“Attention must be paid.” It is one of the most famous lines in American literature. You can experience its latest incarnation at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, where Mike Nichols has mounted a superb revival of Death of a Salesman, starring an electrifying Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, a performance in which Hoffman establishes himself as the definitive Willy, and as one of the greatest American actors ever to appear on stage or screen.
Yet attention must be paid to what, exactly? Is it to Willy the casualty of capitalism? Or to Willy the emblem of a midlife crisis? To Willy who “had the wrong dreams,” as his angry, alienated son Biff says? Or to Willy who lived the life of a salesman, “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” as Charley, Willy’s cynical yet implausibly generous neighbor, describes him?
Every ten years or so, Death of a Salesman is revived, and every ten years we get the same interpretations: Willy the impossible dreamer, Willy the conformist, Willy the American nightmare on the obverse side of the American dream. Maybe on this sixty-third anniversary of the play—the very age of its enigmatic protagonist—it is possible to get past what makes this play beloved and get to what makes it disturbing.
If there is one interpretation of the play that goes unquestioned it is Biff’s own, that his father had “the wrong dreams.” Traumatized by his unwitting father, whom he catches in the arms of another woman in a hotel room in Boston, Biff confronts his own and Willy’s nature in the play’s climax. “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?” he cries. “What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!” Biff’s war cry has the purest pedigree: Natty Bumppo, Bartleby, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield. We all know that what stands in the way of fulfillment in America is America itself: commodified, corporate, commercial America, where transactional routines rob identity of its authenticity. To know who you truly are in America is to be redeemed from America.
In fact, though, Biff’s identity is clear throughout the play. His stealing from employers and other self-destructive habits are neurotic tics derived from his discovery of his father’s unfaithfulness. Beneath them, he is the very image of his father. Nichols nicely emphasizes the fatal connection by making Biff’s (Andrew Garfield) and Willy’s hand gestures—imperious and supplicating all at once—become more and more similar as the play proceeds. Like Willy, Biff is a dreamer who dreams big dreams. Just as Willy deceives himself into thinking he can persuade his young boss, Howard, to take him off the road and put him in the New York office, Biff tricks himself into thinking that someone he once worked for at a menial job will lend him $15,000. Instead, father and son are both crushed. Like Willy, Biff even thinks of dating his former boss’s receptionist to give him an in with his old employer—the very tactic Willy was in the throes of when Biff arrived unexpectedly at his hotel room in Boston.
And just as Willy spends the play regretting that he did not take up his wealthy brother Ben’s offer to join him in Alaska and make his fortune—and thus become Willy Loman—Biff resolves at the end of the play to go out into the American wilderness and become Biff Loman, and thus make his fortune. Biff’s very idea that he will correct his father’s wrong dreams by living the right life is, itself, a grandiose dream. And his inability, at the age of 34, to get beyond the discovery, when he was a senior in high school, of his father’s infidelity—committed by Willy out of loneliness and desperation—roots him as fatally in his past as Willy is stuck in his.