Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, the Group 20 players' current offering at Wellesley, is a far cry from the usual light summer fare; it provides a gripping and cathartic evening of theatre. Although starting off innocently enough, the play soons builds into a searing and even excoriating medium.
Without giving too much away, I can say that the play deals with Eddie Carbone, an uneducated Brooklyn longshoreman who has reared his wife's niece over-protectively. He takes in to board two of his wife's Italian cousins as illegal immigrants; and when one of them falls in love with the niece, the zealous Eddie becomes the jealous Eddie. In time his obsession turns into a rabid psychosis, which drives the drama to its horrifying conclusion.
When Miller finished the one-act play a year ago, it ran only an hour and a half. So he prefaced it with a short mood piece for its Boston and Broadway runs last fall. He stated at the time that it should not be lengthened, and was too honest a dramatist just to pad it out, as Tennessee Williams obviously did with Summer and Smoke. After the play failed, a re-examination led him to revise and expand it a bit; but the expansion into two acts, including a couple of important new scenes, adds only about ten minutes to the running time. The Wellesley company is giving the new version its public premiere. Both the play and the production are a marked improvement.
This piece points up the fact that Miller is a serious, sincere and honest experimenter. His revising is quite a different matter from the spectacle of Williams' rewriting the third act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an eye to commercial appeal and box office receipts. One never gets the feeling from Miller, as one does from Williams, that the author is merely tricking and manipulating the audience with technical virtuosity; Miller moves his audience by meaningful revelation. And when he deals in A View with the subject of homosexuality, it is legitimate and necessary dramatically; whereas in Cat and other plays of Williams it is dragged in either just to shock or because he thinks it's the thing to do these days.
In short, Miller is a master of high tragedy. He provides, as the ancient Greeks demanded, "a proper purgation through pity and terror." But he defied the Greeks in proving that high tragedy can be achieved by dealing with common people as well as with persons of stature and renown, as in Death of a Salesman and A View.
More than once I have heard Miller say that he is interested above all in probing into intra-family relationships--the whole complex of loves, tensions and conflicts operating within a family. Salesman was not a play about Willy Loman, but about the Loman family. Similarly now, we are viewing, from our seats on Brooklyn Bridge, not the life of Eddie, but the web of personal interactions in the Carbone household: husband and wife, aunt and niece, boy and girl, girl and guardian, brother and brother, cousin and cousin, landlord and tenant, illiterate manual laborer and cultured lawyer, and so on. And if this probing embarrasses the spectators by forcing them to associate what they see with their own family experiences, so much the better; for "I've hit the inner truth," Miller once said, "only when I embarrass myself."
A View, however, is not another Salesman, for Miller is ever experimenting in method--while Williams' plays run in the same rut. (I seem to be using Williams as a whipping boy, but the comparison is inevitable since they are at the moment the two most respected and talked-about of our native playwrights.) Conscious of the weight of classical Greek drama behind him, Miller here has purposely moved closer to it and away from realism. He employs a lawyer, Alfieri, in a double role: as a temperately counseling participant in the action; and as an outside narrator or commentator (like the Greek chorus), set off effectively at Wellesley by a solo flute line in the background. Miller's attempt to insert passages of poetic speech into Alfieri's role does not quite come off, though; and he would do well to dispense with the gimmick of framing the play between "Good evening. Welcome to the theater," and "This is the end of the story. Good night."
The first production of the play had the requisite terror but lacked the element of pity. One could only loathe Eddie; and the production suffered further from Martin Ritt's faulty direction (especially in the last scene) and the disgracefully poor acting of Gloria Marlowe as the niece. But now the play has both pity and terror. The new portions, particularly in the doorstep scene between Eddie and his wife in act one, clarify the characters' motivations; and, though we still cannot condone Eddie, we do understand and pity him.
Much of the praise belongs to brilliant young director Elliott Silverstein, who has taken pains with everything down to the smallest Italianate gesture of the fingers and has still preserved the overall sweep and surge of the drama's inner line.
The level of acting is consistently high. Michael Higgins is magnificent in the demanding role of Eddie. He controls to perfection a versatile voice that, without forcing, projects clearly almost any distance. Having seen him before in Desire Under the Elms, The Lark, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, I do not hesitate to rate him as one of the very top young actors of our day. I don't believe he could give a poor performance. He impresses both my eye and ear as being like what I suspect Raymond Massey was at the height of his prime.
Olive Dunbar as the wife, Thomas Hill and Anthony Vorno as the immigrant cousins, and Thomas Clancy as the lawyer-narrator are all excellent. Jill Kraft is more than adequate as the niece, though her vocal inflections do not always ring true. William Roberts' set is appositely stark and grim, with a suggestion here and there of classical Greek architecture (as in Boris Aronson's Broadway set). Tharon Musser's lighting is always helpful if straightforward.
Group 20's superb translation of Miller's intent should encourage him to continue shunning the tested formula in favor of honest experimentation, from which we all can learn and benefit.