Why were the old people so young?
It was a choice, Dad. I’ll explain later.
Nothing. But nothing. (pause) I can’t get excited about your restaging someone else’s old play. There’s nothing personal in it.
I put my soul into that thing.
I mean, they were younger than their kids. That doesn’t make sense.
Do you really believe that tripe?
Wow. It’s not tripe. Jesus.
I liked that the old people were so young. It was interesting.
Ok, fine. But it’s not you. It’s not anyone. It’s not real.
People come out crying, saying their lives are changed and —
Great. Be a fucking tool of suburban blue-hair regional theater subscribers. But what are you leaving behind? You act as if you have forever to figure it out.
That’s from Charlie Kaufman’s monumental “Synecdoche, New York,” a conversation between the protagonist, Caden (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wife, Adele, and his parents as they leave the theatre having just seen Caden’s new production of the Arthur Miller classic, Death of a Salesman. Caden’s conceit in the production is to have the characters of Willie and Linda Loman played by young actors. The point of this conceit is never explained, but Caden is, from the beginning of the movie, a man old before his time, haunted by the prospect of his own death and by his own inability to create anything durable and lasting, so presumably this conceit of young-playing-old is what makes the play personal for him, what connects him to Loman. In any event, from what we can tell from the snippets of the play we get in the film, the production is appallingly bad:
Well, as you may have heard, Philip Seymour Hoffman is now playing Willie Loman himself on Broadway, in a production that has been praised for its fidelity to the original Broadway run (bringing back the original set, among other things). Seeing that production a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help thinking of Caden’s production.
One reason is that Hoffman, at forty-five, is considerably younger than the sixty-year-old Loman, and yet I went in unworried about this because Hoffman, like Caden, has always seemed to me to be old before his time. The age thing did turn out to be an issue, but not so much in the present of the play, but in the flashbacks, Loman’s waking dreams of his youth. Hoffman, in these scenes, still seemed old; you never got the sense of Loman in his youth, how he differed from Loman in his age. Now, of course, Loman is reminiscing; he’s supposed to still be old. But, and this may just be me, I do think you have to get some sense of who he was as a young man, not of a sense of promise – Loman never had a chance – but of a sense of more successful self-delusion, a self-delusion powerful enough to have enveloped his favorite son, Biff, and strangled him. Because that’s what the play says happened to him. And with Hoffman, I never got that sense, in part because, being old before his time, his Loman seemed old before his time even in his youth. And I just couldn’t see how such a prematurely old man could have inspired the kind of foolish awe that Biff says he did.
There were other ways in which the production is weirdly cast against type. Andrew Garfield, who plays Biff, has the build of a basketball star, not a football player; I kept looking at the trim muscular Finn Wittrock, who played Happy, and thinking he should be Biff, and they should find a fat, sloppy actor to play Happy. And Linda Emond played Linda Loman as such a strong personality that there was something puzzling about Biff’s solicitousness of her – she never looked like she needed anybody’s protection. Everyone in the cast did a fine job, but nobody seemed exactly right for their role (with the notable exception of Bill Camp’s cynical Charley).
But my real problem with the play is the play, and it’s very much Adele’s problem. I don’t love Arthur Miller’s work generally, but Salesman in particular sticks in my craw precisely because it is treated as such a classic whereas I find it to be, frankly, shallow and sentimental. “Attention must be paid to such a man” – apart from the absurdity of having Loman’s wife give speeches on his behalf (who talks like that?): why? Why should attention be paid? Why now? Why ever? What claim does Willie Loman have on me?
Salesman should have a lot to say to us right now. It’s about a man who sold himself a bill of goods called the American dream – just as hundreds of thousands who haven’t weathered their mortgages as well as the Lomans did have done. It’s about a young man so stuffed with praise, so convinced of his own triumphant destiny, that he never learns how to work for it – you’ll read that story a dozen times a month in hand-wringing pieces about entitled “Millennials” with no job prospects moving back in with their parents after graduate school. It should have a lot to say – but I don’t feel it does, and the problem isn’t the dated setting or the dated language or the dated family dynamics. The problem isn’t that it isn’t personal to us. It’s that it wasn’t personal to Miller, not really. It wasn’t about him.
I should admire what Miller set out to do. He created a profoundly unsympathetic character – a liar, a philanderer, a man profoundly self-deluded down to the end – and tells us: we must care about him. I liked Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I liked Todd Solondz’s “Dark Horse” (which A. O. Scott compared to Salesman – with some justice, I thought). I revere Dostoevsky’s classic Notes From Underground (speaking of which, Bill Camp appeared in an excellent stage production of the novella a couple of years ago, which I neglected to write up – I have no idea why). I don’t have any problem with paying attention to profoundly unappealing and unsympathetic characters. But I can’t help smelling condescension in Miller’s play. Miller doesn’t think he’s as self-deluded as Loman is. Miller doesn’t think he knows himself as poorly as Loman knows himself. That’s the difference between Salesman and, say, Long Day’s Journey or The Glass Menagerie. Miller isn’t plumbing his own depths. He’s making an argument. He’s telling us how we should feel about somebody we might otherwise condescend to. It’s an argument, ultimately, from pity. And I recoil from it.
The production is worth seeing anyway, because, heck, it’s an American classic, and these are great actors, and the set is a piece of history. But ultimately, I agree with Adele. It’s not you. It’s not anyone. It’s not real. And that, ultimately, means it’s not as great as everybody thinks.