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The Art of Money

Director Mike Nichols on reviving ‘Death of a Salesman’

Kai Ryssdal Apr 11, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Death of a Salesman,” with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, is back on Broadway this year. It’s perhaps the iconic American play about a man’s work and the disconnect between his dreams and his ability to achieve them.

Today, in our series The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy, is Mike Nichols. He’s directing the revival. I asked him why, what the play means to him.

Mike Nichols: In a weird way, I think I could say I often think about “Death of a Salesman” because it’s central to my life. When I was 14, I found myself reading every word ever written by Eugene O’Neill, something I couldn’t do now for millions of dollars if you put them up. I didn’t know why I did it, but I liked it.

The next thing that happened was that I had a girlfriend whose mother would give us theater tickets — but I mean fancy. We were at the second night of “Streetcar Named Desire” with Brando and Tandy and the rest. And then oddly, a year later, I mean it was on Broadway a year later, we saw “Death of a Salesman.” Those two plays — “Streetcar” and “Salesman” — stayed with me in that I would refer to them as time and life went on. And more and more to “Salesman” and less and less to “Streetcar,” because “Streetcar,” after some time, no longer seemed to be about now at all. There are no Blanches anymore, but there are Willys.

Ryssdal: That salesman, yes. So it was central to your life. Can we say it’s central to these times as well?

Nichols: It seems to be. I think that’s exactly right. I think in a strange way, it’s truer of now the way Orwellian thought is truer now. You know, de Tocqueville saw ahead — he predicted this in 1840, for Christ’s sake. That sentence of his, that if American democracy continues in the way in which it’s going, it’ll become eventually pure market forces — I think of that every week. We are pure market forces. It’s happened. And of course, that’s what “Salesman” is about. We’re all salesmen now.

Ryssdal: It’s hard to think of “Death of a Salesman” today, in this economy and this world that we have, and not think of a lot of what drives Willy Loman, right? Which is envy and wanting to be better and wanting to move up, and then think about the 99 percent and Occupy Wall Street, and how all that just kind of resonates with what’s happening on stage at the Ethel Barrymore every night.

Nichols: Yeah, you do think about it. There’s no way not to think about it. It’s almost like Willy invented it, because all around him, people are mystified by him. Charlie.

Ryssdal: Charlie the neighbor, of course, right?

Nichols: Charlie does real work and as he says in parodying himself, he says, ‘My only virtue is that I never cared about anything.’ Which is a way of shutting Willy up for accusing him of not caring about this or that. Of course the whole point is that Charlie does care and he teaches his kid that business is business, but also to think of others — something that Willy’s not able to afford doing.

Ryssdal: So I was reading a piece about Phil Hoffman, in which he said, you know, this isn’t the kind of role you wake up wanting to do every day.

Nichols: It’s hardly.

Ryssdal: Yeah, it’s almost debilitating, right? By the end of the night. I bet when he comes off stage, he’s just, he’s done.

Nichols: When he and I argued about how long he would be able to play it, I said — and it was also about being with his kids, as a lot of our decisions are — and I said, hey you’ll be with them every day except Wednesdays and Saturdays until 1. And he said, you know that I’ll start working, I’ll be in the play from the moment I wake up. And I said, yes, I do know that. But you pay a high price. It’s a searing part. There’s no cheating.

Ryssdal: This is probably an unfair question.

Nichols: I like those.

Ryssdal: Seeing as how you know it by heart, do you have a favorite part of this play?

Nichols: Well I have a favorite line.

Ryssdal: Oh OK, I’ll take that.

Nichols: ‘How could they whip cheese?’ Because I often think things like that. You know, ‘What’s happening?’ Part of knowing about “Death of a Salesman” is knowing that Miller originally conceived it to be happening in Willy’s skull — that was what he said. You could say that Miller was the first writer, or certainly playwright, to recognize that we’re in two or three places at the same time, almost all the time, in our minds, and that it is always going on. When you can’t remember whether you took your pill or not, it’s because you were in the movie in your head. It’s no economy’s fault, because we’re doing a lot of things at the same time. But the recognition of that and that the more disturbed, the more you live in very different times — Miller is the first to make it manifest. And this was conscious on Arthur’s part that the movie playing in Willy’s head is easily as present and as real as the little thin life that he’s leading before us.

Ryssdal: Mike Nichols. He directs “Death of a Salesman” with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it’s on Broadway right now. Mr. Nichols, thanks a lot.

Nichols: Thank you.

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