Book Review

one day I read 5ive plays by Arthur Miller

on january 2nd, 2021, i read FIVE arthur miller plays

What feels like a few weeks ago, but was actually probably something like seven or eight months ago, I read After the Fall by Arthur Miller and I loved it. A few days later, I was browsing in a secondhand bookstore (remember indoor shopping lol!?) and found a cache of many many many Arthur Miller plays, several of them in a rather handsome 2015 “Miller Centennial” Edition. I bought three of these, as well as a shorter 1986 book titled Danger: Memory! which contains two one act plays.

So that was, way back in the Summer, five Arthur Miller plays subsumed into my “library” on the same day. In the spirit of the purchase, I decided to read them all in one day, too. Hahaha. Books!

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My compulsion to blog about every book I read is – and has been since the pandemic began tbh – getting in the way of my reading.

I have the time to read lots, but I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm required to blog lots, so I’ve decided to pivot slightly going into 2021: themed weeklyish posts, about numerous texts, grouped by author or content or chronology, or something else, who knows?

The first one of this new format will be what unfolds below, the tale of sad, sleepy, scott manley hadley reading FIVE Arthur Miller plays in the same day, that day being January 2nd, 2021. Yes, waaay back when the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening the world and the USA looked (again) on the edge of civil war. What a difference a few weeks makes! 😛

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan

Bigamy, like chip pan fires (what is a “chip pan”?) and owning property, was something my nineties childhood taught me would be an inevitable part of adult life.

That said, I honestly think this 1991 play (written when Miller was c. 75 and revised slightly by him seven years later for a production starring omg Patrick Stewart) is the first time I’ve ever encountered bigamy in literature, and I’ve certainly not yet known myself or any close friends to openly have multiple spouses. What a bunch of squares we millennials are.

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The Ride Down Mt. Morgan is a play about Lyman Felt, a man in his mid sixties who wakes up in a hospital somewhere in rural New England after a car crash, and is shocked to discover that both his original wife (who he lives with in New York) and his second wife (who he lives with close to his insurance firm’s “upstate” head office) have been invited to his beside.

Chaos ensues, as it is revealed Felt lied about obtaining a divorce and lied about separating from his first wife and lied about where and how he spent his time when not in the city.

I don’t quite know what Miller is trying to do here, because the character of Lyman is so unpretentious and blunt that his confessional assertions to his wives – that they always knew he was a selfish, sleazy, bastard but also very very rich – are backed up by the text.

Lyman lies about particulars, but not about his fundamental character: these women married him not because he was kind and good, but because he was fun to fuck and had loads of money.

It’s a play that, textually, behaves as if there is no justification for shock and disapproval from the women who have been “wronged”, which I think isn’t really OK. I’m no puritanical naif who believes that monogamy is the only acceptable and satisfying form of relationship, but Lyman’s situation is not consensual non-monogamy: his wives are not knowingly in a non-exclusive relationship, they both believe them selves to be Lyman’s only wife, Lyman’s only home, Lyman’s only family. 

Honesty in relationships is important, and the fundamentals of a relationship (i.e. a sense of reciprocal understanding of the other partner – or partners’ -expectations) should be mutually understood. It’s not fair to say, “Look, they knew I was a bastard when they first fucked me, this shouldn’t be a surprise” when Lyman has repeatedly and directly lied, over and over again, about these relationships. Miller’s text very much presumes his audience to side with the bigamist. Neither of the wives Miller has written here are particularly charming or kind, either, so what we end up with is a late-period sleazy Miller play about unexciting and uninteresting people failing to understand the intricacies of those they live closest to.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t kicked off this day of Miller with a banger…

The Man Who Had All The Luck

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes

This one was fucking brilliant, and good enough to have made this whole day of reading worthwhile, even if the next three are no better than the first one.

The Man Who Had All The Luck is very early Arthur Miller, first performed in 1944, tho not published as a book for several decades (according to the copyright page of this Penguin edition). It is much more of a typical tragedy, in terms of its structure, but manages to subvert expectations in a very satisfying way. 

The protagonist is David “Davey” Beeves, a young man who at the start of the play has been helped by a local friend (and quasi father figure) to start a mechanic’s repair shop. With the timely arrival of a more experienced mechanic, his business becomes a success, and the dickhead father of the woman he wants to marry dies in a car crash, leaving her and then David, once they’ve married, in possession of a farm.

Cut to a little later and David invests in other things and makes lots of money, even as other figures in his life repeatedly see their dreams dashed, in the way that dreams are regularly dashed by reality and the passage of time.

Increasingly, tho, as time goes by and David leaps from success to success, he becomes worried that his luck must eventually run out, and starts fixating on the idea that he is very very very overdue something bad happening in his life.

When his pregnant wife has a nasty fall in the wintry Midwestern ice, Davey convinces himself that the death or severe injury of his unborn child will be the tragedy he is overdue. Believing that one tragedy means he can bet on his luck again, he invests every penny he can get his hands on on a mink farm (kinda stupid thing I’d do tbh), but then his child is born healthy and Davey begins to descend into wild paranoia that his tragedy remains overdue, and when rumours of tainted mink feed reach him he falls apart, knowing financial ruin is finally at his gate.

But it doesn’t happen. Davey’s mink are fine, his child is fine, his tragedy, the inevitable tragedy he craves for a sense of completion and coherence, remains elusive. Davey ends the play as a man desperate to be ruined, because in his heart he feels it is only a matter of time.

“It all has to be paid for,” he screams. In real life, tho, it doesn’t: some people really do have all the luck, and often that luck is maintained by forever believing that said luck is deserved.

David doesn’t feel entitled to his wealth, unlike the typical affluent person from an affluent background. The Man Who Had All The Luck is a powerful drama about the impossibility of applying the narratives of art to our expectations of life. It’s a fucking belter. 

I just ate a big bowl of edamame. I’m having a lovely afternoon.

The Price

Solomon is an antiques dealer explaining to Victor why his sturdy, old, traditional furniture will be a hard sell:

SOLOMON: Because he knows it’s never gonna break.

VICTOR, not in bad humor, but clinging to his senses: Oh come on, will you? Have a little mercy.

SOLOMON: My boy, you don’t know the psychology! If it wouldn’t break there is no more possibilities. For instance, you take – crosses to table – this table… Listen! He bangs the table. You can’t move it. A man sits down to such a table he knows not only he’s married, he’s got to stay married – there is no more possibilities.

Victor laughs

You’re laughing. I’m telling you the factual situation. What is the key word today? Disposable. The more you can throw it away the more it’s beautiful. The car, the furniture, the wife, the children – everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is – shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself – he’d go to church, start a revolution – something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.

VICTOR, laughing: You’re terrific, I have to give you credit.

SOLOMON: I’m telling you the truth! If they would close the stores for six months in this country there would be from coast to coast a regular massacre. With this kind of furniture the shopping is over, it’s finished, there’s no more possibilities, you got it, you see? So you got a problem here.

The Price is the last full-length play of Miller’s I’ll be reading today, and overall I think its line by line writing is the best of the three so far.

It’s a play from the late 1960s, about two middle-aged brothers meeting for the first time in decades as an 89-year-old furniture appraiser tries to buy their once-wealthy-but-crushed-by-the-Wall-Street-Crash father’s leftovers for a tiny fraction of their value.

One of the brothers grew up to be rich and successful, a doctor, while the other – who was most promising academically in youth – gave up his studies to look after their father post-ruin, even tho the father was never really destitute, even tho the sacrifice made was one that didn’t really need to be made.

It’s a moving and powerful piece about responsibilities and presumed responsibilities and how these ideas can be manipulated and exploited and abused. The father was awful, holding in contempt the son who gave up his life for him, tho never giving him the freedom or approval the son needed to be able to move on.

It’s beautifully written, very wise, very powerful, and tho it doesn’t quite have the resounding emotional heft of The Man Who Had All The Luck, the characters Miller creates here – both those onstage and those who appear only as people discussed in dialogue – are deeply felt and impressively created.

Another very powerful piece.

Danger: Memory! I Can’t Remember Anything

This is a one act play, published in 1986, and likely written around the same time (the text doesn’t say and I haven’t researched). It is a short play, and it is a slight play, if I’m honest. Much less potent than the last two read.

It is about Leo and Leonora, two old friends (maybe siblings tho it doesn’t say that so probably not?) who discuss memories (and things they cannot remember) from the comfort of Leo’s home, described by Miller in his stage directions as “a bachelor’s heaven”.

The two characters discuss Leonora’s dead husband, Frederick, and how they both struggle to fill their days. Leonora is an alcoholic, constantly drinking the whiskey Leo – a teetotaller – keeps in his home just for her. 

It’s a piece about stasis, about the permanence and value of friendship. They do not live together, but they each have no one else. It’s a pleasing vignette, with fleshed-out humans living realistic human lives. Though I can’t help agreeing with Leo’s statement on the penultimate page of the script: 

We could have a lot more interesting conversations if you’d stop saying you can’t remember anything.

Indeed, my friend.

But what is ageing, what is life, if not the gradual abandonment and cessation of all pleasures, even nostalgia, even regret.

Danger: Memory! Clara

The day soon will end.

I’ve cracked open a beer, I’ve got the space heater blasting dry warmth at my stockinged feet (I say stockinged, they’re anklesocked), and I have all the ingredients in place to produce a gorgeous baba ganoush once I’ve read my way thru Clara, the fifth of the five Arthur Miller plays I – for no real reason – committed myself to reading today.

Let’s go.

Clara is as impressive, on a sentence level, as The Price, but wholly different in tone and structure. Theatrically, too, it is distinct, including the only multimedia stage directions I’ve encountered today (a screen above the actors to display words and images related to the dialogue).

Clara is about a detective interviewing a semi-retired, old, progressive, business owner, trying to goad him into giving the details of the boyfriend his parole officer daughter – the Clara of the title – recently brought home. Clara has been violently murdered and her boyfriend was someone she met through work, a (supposedly?) rehabilitated ex convict who’d served time for domestic violence, the murder of his ex.

The detective tries to play on the presumed prejudices of the older man, but his long term progressivism holds him back from naming (and thus causing to be arrested) his daughter’s working class, Hispanic/Latino boyfriend. The detective also repeatedly draws attention to the fact that Clara was bisexual, again with the expectation that the father will disapprove.

This is an interview, an interrogation, and thus much more like a genre piece than the plays I read earlier in the day.

It’s strange to see a late-career Miller turning to crime writing, but he does – of course – write it very very very well.

Tiny Conclusion

It’s been an interesting day.

Miller’s writing is human and humane, tho it is tinged with a homosocial world view: tho there are women in most of these pieces, they are women living in a man’s world, and they are characterised almost exclusively by their relationships to men.

It was an interesting selection of works by Miller, from different parts of his career, and the three which I thought were excellent were truly, deeply, emotive.

A treat day, I suppose.

Now, I’m off to make some baba ganoush.

Goodbye goodbye goodbye.

1 comment on “one day I read 5ive plays by Arthur Miller

  1. Pingback: on sleaze via Saul Bellow – Triumph Of The Now

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