Willy Loman hit Broadway 50 years ago this month and has lived in legend ever since, but it wasn’t until last fall that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman laid a legitimate claim to being The Great American Play: Britain’s Royal National Theatre polled 800 theatre professionals to determine the century’s most important English-speaking play; the winner was Waiting for Godot by Ireland’s Samuel Beckett. But in second place, screeching one stop ahead of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, was Miller’s uniquely American tragedy of a burned-out drummer at the end of his road.
Willy’s plight -- believing in the American dream and chasing it blindly, only to be betrayed by it -- has a timeless resonance that profits from the retelling. Lee J. Cobb was the first in the long line of Lomans, and Brian Dennehy is the latest, arriving at the Eugene O’Neill in a lavishly praised production that Robert Falls directed at the Goodman in Chicago. If, in this era of the Home Shopping Channel, the already tragically out-of touch Loman looms a little like a dinosaur lumbering around in a land that time forgot, then Dennehy is just the behemoth for the job -- a massive male presence who seems to be shoehorned into this persona of the failed Little Man. It’s a good snug fit, and Willy falls that much harder.
The easy, seductive smile of the salesman comes naturally to Dennehy. It, too, is big -- a gregarious, glad-handing disguise that has, in the past, masked a homicidal salesman as effectively as it now masks a suicidal one: Hickey in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, an equally haunted portrait, which Dennehy and director Falls placed in the Goodman gallery (between their Galileo and their Touch of the Poet). There was talk of this Iceman coming to Broadway in fact, but it was instead rerouted to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, requiring maybe even more chutzpah. (As irony and the luck of the Irish would have it, an Iceman will come to Broadway shortly, starring Kevin Spacey ,meaning Willy and Hickey may wind up arm wrestling for the Tony as if it were some Salesman of the Year plaque.) “Salesman,” says Dennehy, “was harder than Hickey, for technical reasons and reasons of character. Willy would be in one place in one moment, then suddenly shift to another place and time and mood. I had no sense of where I was going. With Hickey, I always knew I had to start here and get to there. With Willy, I was operating instinctually, not intellectually. It was two or three weeks into rehearsal before I realized that was just what I had to do. There’s no way to intellectually prepare this part. I had to trust my instincts, fling myself against it because that’s what Willy is doing. He’s throwing himself against this light, hoping he can some- how knock down these walls that keep pushing in on him. If he can just knock them down, he can get to that bright, sunshiny expanse of open land he has been promising himself was there his whole life -- and which, of course, is not there. At some point in the rehearsal process, I realized the smartest thing I could do as an actor was to throw myself at it and not understand it because Willy doesn’t understand it. Now, my problem is I do understand it. I’ve made some intellectual leaps, and I have to resist following that knowledge. I don’t want to do what Lee did, according to Arthur. I don’t want to `improve’ my performance. I don’t want to start looking for pity or sympathy. I don’t want to find easy ways to the audience.”
Mind you, the play’s a bumpy, maze-riddled ride as Robert Falls has envisioned it -- a dimly lit labyrinth leading to the grave -- and Willy reels around in it in chronic confusion, battered on one side by bitter realities and on the other by mad flights of fantasy. Says Dennehy, “Half the play takes place in Willy’s mind, and half in the real world on the last day of his life when all kinds of things are happening to him. He loses his job and is forced to deal with that. His son is chafing, desperate to express the truth to Willy about who he is. And, through all this, Willy keeps slipping out of focus. Miller, in one of his essays, likens him to a well-dressed man in the subway with his case between his legs, holding on to the strap, talking to himself, having a real conversation with someone who’s not there. Lines of past and present -- lines separating one place from another -- have been erased. That image helped me so much in understanding who Willy is -- that, and having seen that guy myself many, many times.”
Recognition extends beyond the footlights, too. “Taking the curtain call is fascinating because you look down and you can see the first five rows of the audience and the expressions, especially on the men’s faces. A light has been turned on, or they’ve seen something in themselves, or they feel something that they haven’t felt in a long time. That’s the genius of the theatre. It can’t happen in movies, it can’t happen on TV, but it can happen in the theatre. I’d come out of the Goodman, and there’d be these guys waiting -- successful guys, beautifully dressed, gray hair, tears pouring down their face, their wives standing behind them, really worried because they’ve never seen the guy like this before. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, ‘That’s my father you’ve put up there. Or my uncle.’ One of the reasons the audience finds it so moving and compelling is that it’s intersecting with things they have felt or suspected or understood about themselves. That’s certainly true for me, and when you’re up there acting it out, there’s a psychic cost that has to be paid.” This is not said as a complaint. For Dennehy, Loman is more exhilarating than exhausting. “It’s a larger part than Hamlet, but I can’t imagine not doing it. I’m not saying that two or three months down the road it won’t be difficult, but I want to do it. I’ve worked 35 years to get to this place where I think I have the talent and understanding and discipline to play this part. And it is, if not the greatest part ever written in America, certainly one of the two or three greatest, and I’m doing it on Broadway. What the hell is wrong with that?”