The three main fellas in a remount of Soulpepper Theatre's acclaimed Death of a Salesman speak about the play's longevity, themes, and its reputation as an English class staple.
Neil Simon, David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller. Just as a new school year begins, Soulpepper Theatre’s fall season reads like the syllabus for English Lit 101. There’s a focus especially on Miller, with both his The Crucible and Death of a Salesman on stage right now. While the cast size and subject matter makes The Crucible a rarer treat for theatre audiences, Death of a Salesman—Miller’s 1949 story about the ill-fated salesman Willy Loman, wife Linda, and sons Biff and Happy—remains one of the most commonly produced and referenced plays today.
That’s especially true for Soulpepper’s current remount, with their original production only two years old. But still, there’s something about this sorrowful tale of the fall of the American Dream that resonates with the three Loman boys: Mike Ross as Happy; Ari Cohen as Biff; and Joseph Ziegler reprising his Dora Award-winning role as the Loman patriarch, Willy. Torontoist sat down with them to hear their thoughts on how this play can span decades, generations, and economic ups and downs.
Torontoist: When did you first experience Death of a Salesman?
Joseph Ziegler: I read it in English class. I come from Minneapolis, we read it in junior high. They told us it was a great play, and I bought it. I don’t remember really what I thought about it, I thought it was cool probably. But it wasn’t until—over the years I’ve seen many, many productions. The play really works. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen this play not work… When we worked on the play a few years ago, and again it’s the same feeling, you feel that the play is virtually perfect. There’s not a line, not a stage direction, that’s extra. You need everything in this play.
Ari Cohen: I was in first year university when I first read it, at the University of Manitoba, and if I’m not mistaken we did scenes from it. And when I was asked to do the play two years ago, I sat down and read it again—I probably hadn’t read it in 20 years. And I was astounded.
Mike Ross: For me, I was going to the University of Prince Edward Island, and I had no intentions of being an actor. I was studying music there. For an easy elective I took a theatre 101 course. There was an old teacher there named Ron Irving, and he got us to read the Biff/Happy scene at the top of the play.
Cohen: Oh yeah, I think we did that scene too.
Ross: I remember, I remember reading it thinking “Oh, I like doing this.” It was just so easy to read, you felt like a real person. So it’s kind of funny, flash forward 15, 16, 17 years—I agree with these guys, it’s just a play that, how good is it gonna be?
What do you think a live performance adds to the script that you don’t get from reading or studying it?
Ziegler: [Miller’s] first concept of the play was to call it Inside His Head. So it was to be a play that existed in several dimensions at once. You get that when you read it to a certain extent, but it’s nothing like seeing it on stage. Because the guy is talking in the present day, and then he turns and somebody from 30 years ago walks onto the scene and he begins a conversation with him. It’s what Miller also felt about the movie versions, as wonderful as they can be, we’re used to seeing a flashback in the vocabulary of movies. On the stage, it was revolutionary.
Ross: And he tracks it back with the cheese—the cheese is the thing. It anchors us in the present moment. [To Ziegler] We go inside your head and when we come out, [Linda] says, right, “Did you get some cheese?” So then we know. It’s these helpful things that anchor it all. I can see why they would want to call it something like that.
Ziegler: Well, the first designs for the set were all, “Let’s make it a skull.” They abandoned that eventually.
Cohen: I think the producers were none too pleased when he wanted to call it Death of a Salesman, they didn’t feel that would really pack in the audience for some reason.
In the United States, Canadians have kind of witnessed the fall of the American Dream recently. What can Death of a Salesman still teach us?
Ziegler: In the play, Willy Loman eventually is a failure, or he’s led to believe he’s a failure. And the reason he’s a failure is really because he’s old. I have a brother-in-law who’s 61, been working for a company in Minneapolis for 30 years. They let him go, and hire him back as a consultant. So he’s doing the same work he did before, but he doesn’t have any benefits. This is what Arthur Miller is writing about. Willy Loman is made to look like a loser, but what the play is about in some ways is the big, creaky American system that doesn’t take into account the individual.
Ross: I hear a lot about the disease of being liked. And it’s something we can all relate to as actors. It’s very important to our business, to be liked on and off the stage. But it’s something we have to keep in check. If it becomes too important to you, you’re not living with any real presence. But this is Willy’s thing in the play.
Ziegler: In order to succeed, you’ve got to make sure that people like you.
Ross: That’s a scary thing, that’s a damaging thing to teach somebody.
Cohen: For my character, Biff, he’s grown up with this doctrine that likability is everything, is more important than substance. All you need to be is a successful football hero and suddenly doors will open. And it doesn’t work out to necessarily be that way.
The relationships between Willy, Biff, and Happy—it really feels like a guy’s guy kind of play. How did you three relate to their dynamic?
Cohen: Somebody once described it as “a love story between a father and son.” It’s working with great actors, it’s really that simple. Not a lot of outside bonding is really required I don’t think. We didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about the nature of this family.
Ziegler: That’s why the play is so great, you read it or see it and you understand it. It’s all there. It’s not that hard to latch onto. And, you know, I’ve got three sons (laughs). So the knowledge of wanting my sons to succeed, oh my God, that’s kind of my home address. We just delivered our youngest up to Queen’s, it’s—oh my God.
Ross: I’ve got a complicated relationship with my dad, a loving one. But who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with their parents? But I definitely draw on that.
Cohen: Yeah, I’m both a father and the son of a father, so there are loads of things I can relate to, of course.
Does anything feel especially different in this production as opposed to the one you did in 2010?
Ziegler: It feels sadder to me. In a good way, if there is such a thing. It feels so hopeless. I don’t know, maybe I’m older. There just doesn’t seem to be any way out.
Cohen: There are some funny things too though. Lest we forget.
Ziegler: And you asked before about how the play aged. Having done it once before, we can say that it hasn’t aged. There are a few phrases, certainly there aren’t any cell phones on stage, but still what the play is about—the relationships—those haven’t changed.