Mike Nichols: 'We Are All Willy Loman Now'
Not exactly Willy Loman, and not exactly now, Nichols was interviewed by the NPR business show Marketplace in 2012, when he directed a Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the doomed Willy Loman.
I chanced upon part of that on Marketplace this evening, its memorial to Nichols, in the car:
Those two plays -- "Streetcar" and "Salesman" -- stayed with me in that I would refer to them as time and life went on. And more and more to "Salesman" and less and less to "Streetcar," because "Streetcar," after some time, no longer seemed to be about now at all. There are no Blanches anymore, but there are Willys.
Yes there are, and not just over-50 salesmen who don't meet their quotas.
Nichols recalled how De Toqueville's observations about America in the 1840s was prescient about our neoliberal present:
I think in a strange way, it's truer of now the way Orwellian thought is truer now. You know, De Tocqueville saw ahead -- he predicted this in 1840, for Christ's sake. That sentence of his, that if American democracy continues in the way in which it's going, it'll become eventually pure market forces -- I think of that every week. We are pure market forces. It's happened. And of course, that's what "Salesman" is about. We're all salesmen now.Pure market forces have created millions of Willy Lomans lately -- older workers who were the first to be fired in the Great Bush Recession, and the last to be hired in the ongoing fitful recovery.
I saw the Young Vic's production of "Streetcar" at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, MA, Sunday. Gillian Anderson was excellent as Blanche, but despite the contemporary updating of the production, it was still the story of a personal mental breakdown that is particular to that family's situation. And she survived.
Willy Loman did not survive his mental breakdown, because Arthur Miller understood that his kind of unemployment was far more deadly depressing than what Tennessee Williams wrote about Blanche DuBois.
"We are all salesmen now" does not just apply to salesmen of a certain age these days -- factory workers, computer programmers, retail clerks, call center customer service reps, etc., have all suffered from "pure market forces" that have eliminated their jobs in favor of ever-cheaper labor, in the Confederacy or in Asia.
We can't say we weren't warned; "Salesman" was a Broadway hit in 1949.