The chat took place from his residence on February 21, 1999
AOL: We’d like to welcome Arthur Miller. Mr. Miller is joining us this evening from his home in Connecticut.
Question: How did you first imagine Willy Loman? Did he have the physical presence of a Lee Cobb or was he more like Dustin Hoffman?
Arthur Miller: Well, it was none of those. It was based really on an imaginary figure based on an uncle of mine. It didn’t come from any one person. As for Dustin or Brian, I originally imagined him as a small man with a large wife. But the smaller actors weren’t able to convey the emotions…and we eventually wound up with Lee Cobb, who weighed about 200 lbs.
Question: Were you able to attend the first opening of Death of a Salesman, 50 years ago?
Arthur Miller: Of course. I was there, and I was at all the rehearsals. I am usually very much involved in rehearsing the play. The first production was — how should I put it — more romantic. The set was a single house with an imaginary feeling to it… it looked like it could be blown away with a slight wind. The current set is much tougher — more black and white as opposed to color. And the new set revolves and changes — on the first set nothing moved. It’s a matter of taste — I think there’s advantages to both.
Question: You’ve said that there’s no way to do straight plays on Broadway anymore, without risking bankruptcy. How should we respond to this? Why is drama so successful in London?
Arthur Miller: Everything here costs about a third more than it does in London. The British Theater has been kept alive by government subsidy for the arts — which we don’t have here. They don’t have to have a sellout hit every time they open a play — so you get more plays and more productions. Here, investors would rather put their money into a musical than a straight play – more of a surefire hit.
Question: Who was your favorite Willy Loman?
Arthur Miller: My favorite Willy Loman probably would be Lee Cobb, who was the originator of the part. reason most likely is the original production is when you discover the play… I’ve had many wonderful actors play the part — George Scott, Dustin Hoffman — but the heat of the discovery is the first time.
Question: Why do you think Death of a Salesman has endured for 50 years? What makes it a classic?
Arthur Miller: That is a difficult question for me to answer because I’m so damned close to the play. I imagine people are attracted to the story as a very compelling one and characters are people they understand and are moved by. Nowadays, most plays are fragmented… they are not the continuous unveiling of a story like this one, so people get more involved in the story. Also, Willy lives in our time… in a system of values that tend to de-value the individual… so that at a certain age he can be tossed away. The answer to it all is economic and political… but the situation of the play is something that many people are worried about… So maybe a combination of all these things is what has made the play so popular here and all over the world.
Question: In our world of corporate takeovers and downsizing there are perhaps more Willy Lomans than ever before. How do you feel about the way America has treated its older citizens?
Arthur Miller: I was about to say that, from the mail I get from audiences and people, there’s no lack of Willy Lomans in the world — people who have been expelled from the production system of the country because of age or because their job is shut down around them. His situation — his job, his boss, his life — is probably more typical than advertised.
Question: What character in your plays do you most relate to in this stage of your life?
Arthur Miller: You know I’m distributed… a writer distributes himself among the people he’s writing. I’m not sure there’s any one person I identify with more than anyone else. I would like to identify with a John Proctor in The Crucible… I’d think that’s a good person to be… but I don’t know if I’m up to that. That’s a hard question to answer.
Question: Mr. Miller — how do you relate differently to Willy Loman today than you did when you write the character as a young man?
Arthur Miller: That’s an interesting question. I’m an old man now, and I tend to side with him more than I used to. I wrote him when I was 33, and Willy is in his sixties. I think I side with him more now, when he’s fighting with his sons. Objectively I am the same as I was when I was 33, but subjectively I side with him more now — it has changed. Comment: I loved Mr. Miller’s recent interview on NPR (I think with Terry Gross).
Question: How was this opening on Broadway different from the opening 50 years ago?
Arthur Miller: To my great surprise, it resembled very much the opening 50 years ago… more than it resembled the openings of recent time. I think part of it was people wanted to see something they knew they were going to like. People got dressed, there was a party atmosphere. Usually openings are depressing — people are apprehensive about what the critics are going to say. At this opening there was joyfulness — not at the story but as to the fact of the play. It was quite remarkable.
Question: What are you working on right now?
Arthur Miller: I’ve got about half a play written. I hope to get the rest of it done sometime. It’s a big play — a lot of work — and it’ll be about a year before I get to see it done. That’s what I’m working on right now.
Question: What do you see as the biggest differences between the performance strategy of Brian Dennehy and other memorable ‘salesmen’?
Arthur Miller: Well let’s see… has got a terrific drive in his performance… it’s a powerhouse. In it he expresses the surge for some kind of victory over his circumstances in a very powerful way. Some of the others were more strategic — less powerful. Brian is really “throwing himself on his sword” physically. Willy is really trying to survive – – that’s one of the most interesting things about the play — searching for spiritual validity through the love of his sons. Brian does that with great force, physically.
Question: I consider Salesman, Streetcar and Long Day’s Journey all as pleas for sensitivity to society’s castoffs. Do you feel that art can sensitize society to this problem more effectively than news reports and such?
Arthur Miller: I think art can do anything more effectively than news reports. The mythology we live under is not really derived from the newspaper — it comes from the Bible, from literature, from the mythology from the country from George Washington to Harry Truman. The building blocks of what we believe come from art. The news reports and such skip out of our mind too quickly… it is the things we get from art… and I speak of the Bible as literature as well as a holy book… that stick with us.
Question: Your play, The Crucible, is about McCarthyism. Would you say we live in age of sexual McCarthyism?
Arthur Miller: Some days it has that aspect, doesn’t it? It seems that people get totally irrational about sexual matters… is one of the definitions of McCarthyism — a total blindness and deafness to anything but one’s own opinion… and there are days I feel we’re getting close to it in the sexual field.
Question: In regard to Salesman, where was Biff during World War II?
Arthur Miller: He would have been in one of the services just as his brother would be.
Question: Did you have any input with the production when it moved to New York?
Arthur Miller: Well, I did make one change in the cast for New York… it is substantially what it was in Chicago. I gave notes for 3 or 4 days of rehearsal and they were quickly absorbed by the cast… but the fundamental production is what it was in Chicago.
Question: I’m an aspiring writer (novelist more so, but playwriting is a passion of mine as well). Are there any guidelines or tips you can offer on touching up dialogue or writing in general?
Arthur Miller: You know, I could talk for weeks and end up simply telling you that the way to write is to write, and to read, and to observe. There is no easy solution to the problems you face as a writer, except to believe in yourself, believe in your vision, and follow it where it leads. I don’t know what else to say.
Question: Who is Willy Loman patterned after?
Arthur Miller: I think I answered that at the outset… I knew a lot of salesmen in my life… he’s sort of pieces of several people — one of whom is an uncle of mine… but eventually you create something that has no root in anything… a creation that comes from your mind. He did in this case.
Question: Mr. Miller… I am aware that your play, The Crucible, was produced during the 50’s in correspondence to the McCarthy trials. What and how are the characters related to this era? and if so, what inspired you to make a story based on this?
Arthur Miller: What inspired the play was the fact that you could not speak with anyone in a rational way about the anti-communist movement in this country, or pursue liberal ideas over the fear of Russia and invasion. The only other time I knew of when such a fanaticism was on the loose was in Salem. It became a kind of model for that sort of outbreak, and it’s played all over the world because that sort of thing has happened all over the world. I was trying to show people that that HAD happened before, and that they had to be careful or it would overwhelm society and destroy it.
Question: Mr. Miller — Tell me about your creating process…Do you have an epiphany or does an idea stew and you mull it over before you put pen to paper?
Arthur Miller: Both. I keep mulling until an epiphany happens… if it doesn’t, I go on to something else. It is a process of making a deep connection with something, and if it doesn’t happen there is no way I know of to make it happen… consequently there is long gaps in the creative process while you wait for this to take place.
Question: Do you think the theater is still capable of supporting and nurturing promising new playwrights?
Arthur Miller: There seem to be more new playwrights than there ever were. The problem is the organization of the theaters, the playwrights and the audiences. There are plenty of playwrights… what we need is a viable social organization to make the audience and the artistic side mutually supportive. We have not been able to organize the audience so that it can come to the theater… the prices have scared a lot of people away. I think we have a lot of playwrights waiting to get on, but we don’t have the organization that makes that possible.
The chat took place on February 21, 1999, live from Brian Dennehy’s dressing room at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre
AOL: For those that joined us this afternoon for our live chat with Arthur Miller, welcome back. Now we’d like to welcome Brian Dennehy. Mr. Dennehy is joining us this evening from his dressing room at the theatre.
Question: In a recent interview, you said that Willy Loman is one of the most challenging roles of your career. Could you explain why?
Brian Dennehy: Well, first of all it’s a very long role. It’s physically longer than Hamlet. In two days of his life he’s living through the manic depression of his life. Making those transitions believable is very demanding. It’s tricky. At my age, the most you can hope for is interesting parts, and this is the most interesting part there is.
Question: You’ve said that you’ve always wanted to play Willy Loman. What roles, do you think prepared you for this production?
Brian Dennehy: What prepares you to play Willy Loman is living a life. I am sixty years old, I’ve had some success, and a lot of failure. I’ve had some acceptance and some rejection. I can’t imagine playing Willy if I were 40 or 50. I think the sum total of the good and bad parts or my life have helped me invest in this role. It’s not so much the roles I have played as the life I have lead that has helped me in this role.
Question: What new perspective have you tried to bring to this role, after Dustin Hoffman and Lee Cobb?
Brian Dennehy: Well, I think I answered that. It is very like Hamlet. Willy has been described as the American Lear, and what you can bring to that is your experiences, your life, your sin, your success. Hoffman, Cobb, Scott have all brought different things to the role. They are all different, and they should be different. What I have brought is myself. The highs and the lows, the success and failure. It gives an actor an opportunity to bring all of themselves into the role. Question: I feel the pairing of Mr. Miller’s Loman with Mr. Dennehy is very exciting
Question: What kind of recognition do you see in people’s faces at the curtain call? How does it affect you as an actor?
Brian Dennehy: It depends. The people who seem to be most affected by the play are the men — men in their 40’s 50’s and 60’s. In many cases these are men who have learned to protect themselves. When this breaks through, they are not able to hide. As with any great work of art, it says to the members of the audience: “what resonance does this have in your life?” They are devastated and tremendously moved by it when it breaks through to their lives. All great art reflects something about your own experiences very powerfully, and certainly that is true of this play.
Question: The NY Times reviewer singled out a particular gesture you made during the performance he saw. Does that make you self-conscious? Does that make you want to drop the gesture? Or do you just not read the reviews?
Brian Dennehy: I try to avoid reading anything about the production until long after it has closed. I have found over the years it is best not to read review when they are good and when they are bad. It is better to leave them alone. Ben Brantley of the Times has been of influence with this play. His first piece in Chicago was more of a “think piece” that was largely responsible for bringing the production to NYC. So I have very fond feeling about that review, but in general I find it is best to avoid reviews until long after the production is closed.
Question: What did you do before becoming an actor?
Brian Dennehy: I did many, many things. I was a bartender, a cab driver, a waiter. I worked on Wall Street, and I did all of them badly.
Question: Which work of yours are you most proud of? Why?
Brian Dennehy: The usual answer for a question like that is: “Whatever I am doing now”. In this case I would have to say that is most accurate now. This has been the most wonderful experience of my life. At first I was unsure of what to expect. I have found at the center of this a wonderful piece of art, doing this character has restored in my something that really needed to be restored. I will always be grateful for this experience. Not because it has been a success, but because it has given me back something I had lost along the way.
Question: You have been in many media, which one is the most rewarding and which one is the most demanding?
Brian Dennehy: It depends on what you mean by rewarding. The theater is the most exciting. Movies can be rewarding, as with TV but there are many people making decisions, adding layers and techniques that separate you from the audience. In the theater all that separates is space. It is what an actor does. It is the oldest profession, storytelling and acting. It is so profound, and by far it is the most rewarding.