Everybody knows that Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a modern classic. Everybody knows, even if they haven't seen the play, of the tragic mental and spiritual demise of the travelling salesman, Willy Loman, as he struggles to survive his senior years in the New York Brooklyn of the late 1940s. Everybody knows that as playwright, Miller might be more famous to the celebrity-struck through his ill-fated marriage to Marilyn Monroe. What everybody does not know is that Brian Dennehy and Claire Higgins have recreated the Loman marital unit with what only can be described as genius at the Lyric Theatre in London 's Shaftesbury Avenue.
Brian Dennehy arrives in London with impressive film and theatre credentials. As Willy Loman, Dennehy displays his stage presence and his skill as a performer. Dennehy's Loman is fire and guts and insanity and passion and impotence and anger and frustration and tenderness and aggression and every foible known to humankind; Loman is not living, he is existing, and the depressive reality of this existence is tangibly portrayed in Dennehy's masterful performance.
Clare Higgins plays the long-suffering wife of Willy, Linda Loman. As with Dennehy, Higgins's performance is flawless in its realism and passion. Her treatment of her less than successful sons and her commitment to her bombast of a husband is, as written, touching; Higgins brings to her portrayal of this Brooklyn mother that star quality which has earned her so many accolades. If Dennehy is the Hollywood star attraction, designed to put bums on seats, then Higgins is right up there in the same constellation.
A thirteen strong cast of actors make up the microcosmic world of Willy Loman -- whether his long-suffering neighbour with his geeky son made good, or his Boston mistress who opens doors for sales in exchange for sex and stockings, or the inheritor of his boss's business who Willy remembers as a babe in arms and who now refers to his senior sales staff as 'kids' -- all complement the integrity of this production.
Robert Falls has directed a crisp and sharply focused play which gloriously evokes the period. In flashback, Willy remembers the post depression years of the 1930s as a bright red Chevrolet adorns the stage. It is detail like this which makes for a completely comprehensible and convincing to-ing and fro-ing between torrid reality and angst-ridden fantasy as we speed into and out of Willy's guilt-ridden memories and dreams.
The level of commitment and uniformity of these characterizations is assisted, no doubt, by one of the unsung heroes of the British American theatrical scene -- the work of the voice and dialect coach Joan Washington. Washington 's involvement with British theatre and her ability to unify disparate British acting styles into a committed American whole is long established. In Death of a Salesman, Washington has brought all her skills to bear. The accents flow as naturally from the lips of the British actors as from the American star himself.
Washington had some great actors to work with, of course. Douglas Henshall as Biff Loman, Willy's dropped out son, is impassioned and doomed. His realization that no matter how much his father has fantasized on his behalf, Biff is and always will be a 'buck an hour guy', was fearfully honest in its delivery. Henshall displayed all the mental anguish and potential for self-hatred that his father manifests in his vocal outbursts against life.
Biff's younger brother, Happy Loman, a philandering reprobate that even a mother could learn to loathe, was likewise played with sleaze-ridden glee by Mark Bazeley. Jonathan Aris is the high-pitched nerd, Bernard, who homoerotically fawns over the young Loman brothers, only to study and graduate as a lawyer fighting cases at the Supreme Court. His father Charley, played by Howard Witt, is an honest hardworking man who comes to the aid of his irascible neighbour because his humanity refuses to allow the difficult Loman any further loss of dignity.
The ghostlike incarnation of Allen Hamilton's Uncle Ben, the dead brother of Willy who had struck it rich in Africa , drifts in and out of Willy's stream of consciousness. The bitter regret that he never followed Ben on his journeys, a bitterness which Miller blames squarely on Linda Loman's stultifying desire to keep her husband and fill his mind with success, tears at Willy's heart.
The whole play sits like a tragic warning to us all. Willy Loman is the very lost soul whose dreams of a better life crumble with age. It is a tale of retribution and punishment for infidelities and crimes of the past. Willy has destroyed the respect of Biff through the discovery of his Boston affair. Willy's wife stubbornly stands beside her man even when he unwittingly advertises his suicidal intent.
There is social insecurity at the commodification of life, the commodification of time. Biff's 'buck an hour' revelation applies to us all. What are we worth in the workforce? How do we justify our existence when even we are devalued? Willy recognizes the inevitability of his futile existence; his only opportunity for helping his family is to cash in on that one commodity left: his insured life.
Miller's evocation of a Post-War America on the cusp of rampant consumerism and multi-nationalism is a tragedy -- a tragedy in which the fallen and dysfunctional hero is a sad and aging salesman. We hear Linda Loman grieve for her husband and it tears at us; her tears are not for the loss of another's life, but at the loss of companionship. Her tears are for being left alone in an empty house. Death of a Salesman remains a classic; in the hands of Dennehy and Higgins, it impossibly achieves a new height of technical brilliance and theatrical importance reserved for a very few twentieth century plays.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005