Do I mean Ann?
Arthur Miller is undeniably one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century, his works played, read and analysed endlessly.
However, even the UK’s fascination with Miller seems to have peaked in 2019, with a number of productions already completed and many more on the way. Here’s a quick rundown of what to catch and where.
ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, a version by Miller of the Ibsen play, ran at the Union Theatre off-West End in London from 4 January to 2 February to mixed reviews
THE LAST YANKEE ran at Bolton Library Theatre (Lancashire) from 28 January to 16 March to good reviews
THE AMERICAN CLOCK ran at London’s Old Vic from early February until 30 March to very mixed reviews
THE PRICE, starring David Suchet is a transfer from Bath’s production of late last year, playing at Wyndham’s Theatre in London until 27 April, earning two Olivier Award nominations along the way.
THE CRUCIBLE, their first ever production of a play by a non-living playwright, with a woman playing the part of John Proctor, at East London’s The Yard theatre, is running until 11 May and has earned excellent reviews.
ALL MY SONS, with Bill Pullman and Sally Field, plays the Old Vic to 8 June and is in previews as this is written. It is also NT Live broadcast on May 14th.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the ever-potent dissection of “the American Dream”, plays the Young Vic from 1 May to 29 June, with a standout cast including Sharon D Clarke and Arinzé Kene, and co-directed by Marianne Elliott
Just a few words about the last two mentioned. I must admit to having first seen ALL MY SONS on film, and it is that set of performances that will forever act as my benchmark. The privilege of seeing seasoned Edward G Robinson and a just- emerging Burt Lancaster battling as father and son was one of my enduring memories and I doubt that it will be eclipsed….but I will go along and see this new production with interest, it’s a good play whoever does it.
It’s SALESMAN that I am most looking forward to. Marianne Elliott’s previous work has already elevated expectations (a gender swapped COMPANY, visionary WAR HORSE, firecely intelligent CURIOUS INCIDENT to name just a few theatrical highpoints). And it is intriguing to remember that Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE was given a five-star stripped-down revival (by Ivo van Hove and a dream cast including Mark Strong and Nicola Walker) which blew audiences and critics away in 2015 – at the very same venue where SALESMAN is now opening; that naturally adds to the anticipation.
I was professionally introduced to DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the National Theatre in 1980, starring Warren Mitchell who – in tragic, impotent Willy Loman – found the dramatic role of his lifetime and won the Best Actor Olivier Award – and two other Best Actor gongs, and rightly so, as compassionately directed by Michael Rudman. Doreen Mantle was Linda Loman, bringing grace and humanity to the difficult supporting role of wife Linda, and the sons were also award-nominated as I remember. This is the greatest cast that I have seen to date, Mitchell’s Loman perfectly pitched and utterly relateable. And so I look forward to the new production with a little ambivalence, but also fascination to see what Marianne Elliott’s take on this classic will be.
Great writers’ work stands the test of time. Miller’s popularity certainly seems to support that theory. So what are people responding to in the work?
Miller has often taken the family as his central core from which to work. In our ever-fracturing modern family units, perhaps people have a nostalgia for the established family group and its possibilities. Also, Miller points up aspiration versus the reality of human failings. Inside this, he examines the most basic drivers in humane ways- success, integrity, respect, weakness, love, conscience, family, loss, failure, hope, potential, right and wrong. Also, the intergenerational dynamics run strong through a lot of his work- the expectation, even idolization of elders through youthful eyes, doomed to be disappointed. All these themes, it seems, are timeless, and still speak to us as clearly as the day they were first performed – perhaps even more clearly now. Perhaps in our muddled times there is an instinctive need to reassess our own values and a safety in externalising a “playing through” of this cathartic process.
Miller’s prose gives humanity to his characters in a way which allows us to connect to them. His work is never easy, but most often rewarding. I am sure many other writers will have their own take on Miller’s resurgence, and I will look forward to reading their takes on this subject. But while we have the chance to see some fine revivals as these, I would urge you to get out and see one or more for yourself. So do yourself a favour, if you haven’t seen one, go! You might be surprised how much you can get from an “old play”…
One last point. Although a legendary playwright, Miller only ever produced one novel, a book I came across in my teenage years. Written in 1945, and entitled FOCUS, it tells of an ordinary man whose face appears altered because of the style of a new pair of glasses he buys. Suddenly he “looks” Jewish. And everything changes…
An explosive, hard-hitting and brilliantly-crafted work on the theme of antisemitism in post-WWII America, this is a major work in Miller’s CV. If you haven’t read it, I can highly recommend it. Sadly, it still feels highly relevant in our backward-looking times.