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Lives, Saved or Lost (Part II)

Why art endures — and why artists should.

This is part II of Michael Feingold's latest "Thinking About Theater" column.
Click here to read part I.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly (center), and Robert LuPone in the 2000 Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's True West, directed by Matthew Warchus.

I don't pretend to understand what makes someone an addictive personality. I've heard it said that addiction may have a genetic basis, but I've never examined the evidence. My principal addiction over the years, now fortunately wearing off, has been to the writer's drug: books. As addictions go, it's a comparatively benevolent habit. Books will clutter your apartment and your mind, but they don't damage you physically unless a pile of them happens to fall on your head. And although they rarely take you to the state of bliss induced by injectable drugs, they have their incidental pleasures — and sometimes even their profitable side.

All of which simply means that I don't understand what happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman because I can't find any reason for it. He had a family; he had money, fame, and (better than fame) artistic prestige; he had constant employment, at the high end of his profession. Granted, all these gratifications produce their own pressures, but Hoffman's stature gave him leeway to lighten those pressures. If domesticity cloyed, he had built himself a worldful of artistic colleagues to turn to. Where ordinary working actors can get stuck grinding out work that bores them, a star of Hoffman's stature could limit engagements and schedule respites. Even better, he could choose roles that mattered to him, knowing that if he mentioned his choice, a production would most likely follow.

Yes, roles that matter can create their own dangers, and Hoffman threw himself into his roles with total abandon. His stature in the profession did not come from his technical finesse (though he had that in plenty), but from the intensity he poured into every onstage moment. His acting was big, meaty, and emotionally fervent, its nerve ends sometimes disturbingly visible. Some of his friends have now hinted that the stress of playing his last Broadway role, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, eight times a week, might have helped push him off the wagon after 23 years of sobriety; but blaming Arthur Miller, or the role, seems foolishly facile; sure, playing Willy makes demands; the feelings he compels an actor to dredge up for every performance can't be fun to live with. But hundreds, maybe thousands of actors have played Willy Loman and survived, just as thousands have played other roles notoriously tormenting to carry — Lear, Othello, Faust, Sweeney Todd — and lived to recollect their achievement with pleasure.

And Hoffman's Willy was an achievement, the best performance, I believe, that I ever saw him give, an exceptional, and truly troubling creation — troubling in that, compared to earlier Willys, he seemed openly unhinged, a man visibly going to pieces, with his family in studious denial of the fact. This fitted the play so surprisingly well that it struck me as evidence, not of Hoffman's own inner troubles, but of his very contemporary willingness to search out those afflicting the character. If, as it turned out, there was a horrifying kinship between the two, we can only wish that he had been able to learn survival from it, rather than letting it take him down.

James Hayden (left) with Al Pacino in the 1983 Broadway revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo, directed by Arvin Brown.
(© Peter Cunningham)

Because art, fundamentally, is about survival and is always an instance of survival. This truth lasts even though every generation, unhappily, supplies examples of souls who find their way to art but wind up losing the struggle, for whatever personal reason. In the aftermath of Hoffman's death, I thought about James Hayden (1953-1983), a handsome and gifted young actor, with everything ahead of him. He had given two notable performances in Broadway revivals, as Rodolpho in A View from the Bridge and as Bobby, the addicted kid in American Buffalo. Hayden's inner demons may not all have been homegrown: Before becoming an actor, he had served as a U.S. Army medic in Vietnam. And one night he went home after the show, phoned his estranged wife in L.A. to plead with her to come back to him, and was told that she would only if he went clean. He then took the shot of heroin that killed him.

Hayden's colleagues, like Hoffman's, were devastated. His neighbors, who knew him as a cheerful young man happy in his work, were utterly flabbergasted; a skillful actor, he had masked his troubled soul with a smiling exterior. That his death resonated with the role he had been playing at the time provoked many disturbing comments. But blaming Mamet then would have made no more sense than blaming Miller now. The impulse is in us, not in the work. Everyone has it; in each of us it is weighted differently.

That's why, in a sense, this essay is as much about Sheldon Harnick as about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Harnick, now aged 90, is of a generation of artists who learned to survive. They learned it through the Great Depression and World War II. I have the joy of knowing and having worked with many of them, because I am of the generation just after theirs; they are the ones who mentored me and inspired me in the theater. Survival is their premise, and they have not stopped working. Harnick, who has lived through both extraordinary worldwide success and disheartening failure, goes on working. At Dragons, he was not only still making touch-ups but had actually gone on, at the Saturday night performance, when the actor playing the Mayor fell ill.

Beth Cole and Philip Seymour Hoffman in LAByrinth Theater Company's 2007 production of Bob Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating, directed by Peter DuBois.
(© Monique Carboni)

Is there a secret to survival? Other than sheer persistence, probably not. But the ending of Dragons, the still-embryonic musical for the York Theatre Company's recent reading of which Harnick just provided a new song, supplies a possible clue. The new song, sung by the Mayor, who has served as chief collaborator to the gigantic monster terrorizing the townsfolk, anatomizes the more dangerous dragons lurking inside each of us: lust, envy, power-hunger, greed. The solution, the hero finally realizes, lies not in finding a leader purified of all these vices, but in the simple awareness of others' concerns. "Care for One Another" is the name of Harnick's finale. It sounds reasonable, if perhaps overgeneralized. Thinking of Hoffman, one realizes that the secret catch in it is not only to think of others when reaching out to help them, but to think of them when dealing with yourself. To write means thinking that someone will read this; to act, that someone is seeing this performance. To stick an alkaloid-based dreamworld into your arm and float away means the opposite of that, whether the results are fatal or not.

Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays March 14 and March 21.