David Esbjornson Interview
September 27, 2010
Following the sell-out production of All My Sons last year, the Gate Theatre presents Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, which runs till Saturday the 4th of September. Featuring Harris Yulin, the character actor who props up movies as diverse as Scarface and Rush Hour 2(and whose guest appearance in Star Trek DS9 as the Cardassian war criminal Marritza was the highlight of the whole series) it is directed by renowned American director David Esbjornson, possibly best known for helming the first ever run of Angels in America. Esbjornson talks here to Caomhan Keane and tells him why Ireland, why Salesman and why we need writers like Arthur Miller.
Why Salesman and why the Gate Theatre. Is this your first time directing the piece or was there some other attraction to working in Ireland?
Michael Colgan had said that he wanted to do DOAS for quite soon time but that it might be too big a big play for the space. I really wanted to do that play and I was not put of by the challenge of attempting to do it in a small venue. What you gain is an intimacy with the characters.
What attributes do you look for in an actor playing Willie Lohman?
A really solid craft. Somebody who has a lot to draw on and who is able to shift and turn and play all those psychological demands that are asked of him. To be able to technically turn on a dime from one thing to another. You want somebody who has a debt of emotion and intellect and passion but at the same time you want some one who can handle the technical twists and turns that Arthur Miller asks of the actor.
Richard Eyre during his period as head of the National Theatre put on a production of Salesman and said that it was now a period piece and not a parable for our times?
You can’t take it out of its period because the language is so specifically about the 1940s and the way the characters act. You can’t really find a modern equivalent, so I agree with him, it is a period piece. That being said the resonance is there and I think it helps us understand more about how we got to where we are now. This play is incredibly timely.
Its really a play about misplaced identity isn’t. The salesman vs. the real man?
I think there are two identities going on. One is who he really is and what would make him happy and the other is who he feels he should be and the chasing of that dream. He believes strongly in the American dream and the ideas that he is perceiving so much that he looses track of himself.
Its been said that the characters in Millers plays act like fools but are driven by emotions and instincts that they do not understand…but that we the audience do.
I think he believes he understands it and that he thinks he knows what it is that he’s after but he hangs onto these ideas so that he cant handle the twists and turns that reality presents him with. So he fails profoundly.
I have a feeling that the audience puts themselves and their own fathers and their own families through this story. I don’t think they have trouble translating it. Everybody sells. It doesn’t matter what we do were all selling in some way shape or form.
Another theory bandied about when this piece was first produced was ” Can it be a tragedy when your hero is a fool”.
I don’t agree with that at all. I know from the reactions people have just reading this play that the tragedy is absolutely clear. I don’t think he is a fool. He is a failed man who has charisma, who cares deeply and believes in himself and in the American dream as a package. That it’s intricate to American society. People are taught this and it’s impossible to separate normal everyday life from this concept. The fact that he has bought into it makes him no different from millions of others except that maybe he is extreme in his behavior to some extent.
Its amazing that people who benefit from say the health care system are the ones who fight it them most because they just aren’t conscious about it.
Harold Clurman said that DOAS showed that Americans were not afraid to view themselves critically and that it made them aware of social responsibility? Who are the modern American play writes who have the same affect?
I had the great fortune to direct the world premiere of Angels in America and I would say Tony Kushner is very much in that camp. I think he tried to put a mirror to the 80s culture and give people of responsibility regarding the AIDS crisis and how that was integrated into the political landscape.
There are a number of writers who tap into the political landscape but I think there should be more. Our Arthur Millers and Tony Kushner’s are few and far between and I think we could use a little bit more introspection when it comes to our politics and our country. I think when Arthur’s play was produced there was very strong feeling of social responsibility and I think we have lost some of that. Any time anyone says anything or presents a moral position there is a whole other side of the aisle that wants to beat that own and go another way. Were not together on this.
I wish there were more writers who could give a real perspective like these writers can but you have to wait for that talent to emerge.