Miller’s name is the right size, the hand scrawled lettering is not strong enough. If that expressive mannerism is the way to go, the result should not be as timid as it is. The title should be as startling as the black smudge in the center of the composition. The integration of lettering and illustration should be perfectly in sync. Here the lettering feels as though it was an afterthought.
This succeeds as a poster on various levels. First, the type, though simple, is functionally elegant – the sans serif caps nicely compliment the window frame, which anchors the entire composition. The perspective of the window and the stark use of black forces the eye to look at the mysterious pen – and wonder, why a pen?
That questioning is the first step towards creating a memorable image. Hirsch’s stooped-over man forces the same questioning. The viewer wants an answer, and that desire brings him or her one step closer to seeing the show.
The problem with any illustration of a disembodied body part is capturing the emotion residing in that part. I’m not sure this does that, but it is a good beginning.
This is accomplished execution and effective design. Conceptually, the metaphoric collage provides just the right amount of mysterious allure. Yet I take issue with the character itself. Perhaps it is because I always see Lee J. Cobb when I conjure Willy Loman, but I just don’t see him in this face – and particularly the mustache (which I nonetheless believe is a necessary element in this overall design). Also, the figure is too rural to be Miller’s true Loman. Even the position of the hat, which should be more like a fedora, suggests the Midwest rather than the Northeast.
Saul Bass would have been pleased to see this poster, which echoes some of his own film posters, like “Anatomy of a Murder” or “Man with the Golden Arm.” It is a well-done homage, with all the right pieces in place. It further suggests the “Mad Men” advertising image. Yet despite its dynamic simplicity, it falls short. The hand and fingers look like a crab, and, rather than express the desperation of the Loman character, just look eerie. “Death of a Salesman” is anything but eerie.
The stitched lettering, however, is a nice touch, though it gets lost (Arthur Miller’s name is too faint). Still with the right hand, and a better use of typography it could be an effective image.
March 20Designs for a New Generation
The cover of the original script of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" shows a stooped-over Willy Loman, briefcase in hand, standing under a glaring spotlight with his back to the viewer. The image, designed by Joseph Hirsch, is considered a classic, and the image of a salesman has been reimagined in artwork for productions of the show for decades.
The New York Times recently asked students at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City to come up with their own versions of posters for the show. Of the entries received, below are six posters chosen by the editors as standouts, with comments from each designer about their inspiration and technique.
Who: Aija Gibson, Junior, Illustration
Because it's an older play, to make it more current things needed to be more colorful. For the title I was trying to speak to financial companies, the fonts that they use, that classic finance font. The red M in "Salesman" was to really bring it out, and think about the man being what is really important. It’s no longer just one word but it’s three words: it’s salesman, it’s sales and it’s man. This is watercolor and ink. It was put into Photoshop and I added the text and brought the color up a bit more.
I love old movie posters and graphics. I think that’s built into my sensibilities. What became key to me was the idea of what if the main character wasn't in the poster? Willy, being a traveling salesman, is either always coming or going, and at one point he’s at this standstill. A lot of the play takes place inside the house, alluding to his psyche. The absence of the central figure makes you wonder where he is.
Isabel Castillo Guijarro
Who: Isabel Castillo Guijarro, Junior, Communication Design
I watched the Dustin Hoffman movie and I realized he’s always wearing a vest. I thought it was symbolic for him. But I didn’t want to make something complicated. Some of the best design is the simplest design. I wanted to give importance to the outline of the vest and glasses instead of the title and the author. The red is more attractive to the eye. There are shadows on the edges. There’s a vintage look to the salesman. It looks like he's been used, like he's been around for a long time.
The outline is made with Illustrator. The background is made in Photoshop. On the edges there are scratches, which are brushstrokes scanned into the computer. The shadows from the edges are scanned watercolors.
Who: Ashley Butler, Freshman, Illustration
I wanted the figure to represent a salesman, struggling and appearing from this dark mass. I previously did a series on smoking, including one piece about someone trying to quit smoking. I did the same idea of a skeleton struggling to come to life from the butt of a cigarette. When I planned this piece, that was the idea: this figure trying to survive out of this chaos, and in a sense come to life. The characters are burdened with this fantasy of the American dream, but they're not fulfilling it. They're trying to become themselves and to make it, but they put up so many expectations that they can’t really do it.
The paper I used was very absorbent. I dyed it with tea and coffee and then I half dried it. The huge black mass is liquid ink. I dripped it onto the paper when it was damp so that it could spread easier. Then I created this saltwater solution and sprayed it over the black mass. Where it has the little gray area and a wish-wash look to it, that’s sprayed water. The figure and text were drawn in pen.
My father is a CEO of a company back home in Dubai. In the last year my father has made millions and I'm working paycheck to paycheck. I've struggled to get my own life started out. I would say the poster says struggle, dark, burdened. I try my best to always put a little bit of me in my pieces.
Who: Alina Petrichyn, Senior, Design Technology
It’s the moment when Biff goes for his interview and he gets so upset he doesn't know what to do, so he steals the fountain pen and runs down the stairs and pauses to stop and stare outside into the sky. He realizes this is not for him, and that Willy's got to stop pushing him to become a businessman because that's not who he is. I found that moment to be striking. I wanted to take a different approach and really capture an important scene of the play.
The hand and the building are hand drawn by pencil. I put it into Photoshop and I did the text and the silhouette of the window to give it a more striking approach. Originally I drew the window but I felt the black had more impact.
I think my poster conveys more of a serious message or tone. There’s no color. The black is overwhelming and very strong. The play is not very happy.
Who: Nick Vidovich, Senior, Communication Design
Most of the play you spend trying to understand the motives behind the characters' actions. This allows you to see into Willy’s head and see where his mind is at the entire play. It’s more like a visual metaphor, as if his head had turned into a screen. He's deteriorating mentally and physically throughout the play, and that's where the idea of him fading away came from.
The play opens and there have been a series of suspicious car accidents. Willy's very secretive about it. There's this idea that these crashes are always on his mind. We can see past his world-worn eyes and get an idea of what's happening behind the look.
It's a composite of images from the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery and Wikipedia Commons, public domain stuff. It’s a composite of about four or five different images. I looked at headshots to create the character, but I wasn't paying attention to where they came from. It was more important that the images were correct in their mood and textures and narrative. The hat is mine.
Who: Erik Freer, Senior, Communication Design
I was inspired by the idea of the current economic climate in the U.S., and this discussion of disillusionment that's happening in the play and in this country. The motif of the briefcase is something that's prevalent in a lot of posters for the play and I wanted to riff on that. It's all done in Illustrator.
Saul Bass was an inspiration. He did a lot of work in the 50s and 60s in a lot of film posters. He was basically the primary graphic designer for Alfred Hitchcock films. I was excited about the idea of a graphic reduction of a sense of paranoia, of tension.
Interviews conducted and condensed by Erik Piepenburg.
March 16Share Your Thoughts on the Current Production
While the new Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman” has been in previews, we have been discouraging readers of our series devoted to re-examining the play from giving their responses to the production, since a stage production is a work in progress until opening night – and often beyond. It opened officially last night, and the critics, including The New York Times’s Ben Brantley, have weighed in with their opinions. Now feel free to share your thoughts on the current staging.
Did the re-creation of the famous Jo Mielziner set frame the play for you in a new way? Did Philip Seymour Hoffman, a relatively young actor undertaking the role, bring particular insights that surprised you? Has the director Mike Nichols found the key to reanimating the play for our current, economically uncertain era? As the discussion opens up in the coming weeks I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts on the production, but for now I’d like to hear from the readers who have been following along with our ongoing discussion of this great American play.
Keep in mind, however, that if you attended an early preview the production may have evolved considerably since you’ve seen it. And of course a live theatrical performance inevitably changes in small ways from night to night. In a sense everyone in the audience is seeing a new “Death of a Salesman” each time the curtain rises on any production.
March 15Behind the Poster: Soulpepper Theater Company
Where:Soulpepper Theater Company, Toronto
Who:Brian Stauffer, freelance illustrator (including for The New York Times); Anthony Swaneveld, art director
When: Oct. 16 — Nov. 20, 2010
The third in a series of interviews with designers of artwork for past productions of "Death of a Salesman."
BRIAN STAUFFER: I do a lot of social issue illustrations. This one came pretty easily to me. I did about 30 sketches for it, all about the end of a life that was unfulfilled and was full of disillusion. I went back and forth with the art director and we decided on this idea of Willy descending into himself, into his life. It also looks gravelike. It was this downward step to the end of his life.
I start with a pencil sketch that I scan into the computer. The background is printed ink that I’ve rolled out and scanned. Everything else is a combination of scanned textures from old magazines from the 20s and 30s. The clothing I took from parts of curtains and towels from old ads. I go into those scanned bits of visual imagery and I’ll find a wrinkle or a curve or something and I build it into something unrelated. The hands are drawn and the face is drawn but combined with textures. Part of his face is from an old tin can that I have a scan of. His hat I think was just flat textures. It is collage, but atypical collage. I use textures in the way people use paint.
The red almost feels like old wallpaper. It feels pulpy in a way that this play feels to me, kind of noir-y. The fact that he is alone and facing this reality of desolation and desperation is what I was going for. Not the kind of desperation that’s frantic, but more someone standing and having a real moment.
Interview conducted and condensed by Erik Piepenburg.
March 15The Good Wife
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Elizabeth Franz and Brian Dennehy in the 1999 Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman."
The first and last words in “Death of a Salesman” belong not to Willy – perhaps obviously – or even his son Biff, whose conflict with his father drives the drama to its fatal conclusion. They come from Linda, Willy’s dutiful, loving wife. The play’s first line is, significantly, simply her husband’s name, called out anxiously in the night: “Willy!” His unexpected arrival home signals another potential turning point in his descent, which Linda has been watching with sorrowful anxiety for some time.
The play’s last words are Linda’s plaintive, bewildered declaration, “We’re free …. we’re free.” She is referring to having made the last payment on the mortgage, and is consumed with anguish at the idea that Willy cannot celebrate this landmark. But the line resonates darkly on any number of ironic levels. Willy has escaped the burdens of his life and its disappointments only by ending it.
The character of Willy naturally dominates “Death of a Salesman.” It is his losing battle against spiritual and economic defeat that provides the narrative spine of the play. But the character of Linda Loman has stirred much critical commentary, as well as many of your comments accompanying this series devoted to the play. So I thought it might be a good time to open up a discussion about her role and how she has been perceived by actresses, audiences and critics.
Is she, as some have asserted, a classic “enabler,” coddling Willy in his delusions? Does her fierce need to defend him ultimately help destroy him? Or is she the powerful protector who has kept the family from falling into the abyss through her dogged insistence on encouraging Willy’s optimism and the hope that he and Biff can reconcile their differences?
There are arguments to be made on both sides of the case. Some critics have decried Miller’s depiction of Linda as “a dumb and useful doormat,” as Rhoda Koenig put it in an article for the Sunday Times of London. But the relationship between Willy and Linda is not simply one of a man who takes his wife for granted. “You’re my foundation and my support,” Willy tells Linda in the first scene, in a rare moment of clear insight.
True, Willy’s inconsistencies are such that, just a few scenes later, he is curtly and rudely batting away her mild attempts at injecting herself into the conversation between him and Biff, in his deluded enthusiasm for Biff’s plans to make it big in business: “Don’t interrupt,” “Stop interrupting,” “Will you stop!” Linda, the docile wife used to suiting herself to Willy’s mercurial moods, takes no umbrage.
But if in her exchanges with Willy Linda remains passive, she is the primary instigator in orchestrating the family’s desperate attempts to keep him from disintegrating entirely. She knows that achieving peace between Biff and Willy is crucial to his survival: as much as Willy is aggravated by Biff’s wayward path through life, she knows that his sense of achievement is bound up in the belief that his sons – and particularly Biff – can redeem his failings. “Biff, his life is in your hands!” she tells her son, after having shamefacedly told Biff and Happy that Willy has contemplated – and attempted – suicide.
Some critics have denigrated Linda for not having the courage to confront Willy about these attempts, but Linda possesses such keen intelligence about her husband’s frailties that she knows that he lacks the emotional wherewithal to meet any such confrontation with anything other than furious denial – as indeed he does when Biff finally does force the truth into the open.
In a letter written to the cast a few months after the show opened on Broadway, the director Elia Kazan, admonishing them to sharpen up their performances, defined Linda as “a woman who alone has carried the pain and the weariness and the discouragement of a lifetime with Willy. She is worn to the nub. Physically exhausted and carrying on on nerve alone. She wouldn’t ever show this to Willy, and this makes her more and more tired. Above all, she is frightened to death. The central fact is that she loves him and that from day to day she expects his suicide, news of his death.”
Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond in the Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman."
The playwright himself often emphasized the character’s deep reserves of strength. Describing Elizabeth Franz's performance, in the 50th anniversary revival in 1999, Miller, quoted in Christopher Bigsby’s biography, noted, “She has discovered in the role the basic underlying powerful protectiveness, which comes out as fury and that in the past, in every performance I know of, was simply washed out.”
I, too, recall the searing fury of Ms. Franz’s great performance, but it was only one among many colors she found in the role. Alongside the fury was a kind of overwhelming warmth that seemed to emanate from her frail frame and her uncertain smile and pull Willy back from the brink just in time.
Linda is, inevitably and rightly, a woman of her time. But she is far from a hollow stereotype of the wife as a mere appendage to her husband. “She has the intelligence to run a large office if that had been her fate,” Miller once said. “After all, it is she who keeps the accounts, it is she who is marshaling the forces, such as they are, that might save Willy.”
It is telling, too that not just the first and last lines of the play belong to Linda. She also delivers perhaps the most famous line of dialogue, speaking to her sons of Willy’s downward-spiraling life: “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” She is the play’s moral conscience; the steely will and fierce, intuitive intelligence that Miller reveals beneath the docility makes for a character worthy of as much attention as Willy himself.
March 14The Traveling Salesman Problem
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Courtesy of Pamela Walker Laird
Commercial Traveller board game, McLoughlin Brothers.
Willy Loman, the tragic hero in the current Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” may think he has problems. But it turns out he’s got nothing on the hypothetical road warriors in William J. Cook’s new book, “In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman: Mathematics at the Limits of Computation,” who are pushed to visit hundreds, thousands, even millions of different cities, mostly in pursuit of someone else’s mathematical glory.
Mr. Cook, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, offers a cheerful biography of the Traveling Salesman Problem, which was born as a major mathematical preoccupation in the late 1940s, around the same time as Loman himself, but has gone on to have a far more satisfying career. Today, the problem — which essentially involves finding the most efficient route between a list of geographical points — is a key concept in applied efficiency research and is used to direct telescopes, manufacture customized computer chips, route school buses, map genomes, speed up video games, and even, Mr. Cook notes, “minimize wallpaper waste.” In Arthur Miller’s play Loman’s route between New York and New England is punishing enough that early in the drama he mulls a transfer. A firmer grip on the Traveling Salesman Problem might have saved him at least some of his exhaustion.
Not that the technology available at the time would have necessarily been enough to solve it. As Mr. Cook explains, tackling even a modest version of this puzzle simply by measuring and adding up each leg requires staggering numbers of calculations, even by the standards of today’s computers. Mapping out an optimized route for a 33-city version of the problem used in a 1962 contest sponsored by Procter & Gamble, Mr. Cook notes, involves measuring 131,565,418,466,846,765,083,609,006,080,000,000 possible routes, which would take the Department of Energy’s $133 million Roadrunner supercomputer roughly 28 trillion years. (Note that the universe itself is only 14 billion years old.) As a result, the real challenge in solving the Traveling Salesman Problem has to do with finding mathematical shortcuts that allow one to determine the most efficient route without simply measuring each one.
In his book, Mr. Cook offers plenty of history to go with his math, starting with the 18th-century mathematicians who pondered efficient river crossings in Germany and the more practical problems of Abraham Lincoln, who as a circuit-riding lawyer in the 1850s had to travel among 14 different Illinois courthouses. The Traveling Salesman Problem was described in the early 19th century, but it was a problem without a name until 1949, when the mathematician Julia Robinson first used the term in a paper. (That’s the same year Miller’s play opened.)
Courtesy of William J. Cook
Map showing an optimal tour through 33 cities in a 1962 Procter and Gamble contest.
Procter & Gamble’s 33-city contest, presented as a way of helping Officers Toody and Muldoon from the television show “Car 54, Where Are You?” went unsolved in 1962. (Mr. Cook’s own, more recent solution is mapped above.) But in 1971, a team from I.B.M. solved it for 64 cities, and mathematicians have been pushing the salesman farther and farther ever since.
Today’s record, set in 2006, maps the location of 85,900 connections on a customized computer chip. But even after decades of hard solving, there’s still plenty of new territory to conquer. Mr. Cook and some colleagues have put together a (still unsolved) 1,904,711-point World Traveling Salesman Problem, which takes in every city, town and village in the world, plus a few Antarctic research stations. Meanwhile, the Clay Mathematics Institute is offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can show whether the Traveling Salesman Problem can be fully solved at all, which the mathematician Jordan Ellenberg recently called “the biggest open problem in complexity theory.”
It’s still not clear if that ultimate solution would bring on a global apocalypse (as happens in Charles Stross’s 2001 science-fiction short story “Antibodies”) or usher in an age of unparalleled abundance, allowing optimization of resources that “would make the whole Internet look like a footnote in history,” as the computer scientist Lance Fortnow has argued. Mr. Cook thinks the problem may not be fully solvable at all, leaving hypothetical Willy Lomans wandering indefinitely. “The salesman may defeat us in the end,” Mr. Cook writes, “but not without a good fight.”
March 13Behind the Poster: Old Globe Theater
Where:Old Globe Theater, San Diego
Who:Brian Anstey, freelance designer
When: Jan. 22 — Feb. 27, 2011
The second in a series of interviews with designers of artwork for past productions of "Death of a Salesman."
BRIAN ANSTEY: As we were preparing the season brochure, the show hadn’t been cast yet. I thought it was important to represent the Willy Loman character in there somehow. We didn’t want to put a person that’s identifiable on the poster, and that proposed some challenges.
I played around with the concepts of business and salesmen, and in my mind came the image of cards and a traveling salesman. We married it with this image of a man with his hands over his face, sitting down and looking depressed, down on his luck. It’s a simple, graphic image for the tone of the play.
It’s probably four or five images that we pieced together. We added some lighting effects and tweaked the color so it seemed vintage. In a way there’s a spotlight going on that’s highlighting the cards, but he’s deliberately in shadow. It draws your eye to the title.
Interview conducted and condensed by Erik Piepenburg.
March 9Playing Charley in ‘Death of a Salesman’
Gabe Johnson and Julie Bloom/The New York Times
The veteran stage actor Bill Camp talks about his performance in Arthur Miller’s classic play.
March 8The 'Tragic Hero' Question
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine
A scene from the Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman," with, from left, Andrew Garfield, Finn Wittrock, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond.
Willy Loman: tragic hero or pathetic loser?
I put the question facetiously, but as we have embarked upon this examination of one of America’s greatest plays I’ve noticed that several readers have taken up the issue of whether Willy Loman deserves the designation “tragic hero.” The phrase is often used in discussions of the play, and Arthur Miller himself engaged the idea of tragedy in a contemporary context in a pair of essays — “The Tragedy of the Common Man,” first published in The New York Times, and “The Name of Tragedy,” published in The New York Herald Tribune — shortly after the play opened on Broadway in 1949. I thought readers might be interested in Miller’s conception of tragedy, so here are a few excerpts from those pieces:
From: “The Tragedy of the Common Man”
As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea and Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society.
Sometimes he is one who has been displaced from it, sometimes one who seeks to attain it for the first time, but the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity, and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.
The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.
Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible.
From “The Name of Tragedy”
To my mind the essential difference, and the precise difference, between tragedy and pathos is that tragedy brings us not only sadness, sympathy, identification and even fear; it also, unlike pathos, brings us knowledge or enlightenment.
As Aristotle said, the poet is greater than the historian because he presents not only things as they were, but foreshadows what they might have been. We forsake literature when we are content to chronicle disaster. Tragedy, therefore, is inseparable from a certain modest hope regarding the human animal. And it is the glimpse of this brighter possibility that raises sadness out of the pathetic toward the tragic.
Miller’s definition of tragedy may not satisfy all classicists — he dismisses out of hand the idea that only noble figures are worthy of the genre, for the sensible reason that nobility has largely vanished from modern culture as a serious idea. He was of the mind that “the idea of tragedy is constantly changing” and “will never be finally defined.”
But does Willy fit even Miller’s definition of a man who is moved by “the compulsion to evaluate himself justly”? The question is open to interpretation.
Willy has moments when he is struck with flickering impressions of self-knowledge — as when he confesses to his brother Ben that he feels “kind of temporary” about himself” — but he spends more time distracting himself from the truth about his failings, and in sacrificing his life to allow his family to collect money from his insurance policy, he is still clinging to the false ideal of human achievement as a mere matter of dollars and cents and getting ahead. In a sense his tragedy is his inability to see himself clearly — his lack of self-knowledge — which would seem to contradict a strict definition of the tragic hero. And yet self-knowledge does come to Willy’s son Biff, who by the end of the play has come to see both his own failings and his father’s, and desperately tries to make his father see them too.
Does “Death of a Salesman” also contain hints of a “brighter possibility” for Willy that would raise it, according to Miller’s definition, out of pathos into tragedy? I would argue again that if we look at the Lomans as an entirety, the gradual emergence of Biff from the traps of family myths to a clear-eyed awareness of the damage they have done argues for just such a possibility in his future, despite Willy’s misbegotten fate.
Milller believed it was fitting to center a tragic view of the human condition on “the heart and spirit of the average man.” Do readers think “Death of a Salesman” fulfills the necessary condition of tragedy? Do we emerge from it “enlightened”? Or is the possibility of tragedy as it was classically defined out of step with the contemporary world?
March 8Jo Mielziner and the 'Salesman' Set
By ERIK PIEPENBURG
Audio: Mike Nichols, Director
The Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" recreates Jo Mielziner's set design for the original Broadway production in 1949. Click on the audio link at left to hear the director, Mike Nichols, talk about why he chose to use Mielziner's designs for the revival. The slide show includes several of Mielziner's original sketches.
Reminder: Please don’t give us your review of the current production yet. It’s still in previews and there are many of us who haven’t seen it. Our critic will be there for opening night on March 15, and after that we'll welcome your reviews.
March 7Mike Nichols, Following in Kazan’s Footsteps
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Eileen Darby/Keystone Features/Getty Images
Lee J Cobb, seated, with Arthur Kennedy, left, and Cameron Mitchell in the 1949 production of "Death of a Salesman."
Mike Nichols has been a pre-eminent director in both theater and film since the 1960s. He has taken home a staggering seven Tony awards as best director, for work ranging from four Neil Simon comedies to Tom Stoppard’s “Real Thing” to the musical “Spamalot.” His movie career has spanned an equally wide range, from his debut with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the countercultural landmarks “The Graduate” (for which he won an Oscar) and “Catch-22” to popular comedies like “Working Girl” and “The Birdcage.”
His fluency and popularity in both stage and film echo that of Elia Kazan, who was the foremost stage director of his generation, known for his work with both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and a successful film movie director too. There are other parallels: Both men began their careers as actors before moving into directing. Mr. Nichols is now directing the new Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” one of Kazan’s signature works along with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
I recently sat down over soup at the Café Edison to talk to him about his approach to the show and his relationship with Kazan. These are edited excerpts from the conversation:
- CHARLES ISHERWOOD: I understand you saw the original 1949 production of “Death of a Salesman.”
- MIKE NICHOLS: I had a girlfriend in high school whose mother gave us theater tickets. She did it exactly twice, and the plays were “Streetcar Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman.” I remember every moment of “Streetcar,” because it was so shocking — both 100 percent poetic and 100 percent real at the same time. I couldn’t direct a production of “Streetcar.” Oddly, though, I don’t remember “Salesman.” And I’m happy to say that.
- ISHERWOOD: In some ways Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman are oddly similar, despite their obvious dissimilarities. They both are caught up in fantasies about the past and find it hard to reconcile the past with the present. They are both doomed dreamers.
- NICHOLS: Whether it was Kazan, or Kazan and the two writers, someone discovered something which hadn’t been expressed before. That madness is circular: it’s like being a hamster in a cage. People go around and around and around. Any semi-crazy episode is something that keeps circling, and your friends can’t shut you up and you can’t let it go. Both plays were based on that: the inimical past was making Blanche and Willy crazy and wouldn’t let go. They couldn’t get off that wheel.
- ISHERWOOD: Although you say you don’t recall much about the original “Death of a Salesman,” you are incorporating some key elements from that original production, including the incidental music and the Jo Mielziner set, an abstraction of the Loman house. What was behind that decision?
- NICHOLS: When you do a classic, a play that has had a life a long time before you got here, you have to find out what the original impulse was. If you are an actor going into a show, and you’re the third actor in the role, and the stage manager teaches it to you, you have no idea what you’re doing. You have to go back to why did they come into this? What were they doing?
Originally Miller set the play inside Willy’s skull. Kazan and Jo Mielziner suggested the set, and Miller rewrote for it. I had to go into the roots of that to understand how the form of the play came about. The set created very strong effects. It is so fluid that you can be anywhere and suddenly you are back home. You dissolve from one scene to the other; it’s a little bit like a movie, although the play is not suitable to movies and television because those mediums are so real. Real kitchens and subways and other things don’t admit things that are beyond real in the play, in the realm of poetry.
Alex North’s score we are using for two reasons. For one it’s a very good score, and oddly it’s the one thing I do remember from seeing the play. He did the score for my first movie, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” so I had an attachment to him. We had a particularly good relationship. He was very supportive to me, and he was a good friend to me making the movie.
- ISHERWOOD: Was Kazan’s work a direct influence when you began your career?
- NICHOLS: I had certain heroes always. For movies it was George Stevens, Billy Wilder and François Truffaut. But for plays it was Kazan, although he did movies also. Various people have various definitions of the job of director. Lee Strasberg or Harold Clurman said acting is reacting to imaginary circumstances as though they were real. Kazan said directing is turning psychology into behavior.
When I was starting out as an actor with the Compass players in Chicago, I remember seeing Kazan’s production of “Tea and Sympathy” at about the same time as “On the Waterfront.” I kept thinking: “We are O.K. We say the lines as well as we can. But the people in Kazan’s work are living their lives up there.”
Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in the Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman."
- ISHERWOOD: You eventually came to know Kazan.
- NICHOLS: The first time I ever met him was at a party at [the producer] Irene Selznick’s. He made a beeline for two people in a row, talked to them and then left. That’s how he behaved. He was an intensely concentrated guy. After we’d talked for a few minutes, I would have told him anything. You just wanted to tell him everything that had ever happened to you. Later we had a casual friendship and would meet for lunch, although by that time all he wanted to talk about was [women].
- ISHERWOOD: Do you consider this production a sort of homage to the original?
- NICHOLS: We’re quite different. When you’ve learned what something is about, you’re free to do it your own way. What “Salesman” was about was not a mystery. But learning how they went about it was very useful. We’ve found our own approach.
There are so many secrets in this play. Great plays are like life: they are complicated, and you can choose your themes. One of the things that’s so exciting is that this play is so much about right now. “Streetcar” is about then: there is no Blanche anymore. She doesn’t exist in this time. Willy does. People are counting the pennies again: “We owe $28 on this, and you gave me $50 at Christmas. Fixing the water heater will cost $97.50.” We have that again. Go figure.
I can’t say this was exclusively why I wanted to do the play, though. I wanted to do it because I wanted to do it a certain way that can only be described by seeing it. I wanted it to be about the central American relationship, which is father and son. That is a very American thing.
- ISHERWOOD: How does your production reanimate that central relationship?
- NICHOLS: I’ve got three guys [Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock] that are athletes in the show, which has never happened before. You see something about the family in the physical act of throwing the football. And this is what happens all throughout the play: You realize that these are guys who really do seem to need to be outdoors. That’s who they are. Including Willy. Willy is an ex-athlete who is great with his hands. He should have been a carpenter. Suddenly you have a whole different play.
- ISHERWOOD: You are known for many things, including an affinity for comedy. Do you find humor to be an element of “Death of a Salesman”?
- NICHOLS: There’s no great play that doesn’t have funny things in it. It’s not possible. “Hamlet” and “King Lear” have laughs. “Salesman” has laughs, and also it breaks your heart. The two things are not inimical. The whole point is to think: “This is what life is really like. This is my family.” And when it gets there, you’re halfway to what Arthur Miller wanted.
March 6Behind the Poster: Vancouver Playhouse
The history of “Death of a Salesman” has unfolded offstage as well as on. Part of it has taken the form of promotional materials, hundreds of posters and brochures designed for scores of productions over the years. We’ll take a look at some of them here and chat with some of the artists who created them.
Where:Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, British Columbia
Who: Karie McKinley, designer; Alfred Meikleham, photographer; Olaf Strassner, art director
When: Feb. 12 — March 5, 2011
KARIE McKINLEY: This was one of a series of five images for the playhouse’s five productions that year. We wanted to bring the themes of those plays into the Vancouver vernacular. We shot them outside and inside places of interest in the city. The actor in the shoot is Tom McBeath, who played Willy Loman.
That alley is a quintessential Vancouver alley. You can see in the top left-hand corner the Harbor Center Tower, a Vancouver landmark. It was shot in one of the lowest income-per-capita areas in all of Canada. The image was strong enough and detailed enough that we didn’t want to use highly-designed play titles. We used Univers 55, a really clean, contemporary typography.
The idea was to have a present-day guy who hit rock bottom. His eye is looking back, and he’s not looking at you. He came out the back door of his job, he walked up this alley and he’s going back home to tell his wife he doesn’t have a job anymore. The look has an old feel because of his clothing, but you know it is today, right now. I think it says, “Come and see this play. You will relate to it. It can be then. It can be now. It can be you.”
Interview conducted and condensed by Erik Piepenburg.
March 1A Conversation With Charles Isherwood and Joe Nocera
Detail of the original playbill for "Death of a Salesman."
Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” has unusual currency in today’s economic climate. As part of our conversation about the play as it returns to Broadway, I invited the New York Times columnist Joe Nocera – an avid theater buff, not incidentally -- to talk about how this classic play holds a mirror up to American culture, and in particular the culture of American business. Please join the conversation by putting your ideas and questions into the comments section at right, or tweet them using the hash tag #salesmanqs.
- CHARLES ISHERWOOD: The stock market may be roaring, but we are still deep in recovery and unemployment is rife. Do you agree that the play has a fresh urgency in this environment?
- JOE NOCERA: I tend to think that there is never a bad time to revive "Death of A Salesman," not just because it is such a great play but because it has so much to say about who we are as Americans. We strive endlessly; we're fueled by ambition; we often measure ourselves by how much money we have, and so on. Here in the age of income inequality--a time when we haven't yet recovered from the financial crisis, and millions of Americans are searching for work--it surely hits home when Willy Loman is fired, after 36 loyal years to his company, by the wealthy (and altogether supercilious) son of the man who had hired him all those many years ago.
Yet as much as that scene speaks to this moment, it also transcends it. In the business world, the 1950s and 1960s was the era of "The Organization Man" (a phrase coined by the great journalist William Whyte). The implicit bargain was that if employees were loyal to their company, the company would be loyal to them.
- ISHERWOOD: What a quaint idea, from the increasingly distant 20th century.
- NOCERA: That compact broke down a long time ago--as corporations began to place "shareholder value" over all other values, and firing employees became something executives did whenever the share price dropped. That has been the corporate ethos for at least 30 years. How could Arthur Miller have known that the plight of Willy Loman would eventually be the plight of tens of millions of white collar workers who had outlived their usefulness to the companies they had devoted their lives to, and had derived their sense of self from? He was prophetic.
- ISHERWOOD: At the end of the play Willy's son Happy is still essentially buying into the idea that helped destroy Willy. He says, "It's the only dream you can have -- to come out No. 1 man." Does our cultural obsession with mega-millionaires and dot-com moguls promulgate the same idea even more ferociously today?
- NOCERA: We've always been culturally obsessed with wealth, and especially with the idea of striking it rich. I lived in Texas in the early 1980s, long before anybody had ever heard of a dot-com, or a hedge fund. Back then, it was the oil boom that fueled the imagination of the young men (they were invariably men) who were starting companies on the fly in the hope of hitting a gusher that would make them rich.
When Happy looks at his father, I think, he doesn't so much see a man who was destroyed by his dream as he sees a man who failed at achieving his dream -- and that failure is what destroyed him. He sees his uncle Ben, who went to Alaska as a teenager and was -- as he constantly reminds Willy -- rich by the time he was 21. So Hap thinks: I can do it, even if my father couldn't. Hasn't Hap's desire always been a powerful part of the American psyche? I think it has. (In a rather different context, isn't this what George W. Bush thought about his own father)?
- ISHERWOOD: Oddly enough the other day it struck me that Bernie Madoff is in some ways a Willy Loman morphed into both a success and a monster. Here was another man who found it impossible to admit that his business -- his life -- was a failure; he had to sustain the illusion of success at all costs. Of course Madoff escaped his predicament by becoming a crook.
- NOCERA: Your Madoff thought reminds me how much delusion is at the heart of "Death of A Salesman." I have no doubt that Madoff deluded himself while committing his fraud; in the early years of the fraud, especially, he clung to the notion that he would eventually be able to get out of his predicament and make his investors whole without anyone being the wiser.
Willy Loman has spent his life being deluded about his place in the world; that is one of the saddest things about the play. He convinces himself that he is "well-liked" and well-known, that the old days were idyllic, that he makes more money than he actually makes, that he can open doors with the sheer force of his personality, that his sons are just one step away from financial success. His wife indulges his delusions and, to an extent, shares them. Hap has his own delusions about his place in the world. And so on.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The New York Times
Christopher Lloyd played Willy Loman in a 2010 production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Weston Playhouse, in Weston, Vt.
- ISHERWOOD: Do you think today's leveraged buyout guys or corporate titans would feel any pangs upon seeing the way Willy is treated? I read the other day that after seeing the play back in 1949 the head of Gimbel's department stores sent forth an edict that no one was to be fired for being over-age.
- NOCERA: What a wonderful anecdote! I so hope it is true. But I can't imagine the play affecting any corporate titan like that today. (They have foundations to assuage the guilt.) Let's face it: Willy Loman had outlived his usefulness to the company, and if his boss had allowed him to come off the road and work in the office -- as he was hoping at the age of 63 -- it would have been an act of generosity. There was a time -- there really was -- when companies did that. They don't anymore.
That is why, to get back to your original question, we can have a soaring stock market and high unemployment. The market rewards companies for being able to do more and more with fewer people.
- ISHERWOOD: Thanks for your insights, Joe, but of course we both know that "Death of a Salesman" is not a play entirely about business. I'm not sure I know of any good plays that are merely about business. David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" and Caryl Churchill's "Serious Money," for instance, like "Salesman," are about much larger ideas too.
- NOCERA: As are all great plays! There are plays specifically about business, but even though Willy is a salesman, "Death of a Salesman" is not one of them, it seems to me. It has been a pleasure talking to you, Charles -- digitally speaking. Let's do it again some time.
IntroLife of a ‘Salesman’: An Online Discussion
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Attention will be paid.
For the next few weeks I’ll be leading an online discussion here about the high hopes and hard life of one of the American theater’s most famous characters. Willy Loman, and the play that immortalized him, Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic “Death of a Salesman,” are returning to Broadway in a new production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
It’s a great chance to dust off old memories and old texts and to ask new questions. Does the play’s implicit criticism of the American ideal of success feel compelling today? If you saw it years ago, maybe even in high school, will it still have the power to provoke?
I’ll explore these questions and others with actors, directors, scholars and others. Please join the conversation by putting your ideas and questions into the comments section below, or tweet them using the hash tag #salesmanqs so that I can include them when I sit down with my guests.
I started with an essay in the Feb. 26 issue of Arts & Leisure exploring some of the reasons the play feels timely to me. This week I’ll be joined by the Times business columnist Joe Nocera to talk about how it resonates in today’s economic climate. We’ll also be hearing from traveling salesmen, on whether they continue to feel that they’re “out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” as Charley’s eulogy of Willy has it.
Later on I’ll talk to Mike Nichols, who directs the new production, about the influence of the original Elia Kazan production on the current one, which opens March 15. If you want to ask Mr. Nichols some questions, please pass them along.
As is often the case with classic plays or novels we’ve lived with for most of our lives, “Death of a Salesman” can seem entirely different each time we renew our acquaintance with it. If your first exposure came in high school and you haven’t read or seen it since, you may be surprised at stylistic innovations that barely registered at the time. Pick it up and see if the same thing happens for you.
The debate the play ignited over whether a common man could properly be the subject of true tragedy has by now waned, with its stature in the canon having firmly answered in the affirmative. But given how often “Salesman” is produced — the last major New York revival, with Brian Dennehy, was in 1999 — discussion remains lively about the actors who take these unforgettable parts. Was Dustin Hoffman — so much smaller than Mr. Dennehy or Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role — an ideal Willy? Please get ready to share memories of the production – or performance — that meant the most or taught you something new.
My own recent researches into the play brought fresh revelations. I was struck by Miller’s confession that he laughed throughout its composition at Willy’s contradictions and was slightly taken aback when audiences greeted the play as a profoundly sad one.
When I turned to the play I saw exactly where the humor resided and found myself laughing along with Miller. It is indeed funny how Willy can deride his son Biff as a “lazy bum” in one breath and three lines later emphatically tell his wife that “there’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.” These inconsistencies are, of course, what makes Willy such a consistently human character — and why we are still talking about him more than 50 years later.
Readers, we’ve appreciated your comments. One request: Please don’t give us your review of the current production yet. It’s in previews and there are many of us who haven’t seen it. We also think it’s only fair to give the actors and directors a chance to iron out any kinks. Our critic will be there for opening night and after that we’ll all talk and welcome your reviews. In the meantime, there are so many more topics to discuss.
The play opens to the protagonist, Willy Loman returning from a business trip that has been cancelled. After talking the matter over with his wife, Linda, Willy decides to speak to his boss, and ask to work closer to home. As well as Willy's dissatisfaction with his work, his son, Biff has returned home to visit. This opens up old issues about Biff's lack of achievements. When Willy begins muttering to himself, Biff and his brother, Happy begin to talk about their childhood and discuss the possibility of buying a ranch (farm) out in the West of the country. Meanwhile, Willy begins a series of complex daydreams.
In the daydream, Biff and Happy are younger, and they are washing Willy's car. Willy talks about his hopes for the future, including opening a business more successful than that of his neighbour, Charley. Charley's son Bernard encourages Biff to study for a Maths test, which leads Willy to tell Biff that while Charley is intelligent, Biff is popular, which is more important, particularly in the world of sales. Willy tells his wife that his business trip was extremely successful, although admits later that this was not the case. He worries openly about affording payments on the car and other luxuries, all of which have been bought on credit.
Willy then has a daydream within a daydream, and begins fantasising about 'The Woman', a lady he once had an affair with. After flirting with her briefly, this daydream abruptly ends, and he is back in the original hallucination with Linda. After shouting at Linda and Bernard in his dream, he snaps out and back to reality, where he is consoled by the adult Happy. Although Willy is no longer daydreaming, he begins to mutter to Happy about missing an opportunity to go to Alaska with his brother, who later became rich.
After Happy goes to bed, Willy and Charley play cards. Charley offers Willy a job, although Willy turns him down. During the game, Willy hallucinates that his brother Ben has entered the room, and begins to talk with him. Charley sees Willy talking to himself and begins to question Willy's sanity. Willy shouts at Charley, who quickly leaves the house. Willy's daydream continues and he hallucinates Ben meeting the younger Linda. Charley and Bernard also enter the daydream to tell Willy that Happy and Biff are stealing wood. Willy continues to talk to Ben.
Outside of the daydream, Linda finds Willy muttering to himself outside. Biff and Happy witness their father's madness, although Linda warns the boys against judging him too harshly. Linda mentions that Willy has attempted suicide, and Biff states that Willy is a fake. Happy, defending his father, criticises Biff's failures in the business world. After Willy joins in the attack on Biff, Happy suggests that the two sons start a business together, and identifies Biff's old boss, Bill as a potential source of a loan. After peace seems to settle within the house, the characters all go to bed, and Act I ends on this scene.
Act II continues with the sense of peace that Act I finished with. Willy is eating breakfast, although he quickly becomes angry at the cost of the items in the kitchen, showing he is stressed about money. Linda passes on a message from Biff and Happy that they will take him out to dinner in the evening, and Willy reiterates his plan to ask his boss for a locally (New York-based) job. Biff and Linda speak on the phone, and Linda asks him to be nice to Willy at dinner.
Willy goes to ask his boss Howard, for a job change, but Howard only seems interested in playing a voice recording of his wife and children that he has made. When Willy eventually gets through to Howard, he rejects his request for a local job, and instead is told to take some time off because Howard is worried about his health. After Howard leaves, Willy again begins to daydream - talking to Ben and a younger Linda. The two represent different propositions: Ben wants Willy to move to Alaska, but Linda says that Willy must stay and look after his children. Willy states that Biff has great prospects because he is popular.
Willy continues to daydream about Biff, imagining that he is about to play a big American football game, talking to Charley and Bernard about the match. Willy is eventually snapped out of his daydream by the real-life Bernard. Willy tells Bernard that Biff is about to conduct a big business deal. However, when Bernard mentions that he is going to Washington D.C. to fight a case (Bernard is a lawyer), Willy seems to show vulnerability and asks Bernard why Biff has never made a success of his life. Bernard pinpoints an incident that took place in Boston that changed Biff's outlook on life. Willy clearly knows what Bernard is talking about and becomes defensive, although doesn't reveal what the event was.
Charley arrives, and Willy asks him for money. Willy implies that this is a regular occurrence. Willy asks Charley for more money, and Charley once again offers Willy a job. After Willy refuses but admits he was fired, Charley begins to criticise Willy for needing always to be popular. Willy is clearly upset by this and leaves.
Willy meets Biff and Happy at the restaurant. Happy has been flirting with a girl waiting for Biff to arrive, and Biff tells Happy that he failed to get the loan from Bill. Willy announces that he was fired, and so Happy tries to pacify Willy by hinting that they got the loan. Biff eventually has had enough and yells at Willy for never listening. This prompts Willy into another daydream. Bernard is telling Linda that Biff has failed his Maths class. At this point, in the real conversation, Willy criticises Biff for failing Maths. Willy then daydreams that he is in a hotel, and shouts that he is not in the hotel room. Biff attempts to calm Willy by suggesting that they may get the loan after all. Willy and Biff begin to argue, and when Willy hears The Woman laugh, he hits Biff. Biff helps Willy to the toilets to calm him down. When Biff returns to the table he finds Happy flirting and laughing with two girls. Biff and Happy argue, and Biff storms out. Happy leaves with the two girls, leaving Willy in the restaurant.
Willy then has a flashback to the hotel room in Boston. Willy and The Woman are in the room when there is a knock at the door. Willy hides The Woman in the bathroom when Biff comes in. Biff tells Willy that he failed his Maths class. While Willy tries to usher Biff outside, Biff does an impression of his Maths teacher that makes The Woman laugh. Biff realises what has gone on, and shouts at Willy. Willy is then snapped out of his flashback in the restaurant, where he is helped up.
Back at the house, Happy and Linda argue about leaving Willy in the restaurant. Biff goes looking for Willy, and finds him planting seeds in the garden. Willy is talking to the hallucination of Ben about a $20,000 'proposition'. Biff helps Willy into the house, although they begin arguing. After Happy joins in, Biff eventually begins to cry, which calms Willy down. After the boys go to bed, Willy begins talking to 'Ben' about the $20,000 sum, which is revealed to be insurance money. When Linda shouts for Willy, there is no response, and Linda and the boys hear Willy's car race away.
The play finishes with Willy's funeral, which is a depressing affair. There are hardly any attendees, and all of the characters have a different interpretation of Willy's death. Biff says that Willy should have kept his dreams in check. Charley says that Willy was a victim of the American dream, and sales in general. The boys talk about the future, although Happy says that he wants to stay in memory of his father. The play ends with Linda crying, and saying, "We're free", over and over.Back to top