Many famous actors have played the role of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, a play that has been performed around the world for more than 60 years. In the 1980s, it was Dustin Hoffman on Broadway, and in 1999, Brian Dennehy played the aging salesman in the 50th-anniversary production.
Now accomplished stage and film actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has become the fifth actor to play the harried, 63-year-old Loman on Broadway, and he says the play is provoking a powerful response from the audience.
"More than any other play I've ever done, they're so vocal," Hoffman says. "Not vocal in saying things, but you hear them respond a lot. ... You hear their disappointment, you hear their shock, you hear their sadness."
The classic play is set in a specific time — the late 1940s — but the current production also opens in a time of economic dislocation for many people. For Hoffman, the present-day context of this production is one aspect of what gives the story its resonance.
"Economics play a huge part in it, for sure," Hoffman says. "But it's about other things. Ultimately, to me, it's about a family, the tragedy of a family. ... I think that makes it kind of classic. The idea that you have a vision of what you're supposed to be, or going to be, or where your kids are going to be — and that that doesn't work out — is always going to be something that's going to affect people and move people."
A Character Living 'A Ridiculous Lie'
An aspect of the tragedy is that Loman realizes he has fewer friends than he thinks after having gone through life believing in the power of the handshake and trusting that it's about who you know.
"It's a very complicated thing," Hoffman says," because it's not just the back-slapping, it's about being impressive, and he's not a very impressive guy. He never knew his parents; he's basically an orphan that met a woman, got married and had kids. So he has no connection to a past."
How the odds are stacked against Loman from birth, Hoffman says, makes him more empathetic. Loman's sons, on the other hand, have more of a chance in life.
"He has two sons who are kind of impressive," Hoffman says. "They're beautiful, talented, physically gifted, but he's not. He's none of those things. I think Willy probably was like that when he was young, but he had no sense of himself. He's never had a sense of himself. He's been cobbling together a narrative from birth."
Hoffman also acknowledges it's easy to judge Loman and the choices he's made. Early in life, the character might have had an opportunity for adventure, but he turned that aside in order to get security. When he learns, at the end of life, that he can't pay his bills or even hold on to his job, it's heartbreaking.
But Hoffman says Loman's struggle is not without value.
"He really did give his life for his sons," Hoffman says. "He didn't do it in a way that's effective, or got what he wanted, or actually nurtured his sons in a way that was going to help them, but he did."
Hoffman, who has three children of his own, says the play is one that provokes thinking on all aspects of life, including family.
"It really seeps into why we're here," Hoffman says. "What are we doing, family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers, what's happiness, what's success, what does it mean, is it important, how do you get it?"
Connecting all these themes together, Hoffman says that ultimately, the play is about wanting to be loved.