Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Douglas Messerli "Dinosaurs: Whatever Happened to Willy Loman? and The Compromise (on Miller's Death of a Salesman and Vidal's The Best Man)


whatever happened to willy loman?
by Douglas Messerli

Arthur Miller Death of a Salesman / New York, Ethel Barrymore Theater, the production I saw was the evening performance of May 4, 2012

As Ben Brantley noted in his New York Times review of this revival of the noted American play, Death of a Salesman, one gets shivers from this production from the first rise of the curtain just to be able to see the magnificent set from the original production by Jo Mielziner and hear the original score by Alex North. In some respects this entire production, directed by the renowned Mike Nichols, seems a bit like a museum piece as the obviously able cast of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, and Andrew Garfield tiptoe through their lines with a kind of muted reverie. One certainly can respect Nichols’ quiet reverence for the great American play, given the many boisterous and mannered productions, such as Dustin Hoffman’s quirky 1984 interpretation (I saw only a filmed version of the play), that have come before it; and, every so often, Nichol’s rendition soars in its dramatic intensity. Andrew Garfield’s tearful embracement of Willy as he admits his life’s failures brings tears to anyone’s eyes who still has the capacity to feel. But for much of the production I felt almost as Willy’s wife, Linda, admits in one of the last lines in the play:  “Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry.”

     Holding back and holding in occasionally gives new meaning to some scenes as well. Hoffman (usually an over-actor who here is utterly demure) plays Willy in the scene where his son Biff (Garfield) visits him on the road only to discover a woman in his room, with devastating understatement, so skillfully in fact that it is hard to believe Biff when he later denies he is holding a grudge against his father. Similarly, the more naturalistic relationship between Willy and his ghost of a brother, Ben (John Glover), gives new resonance to what is usually a booming statement of the new potentials to found in Alaska. Under Nichol’s direction, the missed possibilities of Willy’s life seem never to have been real options, his family and his desire to die like the green-slippered salesman he encountered early his life dominating Loman’s middle-class vision of the world. Here too do we perceive the other son Hap (Finn Witrock) as a kind of latter-day carbon copy of his uncle Ben, a fluttery profligate, perfectly willing to stand-up his dinner appointment with his father as he runs off the first woman in encounters, only to promise again and again that he will soon marry someone. If mendacity rules the Loman house, he is Willy’s true heir.

    But finally, one recognizes, that such a quiet production also allows one to hear all of the play’s many creaks and ghostly moans. It is strange just how “stagey” is Miller’s Death of a Salesman, given that this “realist play” was carefully grounded in everyday life, when compared with the utterly theatrical and highly exaggerated expressionist work of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (a multi-cultural production of which is playing just three blocks away, a version drubbed by the critics). Stanley Kowalski—a worker from the lower class—literally soars as a character into the stratosphere of believable American anti-heroes, while Willy Loman remains, 53 years after his first Broadway appearance, ploddingly grounded to the theater boards out of which he sprung, a concoction of Miller’s deeply impassioned but, nonetheless, theme-driven social consciousness. Despite his wife’s plea that “attention must be paid,” time has turned our heads, and even the middle class which Willy so poignantly represented in 1949 has now nearly disappeared from American society, along with its mythical “American Dream.”* We might almost conclude that in this one instance Miller was prophetic in his ability to foresee as early as the late 1940s that the remnants of the vast American sales force—so crucial to the advance of capitalism in the early 20th century (and lovingly remembered in musicals such as The Music Man) would ultimately disappear from the American landscape.

      Today I have traveled to New York to spend a few minutes as a publisher with my sales representatives, among the very last of that dinosaur species. Within just a few years, as we know in our bones, all personal sales people will have disappeared, to be replaced with the computer and other as yet unimagined devices. Willy Loman must seem to most younger viewers—very few of whom made up the audience of the Friday evening performance of Miller’s play—as unrecognizable as a typewriter, an obsolete thing of a forgotten past, while the Stanley Kowalskis of the world, outrageously larger-than-life second generation immigrant Koreans, Armenians, Haitians, Mexicans, Russians, Indians, Pakistanis and others—sexually dynamic men and women temporarily locked into poverty—still exist in our cultures by the millions. One might simply summarize the differences between these two mid-20th century US playwrights by saying that while Miller focused on the aspirations of a man seeking a petit-bourgeois existence, Williams—as always, embracing the wretchedly comic outsiders—put all his chips on a man of sweat who preferred to bathe in the sappy fizz of a beer while facing brutal reality.

     I suppose would I had been asked to sit down to dinner with either, I’d have chosen Willy—which I almost felt I was doing in attending this production—who, after all, was a courser version of my own father. But would I have been asked to go to bed with either, I’d have jumped into the sack with Stanley, just like Stella, in the blink of an eye—even if Marlon Brando weren’t playing the role that night. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the important difference between Miller's and William's visions of their relationship to their audiences.

*Some of these sentiments, particularly regarding the disappearance of the middle class in relationship with Miller's play where addressed in a New York Times op-ed page essay by Lee Siegel on May 3, 2012, two days before I wrote this essay. However, I did not have the opportunity to read Siegel's piece until after I completed my essay, when, after sharing my sentiments with Susan Bee, she pointed the similarities out to me.

New York City, May 5, 2012

the compromise
by Douglas Messerli

Gore Vidal The Best Man / New York, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, the performance I saw was a matinee on May 5, 2012

The Best Man is a play of political demands, subterfuge, lies, blackmail, and, most importantly, compromise—although the hero of Vidal’s witty political parable, William Russell (John Larroquette), refuses compromise with his arch-enemy, Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack) or with his own conscience, and in that respect both Cantwell and the out-going President Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones) are correct in insisting that Russell is not a political beast!

     The compromise that Russell makes is a rare one for any political contender, sacrificing his own career and his political battle for power for moral victory and, possibly, a reaffirmation of his relationship with his wife.

     In this star-studded revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 comic-drama Candice Bergan, Kerry Butler, Angela Lansbury, and Jefferson Mays together with Larroquette, McCormack and Jones, act up a storm, somewhat cloaking the fact that, for all its noise and hoopla (the sound of booming applause of convention goers and cackling reporters being broadcast through the theater’s sound system even during intermissions) the play is really a series of drawing-room comedic skits of wit and bluff.

     Like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the revival of which I witnessed a night earlier, The Best Man encapsulates, moreover, a vision of a world that no longer exists: the whirl of backroom politics, where decisions for party nominations were played out in convention hotel suites, votes bought and sold through a series of brokerings based on individual reputations smeared with lies, rumor, scandal, and partial truths.

     If, given today’s preordained presidential campaigns where all has been long-decided before the convention’s bland rhetorical flourishes and flag-waving remonstrations, we might feel superior to the nasty bloodbaths of earlier party gatherings, we might take note that, at least in Vidal’s fantasy, politics still mattered and the individual candidates, freed from appealing to the whole of the American populace, could at least imagine (even while recognizing the reality was something far different) that their personal values might matter.

     While Vidal remains, ultimately, cynical of that process—awarding the nomination to a “best man” whom neither of the leading candidates seem to have met and nothing of his values, both Russell and Cantwell—as different as they are—attempt to forge their campaigns based on very personal visions.

    Today elections are won more on “general” appeal—which one might describe as campaigns based on generalities and artful waffling as opposed to personal integrity and individual history. One need only note how current Republican candidate Romney attempts to cover over his own tracks regarding his Massachusetts support of health coverage and silence his family roots in Mexico—ancestors of his whom engaged in polygamy, or perceive Obama’s attempts to downplay his Indonesian childhood and diminish his real accomplishments on such issues as health care, currently unpopular with right-leaning independents and aspects of which may soon be overturned by the Supreme court.

     It is true that in Vidal’s play both major candidates have something to hide: Russell, his nervous breakdown and its attending medical history, as well as the subsequent failure  of his marriage; Cantwell, his possible involvement in his young military days with a homosexual roommate. But, in real terms, it hardly matters whether the latter was involved in sexual acts or in merely squealing on his roommate, for in the context of the play either demonstrates his moral hypocrisy and his commitment to “the ends justifying the means.” Russell’s bout with mental exhaustion, it is clear, has little to do with his career, including in his more recent performance as Secretary of State, and, in reality, may simply indicate his inability to accept simple solutions to complex issues. And both men, despite their real and implicated blackmail, still stake their claims on their political actions and personal values reflected in their public service. While Cantwell’s politics are ruthless, opportunistic, and play directly to the most ignorant elements of public perception, he is nevertheless a man of action, a true political beast who will clearly accomplish whatever he sets out to do. Despite Russell’s superior sense of ethics and his erudite comprehension of American and world history, he is, as his campaign advisor and the current President point out, a man who when faced with critical choices, wavers—or, to express it another way, is a man who stops to think before acting— a fatal flaw, evidently, for any leader.

     While one might be tempted to compare Vidal’s rivals with today’s presidential candidates, accordingly, Obama is no Russell, despite his intelligent projection of moral issues, just as Romney is no Cantwell, despite his obviously expedient shifts to the far right in order to appeal to those constituents. We live today in a time where everything is far more prepackaged and, consequently, morally blurred.

     The politics of Vidal’s parable, represented by the enormous compromise of candidate Russell, are no longer possible in our society of political and social extremes. As in the Miller play, I suspect, very few members of the audience under sixty—none of whom I spotted at the Schoenfeld matinee I attended—might have difficultly comprehending a drama so centered on one man’s moral scruples. When did morality and politics ever share the same bed? today’s voters might scoff. While in 1960 Vidal might have pointed to John Kennedy (even if mistakenly), today we have “hot mic” statements from our President admitting to Russian President Medvedev that during the election he needs the “flexibility” of not saying what he eventually might. And anyone reading the daily papers perceives that even expediently political compromises rarely occur in the chambers of congress. The idea morality today often has little to do with a truly thought-out position. A man like Vidal’s Russell, sad to say, is either a political dinosaur or a literary fabrication at best. And a man of compromise, as Republic Senator Dick Lugar's defeat yesterday confirmed, is someone who cannot be reelected.

New York, Minetta Tavern, May 6, 2012; Los Angeles, May 8, 2012

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