So last week I went to see the much-lauded production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. It originally opened at the Young Vic last year and it is up for every award every in the history of London theatre. The actors deserve their nominations, they are to a person phenomenal. The production of the play, not so much.
In 1989 University of Chicago put on Miller's less known play American Clock. It was unlauded and didn't sell out. But I went to see it and sat in the empty back of the theatre with with my friend Kevin and Arthur Miller. I have been in the same room as him so I am obviously qualified to speak to what he would like and not like. I don't think he would like this production.
First, the set. The play takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn and revolves around a hard working American who lets two illegal immigrants stay in his house. He is in love with his niece, and refuses to let her marry one of the immigrants, Rudolfo, when they fall in love. The piece is thick with Miller's working class American males, appeasing women, economic reality, frustration and work, work, work. It is intensely kitchen sink. The immigrants challenge Eddie to lift up a chair.
However, the Belgian director has set the piece in an incredibly futuristic sleek glass and steel stage. There is no furniture. There is no Brooklyn closeness. It's like people from 1930's Red Hook found themselves beamed into a stripped-down shiny starship. Hey, guys, the view is not from the Bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise! It's the Brookyln Bridge. They might have misread that part.
So when Marco, one of the immigrants, challenge Eddie, they have to bring out a chair. An anomaly. It looks out of place on the starship, it's not integral. The American magic of making due, of finding something in your surroundings to become a symbol of power, that was lost when the chair was ceremoniously paraded out.
And it wasn't just the set. It was like a European had walked out of an SNL parody and put on the play. Eddie kisses Rudolpho as well as his niece, as if his incestuous love for his niece is a cynical power play he tries out on the men. Too far. There was an ominous Requiem playing between the scenes (Durufle?), and the play ended in a heavy-handed shower of blood.
You know, having lived in Europe for the last thirteen years, I am very familiar with the conventional wisdom that Europeans have a higher aesthetic, that their art is better, especially their theater. I have even actually bought into this conventional wisdom on occasion. And when I lived in the United States I did think there was something that was more ineffably cool about being European. But it was obvious to me at Wyndham Theatre that what Europe brought to this play lessened it somehow. It lessened the subtlety and beauty of Miller's simple tale of human struggle. The theatrics made it less theatrical.
I think Arthur Miller wants Eddie to die in a tenement, not in a starship. He dies in a place you could die.
This seems to have sparked an Arthur Miller revival - RSC is doing Death of a Salesman next season - and that's a good thing. I only hope that the American aesthetic will be preserved in that production, We don't need soaring Lachrymosas and Gothic arches to tell our tales. We can find them simply, sitting in the back of a theater, looking at a crowded, homey stage.