Los Angeles Times
(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1985 All Rights Reserved)
Last Sunday’s presentation of “Death of a Salesman” on CBS was an honorable attempt to bring a great American play to the millions of Americans who don’t go to the theater. What it proved was that with some plays there’s no choice but to see them in the theater. Uproot them from the stage and the power goes out of them.
The auspices for this TV “Salesman” were favorable. Arthur Miller’s script had been slightly cut to accommodate the three-hour running time of the broadcast (including commercials; more on that below). But it hadn’t been tampered with or apologized for.
It was a far cry from the nervous 1950s, when the Fredric March film of “Salesman” had been distributed with a trailer reassuring audiences of the enduring validity of the American dream. Today “Salesman” is as safe as “Our Town.” A perfect choice for CBS to prove its commitment to American culture, before getting to the down-and-dirty of its new season, a preview of which ended the evening.
The TV cast was solid, most of them drawn from the much-admired 1984 Broadway revival, featuring a star who was a genuine actor, Dustin Hoffman. You could see Hoffman’s love for the play and his ambition to create a Willy Loman who wouldn’t remind anybody of Lee J. Cobb-Willy as a dapper little man who goes to his death as gleefully as if he’d just put over the deal of his life.
Likewise, you could see director Volker Schlondorff’s ambition to find a new way of doing “Salesman” for the screen, using the camera’s ability to read individual faces without losing touch with “Salesman” as a theatrical rite, a problem with the March film. All in all, the CBS “Salesman” was as intelligent and as ethical a transplant as Miller himself could have wanted. Indeed, he was listed as a co-producer.
But the transplant didn’t take. Not if you’d seen Hoffman and John Malkovich (Biff) play “Salesman” on Broadway. Not if you’d seen a good company tackle it on any stage anywhere. (Including, I venture to say, China, where Miller staged it a couple of years back; see his book “Salesman in Beijing”). Here were some of the differences:
1-Distance. The stage envies the screen its close-ups, and the CBS cameras did pick up some revealing reactions-Kate Reid as Linda sneaking a worried look at Willy as she tries to jolly him up, for instance. But in general the close-ups, rather than bringing the viewer closer to the characters, kept reminding him that they were really actors.
Particularly Hoffman. On the stage, one could see that he was giving a more external performance than, say, Malkovich, without being any less moved by his conception of Willy. In a strange way, it even added to the poignancy of the performance, as if Hoffman was saluting a long-departed father.
On the screen, however, we were clearly watching an actor in his 40s made up to look like a man in his 60s, and we didn’t know what to do about the lie. It was a superb performance, seen at the wrong distance.
Should Hoffman have scaled it down? He did scale it down from what it had been on Broadway. But how far could he go? After all, this was Miller’s play that he was performing, not a movie based on “Death of a Salesman.” The urgency of the language, the nightmarish quality of Willy’s reveries, his very aspirations as a man, call for a big performance. A script this theatrical needs space around it, just as a massive sculpture does. Put it under glass and you reduce it to a souvenir from the museum gift shop.
2-Setting. Where does “Death of a Salesman” take place? Both in New York City and inside Willy’s head. Director Schlondorff and designer Tony Walton worked hard to dovetail fantasy and reality in about the proportions that they offered themselves to Willy, without the corniness of dream-dissolves. Suggestive as they tried to be, however, it all seemed to be happening on a sound stage.
The approach was too literal to catch the whirl of Willy’s imagination. Yet, in another sense, it wasn’t literal enough. You found yourself asking such primitive questions as: Why doesn’t Willy’s house have any ceiling, if he just put one up? How come all the floors in the play have black-and-white tiles? Why does Willy’s prosperous neighbor Charlie (Charles Durning) keep on living in such a run-down neighborhood? If we can see Willy behind the wheel of his Studebaker (nice touch), why can’t we see him drive off?
I’d never thought about Charlie while watching the play. Because in the theater it’s enough for the designer to give the feel of Willy’s neighborhood-most importantly, the shadows of those encroaching apartments. And a leafy light pattern gives you the neighborhood as Willy remembers it, when the kids were young. These effects don’t seem strained or fancy on the stage. No audience anywhere, including China, has had trouble tracking Willy’s journey between the real and the unreal. On the stage, we take metaphor for granted.
3-Poetry. Cocteau makes a famous distinction between poetry in the theater and poetry of the theater. The most overt poetry in “Death of a Salesman” comes during the final Requiem scene, and it always seems a little strained. But the play is full of the poetry of the theater. For instance: We first see Biff as a shadowy figure talking rather listlessly with his brother in their old bedroom over the kitchen. A minute later, it’s 1928 and Biff bursts into the downstairs yard in his football suit-the old Biff, who thought he could lick the world.
On TV, Malkovich simply appeared to Willy in his old football suit, looking fully 30 years old. A scene that had been written with an eye to a certain stage effect became just another moment.
That’s not to say that Miller couldn’t have written “Death of a Salesman” with an eye toward the poetry of film. (Remember his screenplay for “Playing for Time”?) But if he had, he’d have let the camera do much of the work that in the theater words have to do. We’d really see that car-lined street in front of Willy’s house. We’d really see those apartment houses. We’d really see him driving up in New England in red-maple weather. And the rhythm of the images would be as telling as anything that the dialogue had to say.
The TV “Salesman” had neither the rhythm of film nor of the theater. It was a composite-an unconvincing attempt to photograph a metaphor in studio. Suggestion: The next time someone turns his cameras lose on a play, let it be a play in performance.
As for those commercials, I counted about 50 of them: 50 attempts to sell us things in the middle of a story about the death of a salesman. Would you believe that one of the commercials was for Velveeta? (Willy: “How can they whip cheese?”) Further suggestion: The next time a network offers a play from the theater, let it group the commercials in one or two 15-minute “intermissions,” rather than further tampering with the playwright’s rhythm.