At a quarter to eight, I rush into the Play-Makers Repertory Theatre in Chapel Hill, N.C., glad to have arrived in time for this evening’s performance of Death of a Salesman. I’m feeling a lot like Willy Loman myself after driving 400 miles of I-85 from Atlanta in six-and-a-half hours – Greenville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Salem, Greensboro…the Sunbelt successors to Willy’s New England territory. Just your standard-issue traveling theatre writer, getting by on a smile and a byline. As I take my seat, I’m trying to imagine staying focused on what I expect to be a star performance by Judd Hirsch in a play I have distinctly mixed feelings about as a critic.
The lights go out. When they come up to solo violin accompaniment, I see the last thing I expected. A slump-shouldered figure in fedora and overcoat, carrying two sample cases as if they had been attached to his arms for 20 years, enters from the downstage vom and trudges anonymously, his back to the audience, along the length of the elongated thrust stage: a late ’40s Everyman at the end of a long day. Where was the Broadway star entrance I had anticipated? The full house watched silently as Hirsh made his faceless death march into the play.
“What I like the most is the fact that nobody applauds. I was frightened they would,” Hirsch explains over lunch the next day. “It would be an interruption. They wouldn’t get the silence.” Hirsch’s concern with the audience’s appreciation of silence characterizes his approach to this archetypal role of modern American drama. This production is a relative anomaly: a star-driven ensemble piece, featuring Hirsch as Willy and Eva Marie Saint as Linda. The play’s director Jeffrey Hayden (Ms. Saint’s husband) wanted the production to be as much about Biff as Willy, and Hirsch’s accomplishment is to create a performance that, while not stinting on the size of the leading character, allows room for all the other characters as well.
Although Hirsch’s Willy may lack the bravura neuroticism of Dustin Hoffman’s, or the tired-ox inertial force of Lee J. Cobb’s, it makes its own quiet noise. Willy’s last line – ” I gotta now. Bye-bye,” – is simultaneously a throwaway line and an affirmation of Willy’s belief that he’s finally found a way to make his mark on the world. This is a performance to which attention truly must be paid.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation in which Hirsch expressed his thoughts on a wide range of topics, from the challenges of playing Willy Loman to the mysteries of human nature.
On the creation of character: I think of plays as mysteries, always – mysteries into who the people you play are. The only way to arouse the interest of people is to allow them to try to find out who you are. And the more places you can find to lead them astray, the better, because it becomes more human. We all pride ourselves on thinking that we know people, but we don’t. We don’t know our own wives and husbands: when we find out about it, it’s always some kind of revelation.
On playing Willy Loman: I had no answers to Willy Loman when I started – none whatsoever. I thought, I cannot approach this in any way that makes sense to me if I depend upon the sensibilities of other people. I feel something about the story, so I gotta make the audience feel something about the story. They don’t have to like what they see, they don’t have to side with the character, and they don’t have to believe that Arthur Miller solved anything – or even that it’s a perfect play. They do have to see an imperfection that strikes them like an arrow to the heart. Otherwise, we don’t have any theatre – we don’t have anything to come for.
All I have to add to Miller’s work is to make Willy a new, real human being – to give him all the real reasons for what he does. Once that happens, let the author fall on his face, or Willy fall on his face, or society fall on its face – because if you make everything true, then any seams that stick out will be because of the character, or what the writer’s telling you about a character, or because of a society that either changed or didn’t change, or because of the perceptions of an audience. If we move you because it’s real, then you can take your case to the author, to society, to all plays and all theatre. My job is to find Willy’s reasons, and his job is to find more sense in me than he could possibly have found in his life. So I gotta be someone a little bit better than Willy Loman in order to play Willy Loman, ’cause Willy Loman is a promise that went bad. If he’s not a promise that went bad, we don’t care who he was. We have to take him on his own terms, not ours.
On seeing Willie through Linda’s eyes: Arthur Miller gave Linda the most important scene in the entire play. Everybody else simply plays themselves out, right? They worry about themselves, they want something, they can’t have something, but they hope. They hope and hope and hope. And she simply says, “This is the way it is.” She says, “I love this man. He doesn’t need to be a great man. He put his life into you, and what have you done for him?” My design is to try to make all the things she said come true, because if the play’s to be seen, it’s to be seen through Linda’s eyes – only. If that doesn’t happen, you could have a bunch of Willies running through this play, who might be all kind of crazy and wonderful and stupid and ornery and’ bitchy. The more I learn about this play, the more I think, “If the director was Linda Loman, we’d all be on a better track.”
On future roles: I never thought much about roles I wanted to play, only because I’ve always done new plays. I’d love to do A Thousand Clowns again, now that I’m the right age for the role and a parent. I’d love to do more Chekhov. I was practically talked out of doing Shaw, because people like me “don’t do that” – but Shaw would be just as wonderfully audacious as doing Willy Loman. I’m not sure I would love to do O’Neill. I know I could play Long Day’s Journey into Night, but God, I wouldn’t want to go through the experience. I think I should do Shakespeare, if only because a long time ago my acting teacher convinced me that a big part of being an actor is wanting to speak, and you can’t do Shakespeare unless you really want to speak. I’d love to play Claudius, for example, to give him a reason for being, and desires, so that he could be brought down in the right way.
On the religion of the theatre: They used to have these get-togethers of Broadway players at Sardi’s. I was at one in the early ’80s. We were asked two questions: What would you have critics continue to do and desist from doing? Tennessee Williams was at this meeting, and it must have been just a few months before his death, and they said, “Tennessee, we’re going to be getting to you last.” So we all give our wonderful answers; I said something about them learning to see what a director does or doesn’t do. And Tennessee is sitting at the table, sinking lower and lower in his seat. I believe he was drugged on painkillers – he was on his way out of his life.
And finally they said, “Tennessee, it’s your turn,” and he was thrown – he didn’t think he was going to have to speak – and he rose and said, “I have not got the amplification of you people. You are all actors. My voice is very small. But I have always thought of the theatre as a place of worship, but the moneychangers have been let in, so now we must drive the moneychangers out.” And he sat back down and disappeared. I thought to myself, “Wow! He didn’t even know what we were talking about, and he was way beyond us.” I think he was right. If we wish to leave something behind for the young – or for people who have never seen theatre or who want to – then we have to infuse them with the religion of the theatre. We have to make people say, “I want to see more of that.” That’s our audience.