By: Arthur Miller
Directed by: Michael Carleton
Through April 18, 2008
Theater J, DCJCC
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC
Pegging Arthur Miller a Jewish playwright is a dangerous enterprise. He married the ultimate shiksa, Marilyn Monroe; yet his novel, Focus (1945), exposes the evils of anti-Semitism. The novel, which is surprisingly ignored in Jewish schools, tells of a Jew-hating banker who comes to sympathize with the objects of his scorn when a new pair of glasses emphasizes his nose – and he becomes a victim of anti-Semitism. Strictly speaking, Miller’s most famous work, “Death of a Salesman,” has no Jewish content, but some discover in it Miller’s sense of the Jewish American experience. A recent Traveling Jewish Theatre production in San Francisco went so far as to suggest Joseph Buloff’s 1951 Yiddish version, “Toyt fun a Salesman,” might have outshined the Broadway version.
A production of Miller’s “The Price” at the Washington DCJCC, part of an Arthur Miller festival that will bring “Death of a Salesman” and “A View from the Bridge” to Arena Stage in Virginia, provides a great opportunity to examine Miller’s works in a Jewish context.
In particular, “Price” raises the questions of redemption and forgiveness. A famous Jewish parable tells of two estranged brothers, who manage to repair their relationship in such a grand way that the Temple is built on the mountain where they reunited. Miller’s play depicts the opposite. Two brothers, Victor and Walter Franz (played by brothers, Andrew and John Prosky) have not spoken in 16 years. Victor is a middle-aged policeman who blames his brother, a successful doctor, for not helping their father, Richard, who lost his job during the Depression.
Photo by Stan Barouh; L-R: Leisa Mather, Robert Prosky, John Prosky and Andy Prosky.
Meanwhile, Walter explains that Victor should never have stayed home caring for Richard, and should have instead pursued a more lucrative profession than fighting crime. Even Victor’s wife Esther (Leisa Mather) seems ashamed of him; she asks him not to wear his uniform to a movie they plan on seeing. She asks, “Why must everyone know your salary?”
They finally meet in Richard’s apartment after their father’s death to sell his furniture to a 90-year-old antiques dealer. The dealer, Gregory Solomon (performed masterfully by Robert Prosky, the father of the other two actors), is forced to play therapist, referee and diplomat in his attempt to settle the material affairs of the dead with the living. Solomon succeeds only at his trade; he ends up with the bargain of a lifetime, while the brothers storm away, worse off than they were to begin with.
In an author’s production note, Miller called for a “fine balance of sympathy” in performing the brothers’ roles, so Walter’s interests are not viewed as “mere manipulation” (he tries to squeeze a sketchy tax break out of the furniture). “From entrance to exit, Walter is attempting to put into action what he has learned about himself”, Miller wrote, “and sympathy will be evoked for him in proportion to the openness, the depth of need, the intimations of suffering with which the role is played.” To Miller, this is the theme of the play: “As the world now operates, the qualities of both brothers are necessary to it; surely their respective psychologies and moral values conflict at the heart of the social dilemma.”
Photo by Stan Barouh; L-R: Robert Prosky and Andy Prosky.
One could read this development as antithetical to the notion of a world that can be repaired (Tikkun Olam), but demanding that Miller tell only optimistic stories with happy endings in which all the characters follow Jewish law is absurd. It would also miss the play’s overt Jewish content. Toward the play’s beginning, Solomon discovers a record of Edward Gallagher and Al Shean (born Albert Schoenberg), who shared an act on vaudeville and Broadway:
Solomon (reading a label): Look at that! Gallagher and Shean!
Victor (with only half a laugh): You’re not going to start playing them now!
Solomon: Who needs to play? I was on the same bill with Gallagher and Shean, maybe 50 theaters.
Victor (surprised): You were an actor?
Solomon: An actor! An acrobat, my whole family was acrobats … You never heard “The Five Solomons” − may they rest in peace? I was the one on the bottom.
Victor, who has been skeptical of Solomon from the start, replies, “Funny − I never heard of a Jewish acrobat.”
Photo by Stan Barouh; Robert Prosky.
Solomon assures him Jews can be tough too: What’s the matter with Jacob, he wasn’t a wrestler? − wrestled with the Angel? … Jews been acrobats since the beginning of the world. I was a horse them days: drink, women, anything − on-the-go, on-the-go, nothing ever stopped me. Only life. Yes, my boy. (Almost lovingly putting down the record): What do you know, Gallagher and Shean.
At the risk of reading too much in a name, the furniture dealer might better be compared with the Biblical character King Solomon than with Jacob. Solomon was asked to judge between two women, each of whom claimed a live baby as hers and a dead baby as her peer’s; and Miller’s Solomon is thrust into a position of judging not only two brothers’ rights to their dead father’s belongings, but also whose view of him is correct. Victor believes Richard tried his best and truly needed Victor to care for and support him, while Walter insists Richard had money saved up and was using Victor so that he would not have to work. What is at stake in the conversation, as Victor tells Walter, is turning Victor into a “walking 50-year-old mistake.”
In the end, Victor and Walter cannot agree on whether Victor has wasted away the past 50 years, but Esther − having heard him stand up to his brother (and her) for once, and defend his job as a policeman − changes her mind and tells him to wear his uniform instead of a suit to the movies. Sometimes, even an unresolved conflict can be cathartic.
Miller’s Solomon does not need to threaten to cut anyone up with a knife, though he does favor Victor as the more honest party in the debate. When Walter leaves the apartment in a rage, Victor wants to chase after him, but Solomon holds him back. He explains that he learned long ago that there is often nothing that can be done about relatives who abandon each other. “I had a daughter, should rest in peace, she took her own life,” Solomon says. “That’s nearly 50 years ago. And every night I lay down to sleep, she’s sitting there. I see her clear like I see you. But if it was a miracle and she came to life, what would I say to her?”
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.