Sunday 8 November 2015

A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller

BBC Radio's recent Arthur Miller centennial season has forced upon me a dramatic (no pun intended) re-evaluation of this great American playwright. 

I was familiar with The Misfits, Miller's ill-fated vehicle for his wife Marilyn Monroe — starring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, with its Miller script and directed by John Huston, it should have been a masterpiece. But it wasn't. And then of course there's Death of the Salesman, which I'd read when I was young, and The Crucible, which I'd read when I was less young.

But nothing prepared me for the power, sophistication and breadth of his work. What really knocked me out was A View from the Bridge, Miller's mid-1950s masterpiece.

The bridge in question is the Brooklyn Bridge, and the view is of the dockyards in Red Hook and its surrounding community. 

Miller had become familiar with these docks when he researched a screenplay with director Elia Kazan, called The Hook. (Also featured in the BBC season in a special radio adaptation.) Hollywood never bought the hook, but Kazan later developed a similar film without Miller. It was called On the Waterfront. You might have heard of it.

A View from the Bridge is set in exactly this milieu, and I expected it to cover similar territory — labour disputes, gangster involvement in the unions, the dangers facing the longshoremen. But it goes somewhere completely different.

It's a taut family drama. A kind of modern Greek tragedy. Eddie Carbone has raised his orphaned niece Catherine since the death of her parents. Now that she's a beautiful 17 year old his feelings for her have become something other than paternal, but Eddie can't admit that.

The situation comes violently to a head when Eddie and his wife Bea take in a couple of 'submarines' — illegal immigrants from the old country, Bea's cousins. One of these brothers is married and rather dull. The other is young, handsome, and unattached, Rodolfo. Of course, Catherine and Rodolfo fall in love. And Eddie just can't take it. Which leads him to commit an unspeakable act of treachery.

Miller's writing is sheer genius. Immensely powerful, subtle and profound. I was utterly gripped by the play, and knocked out by it. In no way pretentious or theoretical, it is utterly down to earth, accessible and potent. And, as one astute commentator pointed out, in works like this we can see the connection between Arthur Miller's dramas and the likes of The Sopranos.

This magnificent BBC Radio 3 production can be found here and will be available for a couple more weeks as I write. If you're reading this post after it's gone, I suggest getting a copy of the play and reading it.

And do what I'm going to do — catch the next live stage production that appears.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. I particularly love the vintage Bantam with the beautiful black and white illustration by Sanford Kossin. Its depiction of Eddie, Catherine and Rodolfo says it all.)

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