Attention must be paid," Linda Loman says of her husband Willy in one of the most famous speeches in "Death of a Salesman." That line was first spoken on stage a half century ago, but thanks to a powerful new Broadway revival starring Brian Dennehy, attention is once again centering on Arthur Miller's modern classic.
The reason isn't merely because of the strength of the production. It's because in this monumental drama, Miller introduced themes that would resonate not only with audiences 50 years later, but throughout much of his subsequent work. Most significantly, in "Salesman" Miller found "almost a perfect balance of the personal and the political," according to Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre and director of the Broadway revival.
These two strains are evident in two other Miller plays currently on view in Baltimore -- "The Price," at Everyman Theatre, and "Incident at Vichy" at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.
"The Price" (1968) is the more personal and emotional of the two, and it is also more directly related to "Salesman" since it focuses on two brothers whose differing viewpoints and personalities are not unlike those of the Lomans' sons, conscience-driven Biff and hedonistic Happy.
"Incident at Vichy" (1964) is a less frequently produced, more overtly political piece. The collaborationist government in 1942 Vichy, France, arrests nine men and a boy, whose fates are determined behind closed doors. Yet even in this political play, Tom Blair, director of the Fell's Point Corner production, says, "You have to go after the emotional qualities. ... The brilliance of the [playwright] is that he is able to take several political concepts and make them personal, make them come alive to people."
A great deal has been written about the political issues in "Death of a Salesman" -- particularly about the play as an indictment of the American dream. But as director Falls points out, "It's very hard to act politics. ... Rolling up your sleeves to work on it, you dig into the emotional life."
"Death of a Salesman" has exerted a compelling influence on actors as well as audiences ever since its debut production, which played 742 performances at Broadway's Morosco Theatre and won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. Lee J. Cobb, Paul Muni, Frederic March, Luther Adler, Hume Cronyn, Rod Steiger, George C. Scott and Dustin Hoffman are among those who have lugged Willy's sample cases across the stage or screen. In 1972, Center Stage produced the first major all-black production. Miller attended the opening.
Last fall a poll conducted by Britain's Royal National Theatre named "Death of a Salesman" the century's second most important English-language play (the first was Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot").
In his preface to the just-released 50th anniversary edition of "Death of a Salesman," Miller writes: "Having seen it in five or six countries, and directed it in China and Sweden, neither of whose languages I know, it was both mystifying and gratifying to note that people everywhere react pretty much the same in the same places of the play."
What audiences react to, primarily, is emotional content -- not political. The Broadway revival regularly leaves theatergoers in tears. They're responding in part to Elizabeth Franz's gut-wrenching depiction of Linda, a woman who believes in her husband more than he believes in himself. In the final scene, she lies prostrate at her husband's grave not only because she mourns the waste of a good man, but also because she mourns it in a way Willy himself could never understand. "I think the role of Linda Loman in this play has never been explored as fully as Elizabeth explores Linda," Falls says.
In addition, audiences are crying because Dennehy -- whose immense physical presence contrasts heartbreakingly with his character's shrinking self-esteem and self-awareness -- has created a completely recognizable, flesh-and-blood Willy.
Miller never specified exactly what Willy sells. And the entire notion of traveling salesmen is nearly obsolete in this age of Internet shopping. But Willy's plight -- the career man shunted aside in middle age by the company to which he devoted his life -- is far from obsolete. It's simply acquired a new name -- downsizing.
"I think it is part of the emotional punch, still, of the play. Many, many people can identify with American business through Willy Loman," says Falls.
The theme of loyalty permeates "Death of a Salesman" -- Willy's loyalty to his unnamed company, Linda's loyalty to Willy. It resurfaces with a vengeance in "The Price," as the play's two brothers, a policeman and a doctor, are reunited after a long estrangement by the need to dispose of their late father's belongings.