Mike Nichols and "Death of a Salesman"

Profiles of Nichols and a 1999 interview with Arthur Miller as the revival opens on Broadway.
David Hudson
The DailyDeath of a Salesman

"His maternal grandmother, he says, wrote the libretto for Strauss's Salome. Her anarchist husband was bayoneted by German police. Henry Louis Gates mapped the family history. The Aga Khan took him up the Nile on his yacht. The Nazis chased him out of Berlin at age 7; upon arrival in New York, one of his only English phrases was 'Please do not kiss me.' He married Diane Sawyer. 'I know!' he says, when you look amazed."

Mike Nichols is the subject of an entertaining profile by Jesse Green in this week's New York. At the age of 80, Nichols is reviving Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman on Broadway (the show's currently in previews and officially opens on March 15): "Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom he'd worked on The Seagull and Charlie Wilson's War, agreed to play Willy; Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield, John Glover, and the rest of the luxury cast signed on instantaneously. It's also relevant that Scott Rudin persisted when Nichols quailed. 'With the singular exception of Mike,' Rudin says, 'no director since Kazan has come close to demonstrating the capacity to deconstruct, rebuild, question, and even love the basic ideas of America that exist at the heart of Salesman.'"

"Within one year, Mike Nichols saw two Broadway plays that changed his life," writes Michael Riedel, introducing his interview with Nichols in the New York Post. The year was 1947 and one of the plays was, of course, Death of a Salesman. The other was Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and both productions were directed by Elia Kazan. For his own Salesman, "Nichols is using many elements of Kazan's original, including the haunting music by Alex North and the Jo Mielziner set, a ground-breaking blend of reality, memory and fantasy." Nichols tells Riedel about the time he sat behind Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who'd written the screenplay for Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), at a screening of The Graduate (1967). "During the movie, Kazan and Schulberg turned to each other several times and shrugged. At the end, Kazan stood up and said: 'Well, I don't know. I was taught always to have a worthy antagonist.' Says Nichols: 'Mrs Robinson, not a worthy antagonist? I think he had a different relationship to women than I did.'"

Death of a Salesman

"Regular revivals on Broadway as well as in regional and amateur theaters have made [Salesman] one of a small handful of gold-plated stage classics that have practically become a part of the collective psyche," writes Charles Isherwood in the New York Times. "But the sharp economic downturn that followed the bursting of the housing bubble, and the discovery of the dubious financial practices behind it, casts a revivifying new light on the plight of the Loman family. In both its small details — paying off a mortgage after 25 hard years is a plot point — and its implied questions about the hollowness of some cherished American ideals, the play feels unusually, perhaps unhappily, timely." And Isherwood is currently leading an online discussion of the play.

In 1999, John Lahr paid a visit to Miller and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, and the three of them drove out a cabin in the woods that Miller built to write Salesman. The New Yorker's now running much of what Miller had to say about the play, its origins and initial reception. Also, if you haven't heard or read Miller tell the story before, don't miss the bit in which he draws a connection between Salesman and Fritz Lang's The Last Will of Dr Mabuse (1933).

Updates, 3/19: "Mr Nichols has created an immaculate monument to a great American play," writes Ben Brantley in the New York Times. "It is scrupulous in its attention to all the surface details that define time, place and mood…. And as staged and paced it is perhaps the most lucid Salesman I've ever seen…. You admire every detail of construction and leave the Barrymore feeling that you have learned something of worth, dutifully noting the parallels between Miller's portrait of failed American dreams and our own disenchanted times. It's all rather like visiting an important national landmark. Such emotional distance sprang, for me at least, from a feeling of disconnection between the leading actors (all, I would argue, miscast) and their characters."

"Salesman is now in its early sixties, about as old as Willy himself," writes Scott Brown in New York, "and attention has never ceased being paid, in classrooms and community theaters even more than on Broadway. And why not? Our economy remains dream-based, delusion still flickers in every striver's eye, and past and present continue to smear together in a shimmery haze of nostalgia…. Many directors approach canonical work by studiously avoiding the iconic, shaking the old shale to release untapped energies within. Nichols does the opposite. He treats the script like the scripture it is, entrusting those mile-high-written-in-flame words to actors of size and skill and voice."

John Lahr in the New Yorker: "The revelation of this production — drawn out by Nichols's seamless and limpid orchestration of Willy's disconcerting flights of imagination (Miller's original title for the play was The Inside of His Head) — is that Willy, for all his fervent dreams of the future and his fierce argument with the past, never, ever, occupies his present. Even as he fights, fumes, and flounders, he is sensationally absent from his life, a kind of living ghost. It is existence, not success, that eludes him…. And Hoffman, an eloquent package of virulence and vulnerability, finds all the crazy music in Willy's disappointment."

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