Arthur Miller’s Moralizing

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

I’ve always been grateful
to this production, both for its own beauties and for introducing me at last
to a Miller work that I could genuinely like. Miller’s major plays invariably
move me, but after carrying me along on their carefully arranged emotional journeys,
they just as inevitably let me down. As soon as my mind starts to engage the
process of "second-think," I recognize the shaky social analysis and
all the problems of implausibility, moralizing, technical gimmicks and unjustified
mythic conceits that serve as buttresses for the emotional edifices. But here,
in contrast, is a play as tightly woven and ineluctably pitched as a classical
tragedy, with a story about recrimination and redemption between two estranged
brothers that rises almost effortlessly to universality largely because of its
humble and precise particularity. Miller never wrote better than in The Price.

The setting is the cluttered
attic apartment of a brownstone that was once the home of Victor and Walter
Franz and their father–marvelously conceived, in this occasionally powerful
but ultimately disappointing new production directed by James Naughton, as a
gigantic Ionesco-like exaggeration of compression and accumulation, with tables,
bureaus, lamps, rugs and more piled densely, 20 feet high in every available
corner, and flanked by an expressionistically distorted ceiling and rear windows
(design by Michael Brown). After the father went bust in the 1929 stock market
crash, he languished and moldered in this place, surrounded by relics of his
lost wealth, and Victor–played here by Jeffrey DeMunn with an effectively
punchy combination of no-nonsense factuality and inadvertent sensitivity–gave
up his dream of a science career to care for him, eventually becoming a policeman.

Meanwhile, Walter–played
with a keen sense of patrician entitlement by Harris Yulin–went to medical
school and became a wealthy surgeon, and when the play opens, the brothers haven’t
spoken in 16 years. Victor’s grudge about his missed opportunities has
festered into a noxious inertia that now threatens his marriage, and he and
his alcoholic (and possibly unfaithful) wife Esther–played with superb
intensity by Lizbeth Mackay as a nervous soul yearning desperately for a reason
to be loyal–await Solomon, who has been called to bid on the furniture
because the building is scheduled for demolition. Walter walks in just as a
deal is being finalized (probably to Victor and Esther’s great disadvantage),
and his entrance changes the terms and spirit of the whole negotiation. Suddenly
the proper valuation (or "price") of everything–not just the
furniture but the whole overbearing past it palpably represents, as well as
the characters’ current lives–is the real subject under discussion.

Miller succeeds in making
a simple and ordinary transaction into much more than the crisis point in a
family drama. The Price is as much an allegory of quintessential American
selfishness and selflessness as Death of a Salesman is, but far less forced
and therefore stronger and more convincing. This is partly a result of the single
pressurized setting (the play is classically structured, with a single location
and an action that takes no longer than the time elapsed onstage) and partly
of Miller’s refusal to choose between the brothers. He declares no moral
victor, as he loudly does in, say, The Crucible and All My Sons.
Each of the characters is equally necessary to the searing, tragicomic conclusion,
including Esther, whose life hangs in the balance as much as the men’s,
and crusty old Solomon (note his name), with all his evasions and manipulations,
offers the only guidance the audience will get in serving as judge. "Good
luck you can never know till the last minute, my boy," he says at the end–the
same grimly purgative sentiment Sophocles inserted into the last line of Oedipus

As Buloff beautifully demonstrated,
this crucial seriocomic judicial or advisory role is why Solomon must be played
with the greatest possible breadth of soul, and it’s also why Naughton’s
production, in which so much is impressively shrewd and right, can be so badly
damaged by a single casting blunder. For one thing, Bob Dishy looks and acts
too young and hearty to play Solomon. With his bearish physique and brawny growl,
he never communicates real vulnerability or decrepitude and seems a contemporary
of the brothers. When he comes puffing up the stairs, his exhaustion seems like
a put-on. For another thing, his thick accent sounds much less Yiddish than
German, and the difference between Yiddish and German is the difference between
funny and unfunny, mellifluous and sinister.

This Solomon is far too
bitter, sharp-edged and calculating to read as a clown; when he eats his egg
and his Hershey bar, he is simply eating, not performing impromptu vaudeville
vignettes. He seems like an old Nazi imitating a Jew, prompting laughter only
at the character’s expense. When Victor speaks at one point of "people
fall[ing] in love with you," it seems like an irrelevant delusion. Happily,
the play’s still powerful and relevant central speeches about the age of
disposability and the fear lurking behind ambition and specialization are too
strong to be ruined. The irony is that, in the mouth of such a weak Solomon–who
is the heart of this play in which Miller finally transcended tendentiousness–the
speeches sound vaguely tendentious.

Those who swear by Arthur
Miller as America’s greatest playwright (and by Death of a Salesman
as our greatest play) typically believe that the most important test of a drama
is whether it is a powerful expression of collective conscience. His fans appreciate
moralists, and consider him one of the greatest. They compare themselves–or
their fathers, uncles and brothers–with his downtrodden heroes, feel bad
about the social and family circumstances that humiliate and undo them, and
leave the theater feeling righteous about the profundity of their feelings and,
hence, the solidity of their positions as buttresses of America’s presumably
shaky conscience.

This has always seemed to
me one of the most counterproductive approaches to drama possible in a land
where evasion of social responsibility begins in the cradle. Americans can’t
be preached to from the stage because they all feel innocent, and they won’t
sit still while some smart-aleck dramatist sells them ideas they don’t
want to buy because they’ve had enough of that in their daily lives. This
is where Brecht, who diagnosed the problem very accurately, got the solution
just as wrong as the Millers and proto-Millers of his time. Brecht’s ostensible
theater of free choice was really a theater of preachy parables, for the most
part. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "conscience makes
egotists of us all."

Royale Theater, 242 W. 45th
St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200.

In the Blood By
Suzan-Lori Parks

The proper response to
this conundrum is not, of course, to give up on all topical or social-minded
theater. Indeed, wonderful hybrid fruits have been bred in this orchard, in
our time, by artists as diverse as Emily Mann, Anna Deavere Smith, Naomi Wallace,
George C. Wolfe, David Edgar and Tony Kushner. What all these demonstrate, however,
is that the only way to get away with moralism in America is to avoid oversimplification
entirely and purge one’s work of everything that smacks of the egotism
and condescension of the explicit guilt trip.

Susan-Lori Parks has prodigious
talent, and many details of In the Blood, her new play loosely based
on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, are subtle and beautiful. This play
about a poor woman living under a bridge with five children by different fathers
also marks a significant stylistic change for her, an abandonment of free-form
grammar, syntax and historical excavation in the spirit of Gertrude Stein for
relatively conventional dialogue in the service of Brechtian parable. In
the Blood
isn’t the unqualified triumph that other critics have made
it out to be, though, because, for all its passion, originality and admirable
commitment to speaking frankly about poverty, it’s also riddled with cliches
and obvious moralistic antagonism.

The actress Charlayne Woodard
brings remarkable range, color and intensity to the character of Hester, the
mother. Hester, who always goes hungry herself, is seen making soup for her
young brood, patiently putting them to bed behind an old rusty doorway scrawled
with the word "SLUT," listening to their fears and problems, and lovingly
but firmly ministering to their other needs. The kids are all played by adult
actors who double as their own begetters or as other grownups who exploit Hester–a
doctor, social worker, streetwalker, preacher and former true love–and
each of these has a confessional monologue explaining his or her attraction
to Hester (who is described as very generous sexually but not very shrewd and
hence ripe for victimization).

While these confessions
provide a partial explanation of her narrowing entrapment, which eventually
brings on the play’s violent climax, they also deteriorate as the play
goes on. The liberal doctor’s description of spontaneous alleyway sex and
the female social worker’s fantasies of administrative and sexual domination
stay fresh and illuminating, but by the time the old boyfriend describes nights
of love in an abandoned car and the former-street-person-turned-celebrity-preacher
describes his fear that her paternity claim will drag him back into the gutter,
the audience is miles ahead of the writing. Parks’ basic concept of overlaying
current blame-the-victim notions of poverty with Hawthorne’s theme of Puritan
meanness was sound and interesting. In her rage and enthusiasm, however, she
grew predictable, forgetting about the severe limitations our savvy and self-satisfied
era places on the playwright-preacher.

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette
St. (Astor Pl.),239-6200, through Dec. 12.