Film Studies: Talking big, feeling small - a role for all Americans

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As Brian Dennehy takes on Willy Loman in the latest stage version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, we have fresh cause to smile at the play's original stage direction.

As Brian Dennehy takes on Willy Loman in the latest stage version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, we have fresh cause to smile at the play's original stage direction. It calls for Willy to be "a small man", one who "wears little shoes and little vests". The idea is fine, and it's not that we can't see Willy as small, crouched, scuttling along in his desperate attempt to survive - that is how Dustin Hoffman played the part, and played it well. But it works on a grander scale too; as if to bear witness to the strange way that, in 1948 or 1949, everyone felt Willy Loman was like someone they had known - a father or an uncle, a failure in the great age when all Americans had to succeed. Was it because there were so many men like Willy Loman that the figure could be large on stage without damaging the play?

When Miller wrote the play, in 1948, he had already had Elia Kazan present himself as the likely director. To push that feeling home, Kazan had personally invited Miller to a try-out for A Streetcar Named Desire - the Tennessee Williams play Kazan directed, which opened in December 1947. From Kazan's always competitive point of view, there was the suggestion: "Can you top that, Art?" So Miller sent the play to Kazan. That's where the stories diverge just a touch. Kazan says he called Miller and said the new play "killed" him. In Miller's memory, Kazan said, "My God, it's so sad." "It's supposed to be," said Miller, and Kazan hastened to agree. There was no doubt about it: they were going to do the play together.

Of course, in 1948 no one knew that Salesman would win the Pulitzer Prize, much less that it would endure as a central play in the American canon. Cheryl Crawford, the first person invited to produce, turned it down; so Kermit Bloomgarden got that honour. And then, as far as the role of Willy Loman was concerned, it was offered to Fredric March, who apparently turned it down - later on, March declared that he had been misunderstood. March, in 1948, was 51, within range of a Willy Loman who is said to be in his early sixties and who has two grown sons, Biff and Happy.

Instead, Kazan suggested the 37-year-old Lee J Cobb, a man Miller remembered as "a mountainous hulk", altogether too large and too self-confident. It didn't help when the terribly ambitious Cobb flew his own small plane to meet Kazan and Miller (he had money from several years in Hollywood), and assured them, "This is my part. Nobody else can play this part. I know this man." Miller was intrigued: he saw the emptiness behind Cobb's boasting. He began to see the actor as a balloon. But he wasn't convinced until he saw Cobb trying to play with Miller's own young son: "The sorrow in his laughter flew out at me, touched me; it was deeply depressed and at the same time joyous, all flowing through a baritone voice that was gorgeously reedy. So large and handsome a man pretending to be thoroughly at ease in a world where he obviously did not fit could be moving." Cobb got the part; Mildred Dunnock was Willy's wife; and Arthur Kennedy and Cameron Mitchell were the two sons.

It opened at the Morosco Theatre on 10 February 1949, and it was a sensation, yet a new kind. When Streetcar opened, only 15 months earlier, there had been 30 minutes of applause. But Miller noted this: "There was no applause at the final curtain of the first performance. Strange things began to go on in the audience. With the curtain down, some people stood up to put their coats on and then sat down again, some, especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping. People crossed the theatre to stand quietly talking with one another. It seemed forever before someone remembered to applaud, and there was no end to it."

One person in the audience had been Bernard Gimbel, head of the department-store chain. That night he gave an order that no one in his stores was to be fired for being too old - the crisis that drives Willy Loman to suicide, when he sees a modest insurance plan as the only way of saving his family. The critic John Mason Brown wrote that "Mr Miller's play is a tragedy modern and personal, not classic and heroic. Its central figure is a little man sentenced to discover his smallness rather than a big man undone by his greatness." The large, boisterous Cobb grew in his own mind. As Kazan left the production, so Cobb took it upon himself to give directorial notes to the rest of the cast. Then he pronounced that it was an exhausting role, and he began to miss performances. All the praise persuaded him that he was as great an actor as his own physique demanded. He became insufferable. And he walked out of the show. He did a lot of movies, of course, including On the Waterfront, but he named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee and became a maudlin mess - as Kazan put it, it was as if Willy Loman had claimed him.

There was a movie, of course, directed by Lázló Benedek and with Fredric March reinstated as Loman. But the mood had shifted. Though grown men - salesmen of all kinds - had wept at the opening, this was an America where many people frowned on "defeatism". Columbia made the movie, but the studio tamed Miller's language and his tragic view. March was encouraged to play the role as if Willy were crazy. And the studio also released a sublimely silly short documentary that said to be a salesman was a wondrous and very American calling - so please ignore anything being implied in the other movie.

Well, the play has gone all over the world, and Miller lived long enough to discover that just about every society has its salesmen and its mixed feelings about selling everything and losing value along the way. Brian Dennehy is almost exactly the right age (he is 67), and he is almost certainly the biggest Loman of all time. It doesn't matter - every salesman needs to come on big. We yield to the size of their vision, the sweet oil of their talk and the idea they convey that we can transform ourselves by buying their gimmicks. Miller had drawn the character from people he'd grown up with - terrific talkers, helpless liars, the urban version of the pioneering heroes who had once grappled bears and hacked down trees to build a city. It is still a central dilemma in the American nation - how far you can believe the sweet talk; be it about God being on our side or weapons of mass destruction being around the corner.

And it's a play about what happens when that talk dies and the salesman society has to face the pitiless, plain truth. Almost anyone in America could play Willy Loman.

'Death of a Salesman': Lyric Shaftesbury, London W1 (0870 890 1107), from 10 May