PART 2: DEATH OF A SALESMAN
In his program notes for Theater Mitu’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Rubén Polendo describes the play as an exploration of a question that the company had begun to ask itself in its tenth year of existence: “Did this company become what it set out to be.” Mitu’s production emphasized the character of the salesman’s son Biff “as the locus of this question.” According to Polendo, Biff “is in a complete and utter state of exploration; having once sat as the chosen son, surrounded by dreams — dreams that he certainly helped create — he was the epitome of potential.” But as the play opens, Biff “now sits surrounded by the reality of the world; by age, financial crisis, heartbreak and fear.” Bearing in mind Miller’s original title for the play, “The Inside of His Head,” Polendo sought to create “a stage filled with memories, regrets, and echoes.” Mitu’s production drew from the traditions of Greek tragedy, Japanese Noh drama, Bunraku puppetry, and Vaudeville. Most surprising, perhaps, was the choice to have certain characters represented by objects, manipulated by Bunraku puppeteers dressed in black, their dialogue pre-recorded. In the first part of our interview with Polendo, we discussed the collaborative process through which Theater Mitu creates its productions. In part two, we focus on the company’s Abu Dhabi production of Death of a Salesman.
ES: How did you decide that some of the characters in Death of a Salesman should be played by inanimate objects?
Polendo: As I read the play, four voices were loud in my ear and in my mental picture: Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy. Everybody else for some reason felt very canned to me, as if they were pre-recorded. It just felt like pouring your heart out to a really bad friend, and their answer is, “It’s gonna be all right.” And you think, “You didn’t hear a word I said. That’s the answer you give to every problem, isn’t it?” Or you go to your boss, and you say, “Really, I’m in a situation,” and the reply is, “You’re a good worker. Good luck next week.” As we began unpacking this idea when we were workshopping the play, we realized two things. First, that we often encounter people as functions. For example, I’ve been in so many offices where I deal with a very kind receptionist. But, if you ask me about my day, I actually don’t remember him or her. I just remember the function. And that provided a vision of the play. We began to play this game with the characters, asking ourselves, “Well, what would he be? And what would she be?”So if a character’s function is to be “the one who answers the phone,” then she becomes a phone. Or if your function is to be bright and brilliant and successful, then — poof — you are a bright and big light that no one can look into.” It was like having a magic wand.
And then we realized that this technique could highlight the family’s predicament. How isolated and lonely you’d feel if you had to go, not to a person, but to an object and ask, “Please help me.” And that object just goes, “Well, good luck, see ya at the football game.”
ES:Why was Happy the only member of the family to be represented, at certain points in the play, by an object, in his case a punching bag?
Polendo: As I was reading the play, Happy kept coming in and out of the picture. Almost in a sci-fi kind of way, as if I could see him and then suddenly not see him. I would read a scene, and Happy would feel just as human and just as present as the rest of the family. But then I would read the next scene and feel like he’s almost starting to lose his humanity and become just a function, an object. And then he’s back. And then he’s forward. To me, he felt like a hybrid. So, in our production, he’s actually conceptualized as a hybrid: he’s an object, but he’s not recorded: he’s mic’ed. So he sounds a little bit like the recorded characters. You don’t see his face most of the time, but then there’s moments when you flash back in time and you do see his face. I was trying to convey the sense that if things keep moving in the direction that they seem to be moving for the family, in twenty years Happy would be just one of those object-characters, just a punching bag.
ES: So it’s a mixture of metonymy and reification?
Polendo: Absolutely. Our hope was to create a grammar of representation, so that the closer they get to an emotional truth, the characters have a different relationship to this object presence. And for me, at least, the core of the argument was to create this kind of loneliness around Willy Loman. I would argue that the woman whom he had the affair with, even someone with whom he had this romantic life was just somebody else using him to get what she needed. Again, it’s a kind of function. And it breaks my heart. The character of Willy Loman breaks my heart.
There’s a funny thing that I want to share. So here we are working on the piece, and I’m talking about “metaphor” and and “the soul of the artist” — you know, these large statements. And two weeks into rehearsal, one of the actors asks, “What did your father do for a living, Rubén?” And I said, “Oh, he was a salesman.” And I literally stopped. Stupidly enough — this is completely true – here I am saying that, you know, Willy moves me, and I understand that family, and blah, blah. Forgetting that my father was a salesman! He just was. He was a car salesman. And he literally went from being the top of the line to getting older and becoming less successful to actually no longer being employee of the year, ’cause he’s now 55. And there’s no retirement plan. The whole thing. And I, literally, almost started crying because … “Oh, my God!” Here I was living in metaphor and all this incredibly “intelligent” rhetoric. I guess now it’s no secret why that play moves me so much.
ES: One result of making Happy part of this kind of metonymic reification is to train more of the spotlight on Biff.
Polendo: Maybe the most controversial aspect of our production, actually, is that we think of it as Biff’s play. We really framed it as being about his journey. The metaphor I always use is that the rock that breaks the window to get us into this house is Biff. I think he becomes our proxy. It’s almost as if Biff has been allowed to go inside Willy’s head and view all the relics of their lives. Maybe at another point in my life, I will view the play through Linda’s eyes, but for now it’s Biff. He’s a proxy for the artist, because he’s this big dreamer trying to be allowed to dream that dream and not to have to say why he’s dreaming it.
ES: And, of course, Biff, like you, is the son of a salesman.
Polendo: That’s right. Which is so arrogant, right? [Laughs.]
ES: Where there any changes in your conception as you began to work with the play?
Polendo: The biggest change that there was was there used to be a chorus, an actual full chorus of twenty actors, ten men and ten women, all in their 60s. And they sat at the side. They were the ones who actually gave the actors playing Willy and Linda their masks for any time when they wore the masks. And all of the monologues that Willy had were actually done by the chorus. I wanted the presence of that age and gravitas, but somehow it didn’t work. It just thinned the conversation out too much. And so we let go of that.
ES: The chorus was meant to be a conscious invocation of Greek tragedy?
Polendo: Absolutely, but it was too overt. But they helped Justin [Nestor] create the character of Willy. If you are a young actor and you’re playing a 65-year-old man and you have ten 65-year-old men watching you, you’ve gotta be on your game! You can’t do a cartoon, because all of them will say, “Hey, I’m not 100. I’m 65!” Plus, you had a very healthy 65 year old, a very tired 65 year old, a very neurotic 65 year old. It gave Justin a palette. The same with the actor who played Linda. You have ten 65-year-old women, and one of them is looking at you saying, “I just came from Pilates.” So they really had to play emotion, weight, and memory in a very sophisticated way. It was a really big gift, having those men and women their for the rehearsals. Going back to the the scientist that I feel like I was trained to be, it really was a laboratory of exploring and experimenting. But it just didn’t work.
ES: The Greek tragic tradition is still evoked, though, by the production’s use of masks.
Polendo: Definitely. The idea of tragedy, particularly Greek tragedy is one of the two big artistic and theoretical motifs that run through our expression of the piece. One is Greek tragedy and the other one is Japanese Noh. Both were present from the beginning of our conversation. Miller talks about it endlessly in terms of his relation to tragedy. Death of a Salesman is a tragedy, and he’s following a certain tradition in terms of that. Meanwhile, the formality of Japanese Noh became really important to us. Noh has the shite character [pronounced sh’tay], who is the masked character. And the idea is that this character is, in a way, the most graceful character, but it’s the one that holds all the secrets. There’s also the ai character, the witness. And then there’s the waki character, the character that moves out of the norm. And that’s what you see in our production: Willy and Linda are these shite characters with their masks and holding all the secrets; Biff functions as the witness; and Happy functions as a waki character, this creature that’s outside of the norm. And then when it came to staging and some further conceptualizations, Greek tragedy became huge. We were intersted in the idea of really trying to encounter catharsis and also creating spectacle as a kind of tension that deals with sacrifice. I think Miller was interested in those things.
Polendo: As a company, we’ve been obsessed with vaudevillian tradition. Vaudeville has two modalities. One is comic vaudeville, which is probably what’s most familiar and best documented by silent film or early animation. It has these incredible routines, which are not unlike commedia dell’arte (which, of course, is a masked tradition). Then there’s another form that got broken a bit more, which is dramatic vaudeville. The best version of that is in silent horror films, when you’re seeing the damsel in distress tied to the train tracks and the evil guy with the moustache. Both are what I would call hyper-theatrical, because it’s a very studied vocabulary that requires large gestures so the audience can see them.When we brought those elements, including vaudevillean song, to Miller’s play, it just worked. It created a rhythm that’s linked to vaudeville, which extends from about the 1910s all the way to 1930s. It just cracked the play open.
ES: What difference, if any, did the context of Abu Dhabi make in your staging of Death of a Salesman?
Polendo: It made a lot of difference. Abu Dhabi is place where people’s identities are really tailored to their functions. Jobs, labor, and work really define so much of life here. And Willy is a kind of ex-pat: he has been absent from the life of his family, because he’s always been on the road and working in his attempt to provide. And that experience is part of this place, where so people are coming here to work and being separated from their families. Whether it be in our own community, in labor communities, in ex-pat communities, this idea of work becomes really key; in some cases, as with Willy, you just begin to have this dual life. And so, for me, the play becomes a cautionary tale about keeping those lives connected and keeping some semblance of truth in link.
Thematically, I think that’s what happened. In terms of audiences, what I’m so excited about is that I think that the grammar of the piece, despite how strange and crazy and conceptual it was, was understood. It was really understood. I think there’s often a little bit of underestimation about audiences in Abu Dhabi. I’ve been privy to some artistic conversations in other institutions, and sometimes when something artistic is conceived, there’s the immediate response: “Oh, no, no, Abu Dhabi audiences, you know, they might not get that.” I don’t know that I agree. There were many people in that audience who see theater all the time. And there were people who told me, “I’ve never seen a theater piece before, ever.” But it wasn’t “Oh, I don’t go to theater. I didn’t get it.” And it was a diverse audience. We had students come in from the women’s college at U.A.U.E. in Al Ain. We had our students. We had workers from our cafeteria who came to see it, which was awesome.
ES: It sounds as if you’re making a case for the power of theater.
Polendo: Yes, absolutely.
ES: So, what’s the power of theater for you? I mean, what can theater do that other art forms don’t do?
Polendo: The kind of theater that interests me is a theater that creates a sense of commonality and a strength in community. We see a predicament — whether it be comic, tragic, or dramatic — that’s so incredibly dense and incredibly well articulated and incredibly human that all you can do as an audience is actually witness it as a reflection of yourself. It’s the predicament, so that when you see somebody wrestling, for example, with ideas of love and trying to rid yourself of jealousy or imperfection or doubt — when you see that on stage, then you as an audience respond: “I understand that. I actually understand that. I have those feelings. I also don’t have answers.” And there’s something about that spark that we need, because it creates a kind of strength. Theater can create a place place where you really can commune in that strength.
But, actually, I don’t understand theater. That’s the center of every theater class you’ll ever take with me. I don’t understand theater. Justin, who is the actor who plays Willy, I know him. He’s one of my dearest friends. It is a mystery to me why an hour and ten minutes into Act One, I’m crying over him. I’m worried about him. He’s the same man. And I’m a smart man: I know it’s Justin. I know he’s gonna be okay. I know I’m having dinner with him at 11:30 that night. But something happens in that theatrical moment that engages my imagination and my heart and my soul. That mask merges into his face. That costume becomes something that man has worn his entire life. There’s something in that transformation that is incredibly unique and revelatory. It becomes a moment in which spirits join and imaginations join. It becomes a strengthening moment.
ES: Would it be fair to say that, with Death of a Salesman, you’ve taken a piece of classic American drama and transformed it into a piece of world drama or brought out the world drama within it?
Polendo: Yes, and it’s interesting, because we’ve always done the reverse, brought pieces like the Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata, to the U.S. With Death of a Salesman, we’ve actually taken it and made it this global theatrical creature, so that you’re no longer looking at it and saying, “Well, I don’t really understand America in the ’50s.” Instead, it became this other place. It became an almost dream-like landscape full of metaphor and symbol. And that starts opening up the play so that it can be played in Abu Dhabi, in Japan, and back in the United States. The only thing that I ever ask of our sources is that they’re able to hold all our crazy and wonderful and strange ideas. And sometimes they don’t, and we have to admit, “Ah, that’s not for us.” But Death of a Salesman held and held really strongly — I would say even bloomed for us.
Interview conducted by Norina Miszori and Cyrus Patell
[Photos by Nikolai Kozak, courtesy of Theater Mitu. Top: Julianna Bloodgood as Linda and Justin Nestor as Willy in Theater Mitu's production of Death of a Salesman; middle: Julianna Bloodgood; bottom: Justin Nestor.]