The new Broadway production of Death of a Salesman is an emotionally lethal combination. I defy anyone to sit through nearly three hours of Arthur Miller’s words, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy, Andrew Garfield’s Biff and Mike Nichols’ direction, and not emerge suffering a full-blown existential crisis. Though more than 60 years old, the play, like all great tragedy, remains dazzlingly contemporary and cathartic.
Miller used the salesman as an American archetype, a victim of capitalism, self-aggrandizing and self-deluding, devoted to appearance over substance. The triviality of his ambitions destroy every one of his relationships, with his sons, his wife and his best friends and neighbor. The traveling salesman was for Miller the perfect symbol of the psychological struggles inflicted by capitalism.
“Willy, for all his fervent dreams of the future and his fierce argument with the past, never, ever, occupies his present. Even as he fights, fumes, and flounders, he is sensationally absent from his life, a kind of living ghost. It is existence, not success, that eludes him. He inhabits a vast, restless, awful, and awesome isolation, which is both his folly and his tragedy. Willy is defined by the spirit of competition and by its corollary, invidious comparison. Envy is the gasoline on which American capitalism runs; it also runs Willy, driving him crazy. His “powerful strivings,” as Miller calls them, are his way of battling a corrosive sense of inadequacy.”
This is what makes this such a resonant play today. Our culture keeps returning to this theme, in the ambitions, betrayals and social dysfunction of The Social Network – Garfield, who played the Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin is the thread here – and the bickering, venal, emotionally abusive tragicomedy of The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore.