Friday, February 7, 2014

'Death of a Salesman' (Philip Seymour Hoffman, part 2)

The more I read about Philip Seymour Hoffman, the sadder I get. I've never been addicted to anything, so I can't begin to imagine what it's like to fight that battle every day -- and in his case, to feel you're slipping irrevocably downward.

I thought of him again today, when I realized that Monday will be the 65th anniversary of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Hoffman took the title role in 2012, earning a Tony nomination in the fourth Broadway revival. He played a man who feels himself slipping irrevocably downward, and who finally kills himself so his insurance will pay the family's bills and start his sons on new journeys.

The American theater has never produced a play with more universal impact. I don't say it's our greatest play -- I don't know what that would be -- but I once read that it has been done in more countries and languages than any other. I remember an article in American Theatre magazine about a Chinese-language production that riveted Beijing audiences, because they perfectly understood the gap between parental expectations and children's assertions of independence.

Here's a small taste of the original Willy, Lee J. Cobb, reprising his role for television in the 1960s:

Miller's play, written shortly after Americans had come back from World War II, deals with so many themes: a feeling that the "little guy" can never get ahead in America, the rebellion of a son against a father's dreams for him, the self-delusion necessary to get through an indifferent world, the ways we compensate for inner hollowness with outward striving for success. I have never seen a production that didn't move me, including Dustin Hoffman's performance in the 1980s. Here's a longer version of the scene above:

Philip Seymour Hoffman once said that Miller's first play, "All My Sons," made him want to be an actor:

It's a great play, and at the end of the play the father goes off-stage and kills himself. It's a very sappy, corny memory, but I remember thinking I had found something that no one knew about. I could just not get over the fact that these people in front of me were getting me to believe something that was not happening. I matured in those two hours, just experiencing that.

I wish the high he felt that day in the theater -- and on all the days he knew he'd done good work as an actor -- had kept him afloat through the dark times. But when I think of salesman Willy Loman, struggling to overcome depression and a feeling that life wasn't worth such a struggle any longer, I get a hint of what Hoffman might have been going through.