A View From The Bridge
Through May 17, 2008
By Arthur Miller, directed by Daniel Aukin
Death Of A Salesman
Through May 18, 2008
By Arthur Miller, directed by Timothy Bond
The Arthur Miller Festival at Arena Stage
1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, Virginia
When Linda Loman sees that the only people attending her husband Willy’s funeral are her sons Biff and Happy and neighbors Charley and Bernard, she wonders what happened to the multitude of mourners that Willy had always promised. Just a few lines earlier, Willy had fantasized about his own funeral in an imaginary conversation with his uncle Ben, as he began to plot his suicide and his family’s collection of his insurance.
“Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire!” he daydreams. “All the old-timers, with the strange license plates – that boy will be thunder-struck, Ben, because he never realized – I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey – I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am, Ben! He’s in for a shock, that boy!”
By “that boy,” Willy means his oldest son Biff, with whom he perpetually feuds and who considers him a coward for quitting his life prematurely. Heroes fall hard in Arthur Miller’s play, and when they die alone, they die, wholly alone. The devastating truth for Willy is that after he intentionally drives his car into a tree the world ignores him altogether.
Most readers will recognize the final scene from “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller’s play that won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is hard to hold back tears when Linda tells her husband, fresh in his grave, that she cannot even bring herself to cry. “I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear,” she says. “And there’ll be nobody home.” Willy prioritized the pursuit of the American Dream above all else, yet he kills himself just in time to narrowly miss enjoying that dream.
Rick Foucheux as Willy Loman, with Nancy Robinette in back as his wife Linda in “Death of a Salesman” at Arena Stage.
Seeing a performance of “Death of a Salesman” is a nostalgic experience, yet however familiar this scene is to readers for whom it was required reading in grade school, Arena Stage’s production of the play, in conjunction with “A View from the Bridge” as part of the Arthur Miller Festival, makes one important addition: Bernard (Louis Cancelmi) and Charley (Noble Shropshire) wear kippahs.
This decision begs a number of important questions. First, many have speculated that Willy is a Jew (there is no word on whether he is intermarried, or whether Linda is Jewish too). What does the casting of Bernard and Charley as Jews mean for diagnosing Willy’s faith? If Willy is not Jewish, do his and his sons’ verbal abuse of Bernard, whom they call “anemic,” and accuse of various social blunders, and his own refusal to work for Charley constitute anti-Semitism?
Willy Loman (center), with his two sons Hap (left) and Biff (right) in “Death of a Salesman” at Arena Stage.
Is it significant that Bernard and Charley only don their kippahs at Willy’s funeral? Are they perchance trying to show up a non-practicing Jew, or are they finally responding to his demands of them to reveal the key to their success by championing their faith? Or since tragedy has a way of drawing out mourners’ faith, perhaps Bernard and Charley are telling the viewers that Willy sought not only the American dream, but a particularly Jewish blend of that dream as well, and he should be mourned as such. “Attention must be paid” to him as an American, Jewish hero.
The kippahs were a joint decision of Arena’s Senior Dramaturge Mark Bly, Director Timothy Bond, and the actors playing Bernard, Charley, and Willy after they read Miller’s autobiography, Timebends: A Life, which addresses Miller’s Jewish identity and his uncles, aunts, and cousins, two of whom serve as models for Willy and Charley.
(L-R) Delaney Williams as Eddie, Naomi Jacobson as Beatrice and David Agranov as Rudolpho in A View from the Bridge at Arena Stage.
“In the autobiography, it is clear, Miller has downplayed his Jewish background in so many ways,” says Haley Miller, a spokeswoman for Arena, adding that the group speculated that if Willy is Jewish, he is not practicing. “But Charley and his family are. In point of fact the subtext for Willy never wanting to work for Charley might have something to do with that,” she added. “But most important, Tim Bond sees Charley and Bernard as positive role models in terms of their familial relationship, religious observances, and their more healthy approach to the American Dream of success. It is meant to be a sign of praise, a signal of personal behavior that is of a higher secular and spiritual order than Willy and his boys’ behavior.”
In this column on March 26, I wrote about aspects of redemption and forgiveness in Miller’s “The Price,” which was recently performed at Theater J at the DCJCC, also as part of the Arthur Miller Festival. “Death of a Salesman” and “A View from the Bridge” are quite different sorts of plays. Both Willy (Rick Foucheux) and Eddie Carbone (Delaney Williams), the protagonist of “View,” are hard-working, dominant husbands and fathers, who insist on being respected to the point of delusion.
(L-R) Noble Shropshire as Alfieri and Delaney Williams as Eddie in A View from the Bridge at Arena Stage.
Both the loving wives, Linda (Nancy Robinette) and Beatrice (Naomi Jacobson), try to convince their children, Biff (Jeremy S. Holm) and Happy (Tim Getman) on the one hand, and Catherine (Virginia Kull), Eddie’s niece, on the other, to see beyond their father’s/uncle’s tyranny. Yet, both Willy and Eddie miss all the vital signposts predicting their downfall, and they (perhaps heroically) speed forward in a downward spiral that leaves not only their fellow characters, but also the audience scratching their heads, wondering whether to pity them, hate them, love them, or simply turn away coldly and try to ignore them.
It’s all too easy to get depressed by Arthur Miller’s works, especially the two plays at Arena. They are tales of men getting old, becoming paralyzed in their ways, and all but yelling at the elements like Shakespeare’s King Lear barks at a storm. Willy commits suicide, and Eddie is killed, but both have given up on life long ago. Yet if one theme can be isolated from the two Arena performances and the Theater J performance, it is the hope and the majesty in Miller’s works. Both Foucheux and Williams masterfully interpret Miller’s heroes (or anti-heroes) and fully rounded characters.
Just when they seem like folks one would be proud to call friends, they start to unravel, but try to peg them as crazy or pathetic, and all of a sudden you have to remember how much they care for their children (or niece) and how hard they work. This sort of optimism amid crisis − and both plays are tragic through and through − feels very real, and perhaps it is up to the audience to walk away from the theater with that goal, trying to employ it in their lives as Willy and Eddie could not. There is no Jewish monopoly on this life view, but coupled with Arena’s bold decision on the kippahs and Arthur Miller’s Jewish identity (which at least surfaces in “Focus”), surely it is worth pondering further.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.