I have a modest proposal for boosting tourism in our town. Mayor Bach has suggested four projects, sensible yet banal, making Colorado Springs even more the two dimensional sports/military complex than it already is. I think it’s time for something completely different. It’s time to consider a new theme park called American Theatreland.
American Theatreland will consist, to begin with, of about thirty dwellings that are the settings for our greatest plays, plays which collectively tell us who we are and where we come from. For it is a simple truth that our classic American plays are all about families. And what families they are, each of them worth an extended visit. To begin with just a few homes that have been previously constructed on our stage, imagine walking into the park, turning down a New York street, and walking into the large comfortable home of the Sycamore family in You Can’t Take It with You. You’ll find Essie practicing her ballet, Grandpa feeding his reptiles, Ed printing and playing his Xylophone. It’s a great place to hang out in, as you remember from last Christmas, though sometimes you might be interrupted by fireworks in the basement and the tax man at the door. So let’s move on down the road to Grover’s Corners, where Mrs Webb and Mrs Gibbs have come down to make breakfast in Our Town---I don’t have to remind the women who are reading this that both these ladies cooked three meals a day, one of them for twenty years and the other for forty—and no summer vacation. If you want a little more heat, you could wedge your way into the Kowalski apartment just a hop off A Streetcar Named Desire where Blanche Dubois is seeking refuge with her sister Stella, and about to come chest to chest with a man named Stanley who likes to drink, play poker and get wild on Saturday night. Back up north we’ll visit the Younger family in Chicago who end Raisin in the Sun by beginning a brave but uncertain future in a new home in a white neighborhood If you’re seeking repose, we could repair to the Brewster home where two nice old ladies are eager to take care of us, and Teddy Roosevelt leads his charge upstairs. Take the biscuits, but it’s best to avoid that delicious elderberry wine.
I could go on—in fact I have barely gotten started—but you get the idea. The homes would be staffed by actors from our community and theatre program. This would be living history far more illuminating and entertaining than western blacksmiths pounding shoes and colonial dames churning butter. American Theatreland would be a pilgrimage site, a trip into our country’s real heart and soul. You would not forget your time here.
Of course it’s not going to happen, more’s the pity. Or rather it does happen, house by house, family by family, decade by decade at THEATREWORKS, where we have made a point of inviting you into some of our most iconic American homes. We are about to do it again.
It’s getting late, so let’s slip away from the Brewster parlor and head to another part of town. Here the buildings are higher, angular and more threatening. They give off an angry glow of orange. Turn down a side street and find a small fragile house, probably not long for the neighborhood—an air of dream clings to the place. A car, a Studebaker, has turned into the driveway. A man gets out, carrying two heavy sample cases. He stops, exhausted at his front door. His wife has woken, startled, in the bedroom, and she calls his name. “It’s all right,” he says, “I came back.”
Willy Loman has come home and we enter his house with him. We’ve come to one of the most memorable families in American Theatreland. Upstairs, sleeping are the two sons, Biff and Happy. Biff is 34, a drifter, a kleptomaniac, and very lost. Happy, two years younger, is pedaling hard to make his way in American commerce. Linda, their mother, is devoting herself to keeping house and home together, and above all to keeping her husband together. It will be a losing battle. Willy Loman is a salesman tired to the death. He’s a fighter all the way, but he needs to come off the road. The problem is there is no place for him anymore. For all his gusto and his appetite for life, he is now a tired dinosaur, and he too is very lost.
More may have been written about Death of a Salesman than any other American play, and there are reasons for that. Like his great predecessor, Henrik Ibsen, Miller wanted to write on both a personal and social scale: his intimate family dramas are loaded with symbolic meaning and political consequence, and his characters sometimes burst into pronouncements that seem designed to be engraved on monuments: “Attention must be paid!” Miller himself wrote deeply and memorably about the play, and his theme of tragedy and common man, together with the pursuit of the American dream, have been the stuff of high school English essays for decades now. Death of a Salesman is universally acknowledged as a great and important play, as great and important as they come.
This verdict is entirely just, both a blessing and a curse. The play has been so loaded with import that it seems, in prospect, almost impossibly heavy, a necessary and depressing work we are obliged to saddle and endure. We are about to correct that impression.
While this really is a play about the death of a salesman (the original producers we afraid the title might send people running the other way), it is, from beginning to end, a play teeming with excitement and life. Miller’s daring technique of mixing scenes of memory with scenes of the present makes each moment fresh and surprising as the play moves in and out of memory, flashing back into a golden past and forward into a forbidding future. It is true that Death of a Salesman is about the delusions and dangers of the much ballyhooed American Dream, but that’s not the bottom line. When a visitor asked the playwright what he had in mind, Miller said simply, “It’s a play about a family.” Yes it is, and in particular it is a play about a father and son who both deeply love and disappoint each other. This is probably why the play has been a success everywhere, including China, where traveling salesmen are no more common than they are here and now in our digital world.
This is also a play about a man named Willy Loman, who has gotten a bit of a bad rap. We tend to think of Willy as pathetic, sad and ordinary--a “low man” who staggers to his deluded end. There’s truth in this. Willy, as his son says, is ”just a dime a dozen.” But he’s also an indelible character. Miller wrote the play in a garden shed he built at his home in Connecticut, and he remembers how delighted he was listening to his chirping hero, hearing his unique voice, his contradictions, his bluster, his endless energy, his gift for a phrase. Willy was hatched, like Athena, fully created from the head of his creator. This marvelous authenticity, this extraordinary ordinary man playing out a dark destiny shimmering with life, has made the role a touchstone for a handful of great American actors: Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, each of whom, like the great ones who play the prince of Denmark, gave the role his distinct and unique personality. That is what the role requires. And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time to introduce you to Christopher Lowell.
You may know this man. You may have seen him bewigged and beaming as the amiable and masterful Ben Franklin, a role he plays all over the country. You may have seen him play Shylock a few summers ago, for which he was awarded by the Denver Post. And a very few of you, our precious elders, may even remember him playing Willy Loman twenty two years ago in Dwire Auditorium. He was great then too. But now he is finally old enough to play the role he was born to play, and I promise you the Willy Loman you will see on our stage will be worthy of keeping company with any of his predecessors. I do not say this lightly. I do not mean this as puff. What Chris brings to this role is a personal history from New York that makes Willy’s idiomatic phrasing and manner second nature: it’s in his blood. He’s always vulnerable on stage, he has great force and anger when needed, and he knows how a volatile man turns on a dime. And finally, and I believe this is one of his secret weapons, Chris is a funny man. Even in his most tragic and wrenching moments he is sitting on the edge of the ridiculous (he won’t like me saying this, but I say it in praise). This is a remarkable quality, this ability to deliver deep pathos with a wisp of absurdity, all the while sustaining a vitality and deep well of energy that entirely commands his audience. I am going on record, writing even before rehearsals have begun to say this is a Willy Loman you simply must see.
And this is a thrilling play. Not just a great play but a thrilling, gripping play. Set aside for a moment its importance and its greatness—these are subjects you can and possibly will consider later. Come on over to American Theatreland, hie thee to Brooklyn meet this lively, troubled and brave little family trying to hold on. Spend a little time with an ordinary guy who is trying to put his thumbprint on the world. We are pulling no punches on this one. We are getting right to it. We are going straight for the heart.