What does it mean to be man? Call it reductive, but that’s the question at the heart of Arthur Miller’s plays (he conceded as much in his memoir Timebends) — and none more so than in A View From The Bridge, revived on Broadway in a striking and powerfully acted production that originated last year at London’s Young Vic and staged by the Belgian director Ivo Van Hove.
At the center of this play — set on the Brooklyn waterfront in Red Hook, “the slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge,” we’re told in the prologue, “the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world” — is Eddie Carbone. He ekes out a living with his muscle as a longshoreman to support his wife Bea and her orphaned niece Catherine, their ward since infancy and now a blossoming 17-year-old. Catherine is ready to spread her wings, and Bea is happy to offer a little push; Eddie not so much. For him, Bea has grown shrewish, while Catherine offers unqualified adoration. When he arrives home from a hard day on the docks, it’s Catherine he takes in his arms. Actually, here she flings herself against him, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. She doesn’t just flirt girlishly with him, but flashes him and often has a bare thigh available for stroking, in case we’ve missed the point. “Don’ aggravate me, Katey,” he says. “You’re walkin’ wavey.” Keep your strutting here in the living room.
This improvised explosive device of a plot is triggered with the arrival of Marco and Rodolpho, cousins from Sicily looking for work despite the dangers of being illegals. Eddie is willing to do his familial duty, allowing them to stay in the cramped apartment, until the unthinkable happens: Catherine and Rodolpho — whose gifts include singing, sewing and sautéing — fall in love. No way this can end well.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Miller unselfconsciously modeled the 1956 play on Greek tragedy, even providing a “chorus” in the character of Alfieri, a lawyer who sets the scene and later describes in portentous detail the inevitable consequences of the actions we’re about to witness. He’s not really necessary, but he has given Van Hove the justification for taking the Greek parallel literally, setting the action not in a realistic working-class flat but on an altar built for sacrifice.
The show begins with the lifting of a black cube rising from the stage in darkness, soon to reveal a white playing area defined by glass benches and, at the back, a plain wall with a door. Onstage seating intensifies the intimacy and sense of witnessing and testifying. Miller’s play begins with Eddie and his friend Louie pitching pennies on a stoop. Van Hove’s play begins with Eddie and Louie, shrouded in near darkness in a ritual cleansing — semi-naked and washing up after work. (Never mind that this makes nonsense of Alfieri’s opening line, “You wouldn’t have known it, but something amusing has just happened.”) The play will end almost two hours later (A View From The Bridge is performed, as it was originally, without intermission) in another ritual cleansing, only this time a shower of sacrificial blood.
It’s a visually impressive presentation (Van Hove is working with Jan Versweyveld, his longtime collaborator, on sets and lighting), heightened by the ominous rumblings of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem and, for further emphasis as the story reaches its denouement, some accentuating beating of tom-toms.
I have to admit I’m of two minds about Van Hove’s A View From the Bridge. My 30-year-old critic self probably would have thrilled to the ballsiness of turning a naturalistic melodrama into a Greek tragedy. Doing so adds a layer of meaning the way the cover of Abbey Road added a layer of meaning to the Beatles mythology.
But my older-critic self says, “Leave the damned play alone.” Leave us to draw the connection from Eddie Carbone to Willie Loman (Death Of A Salesman) and Joe Keller (All My Sons) — men whose sense of their own manhood cannot survive the emasculating pressures of making it in America. In the end, Eddie impotently demands his “respect” — even though he’s committed the ultimate crime of ratting out his countrymen to Immigration. Even sexual congress with Catherine would have been more forgivable than that. Eddie’s tragedy, like Willy’s and Joe’s, is that he is no hero at all, but a victim not only of his own tortured desire (perhaps it’s Rodolpho he really wants?) but of his inability to gain entree to that American Dream he’s been sold on.
The Germans call this director’s theater, and it’s not for me. Despite a splendid cast led by Mark Strong (The Imitation Game‘s head of MI6) as Eddie; Phoebe Fox as Catherine; Russell Tovey and Michael Zegen as Rodolpho and Marco; and especially Nicola Walker, who is heartbreaking as Bea — a wife who, like Linda Loman, will stand by her man even under a cloud of shame.
”I haven’t gone with every vagrant wind that struck the theater,” Miller told me once. ”I have written as my character dictated, not to some style, and I think that’s true of anybody who takes the art with some seriousness. The consequence is that you’re likely to be misinterpreted and misread.” Or, maybe, over-interpreted.