When Philip Seymour Hoffman walks onstage, he sits down and takes a long beat before exhaling his first line: “Oh boy, oh boy.” He says it so quietly, so privately that we would probably miss it if we didn’t know it was coming. He says it like it’s not meant to be heard by over a thousand members of his audience, but only by Willy Loman and his stirring wife, Linda. It’s a small but defining moment, and one that sets the tone for Mike Nichols’ revival of Death of a Salesman, a production of unparalleled transformative powers. It is often remarked that Arthur Miller’s original title for the play was The Inside of His Head—and indeed, the Lomans house is constructed only of frames, as if we were seeing the x-ray of a skull. But despite this symbolic flourish, and despite Miller’s proclivity for large, barefaced metaphors and glaring literariness (his name, after all, is Low Man), the actors here are never performing in any recognizable sense, they are never anybody but their characters and we are never for a moment self-consciously watching theater. Even during the curtain call, Andrew Garfield (Biff) is still crying from his final confrontation with his father while Mr. Hoffman stares blankly into the crowd, as if confused by their presence.
It is not necessary to think of the Lomans as Jewish, though some of the dialogue does have the cadence and grammatical structure of New World Semitism. (“Attention must be paid.”) Willy is the victim of any kind of assimilation—Jewish, probably, but just as easily Black or Italian or Irish—he is a man who has sold his ethnicity to enter into American business, but whose discarded origins are still visible enough to exclude him from participation. Still, with Mr. Nichols at the helm, it is no surprise that Mr. Hoffman plays Willy with a Jewish accent. And his sons, despite having that scrubbed, goyish look, are destined to inherit his separateness. They may not know a word of Yiddish, they may have never tasted gefilte fish or pickled herring, but they are marked nonetheless. Throughout Death of a Salesman, Willy begs of others with increasing desperation, “What’s the secret?” without realizing that those who have the answer probably don’t even know the secret exists. The fortune sons never have to doubt or question their privilege—and Willy, who has sold them everything, has received nothing in return.
In a recent, controversial New Yorker article, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Mediocrity,” critic Giles Harvey takes Miller to task for his “ten-decibel amplification” of the play. “Henry James said that in art, economy is always beauty,” writes Harvey. “Miller spends recklessly.” Willy’s funeral, in particular, “feels about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal.” Do not be seduced by this glib contrarianism, this mindless act of masturbation. It’s the kind of critical game that yields nice-sounding phrases but means absolutely nothing. Accusing Arthur Miller of lacking subtlety is like accusing James Joyce of pretentiousness—it may be a flaw in some other context, but in this one it is entirely beside the point. Sure, Willy, who has raised two sons into failures, decides to plant seeds on the night of his suicide, and none but the densest viewer will walk away wondering what that is supposed to mean. And sure, at the funeral, Charley says, “Nobody dast blame this man” not once but twice—“dast” a word so archaic it doesn’t even appear in most dictionaries. But who cares? Who cares when Willy has said, in just the scene before, after a devastating fight with Biff, “Isn’t that—isn’t that remarkable? He likes me!” Not loves. Not respects. But likes. From the mouth of Mr. Hoffman, these joyous words are lovingly cradled like a new baby born dangerously underweight. At the risk of using questionable rhetorical tactics myself: if you are not moved by this moment, you are not worthy of this play.
Sadly, Death of a Salesman has completed its run—and the way only a single performance seems to ravage Mr. Hoffman, it’s a surprise that it lasted longer than a week. This was a supremely rare event, a theatrical masterpiece rendered by a cast and crew who have fully earned the right to its language. It is, I believe, the greatest production of any play I have ever seen.