Certain works lodge under the skin of their writers, and while it may seem to them they can never get the piece quite right, neither can they abandon it.
Tennessee Williams had Orpheus Descending which he worked on throughout his life. James Joyce struggled with Finnegans Wake for over 17 years. Both writers at one point requested those works be destroyed at their deaths.
Whether Arthur Miller experienced this sort of exasperation with A View From the Bridge, I don’t know, but it was certainly a work that he kept retooling over many years.
The first seeds of the piece found its start in conversations with director Elia Kazan who wanted Miller to do a screenplay, initially entitled The Hook, about the influence of the mob on the longshoremen union working the Brooklyn docks.
While doing research for this script, Miller spoke to a lawyer who worked with the longshoremen union. The conversation drifted to the type of people who the lawyer had represented over the years. It was at this point that the lawyer fell momentarily silent, and then he spoke to Miller of the most tragic case he had ever dealt with.
The project between Kazan and Miller never came to fruition. Kazan would later direct On the Waterfront, which would show the cost to ordinary people of allowing corruption to exist, and Miller would use the events revealed to him by the lawyer as Eddie’s story in A View From the Bridge.
The play would take on many forms. The first would be as a one-act verse drama in 1955, which featured Eileen Heckart as Beatrice opposite Van Heflin as Eddie. The production however found no success with either the audience or Miller. In 1956 Miller would premiere a two-act version, more solidly rooted in realism with Richard Harris as Louis and Anthony Quayle in the role of Eddie.
Miller continued to work with the piece resulting in 1999 with an operatic version of the play opening at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with music by William Bolcom and a libretto supplied by Miller.
Ivo Van Hove’s production now at the Ahmanson has worked through both London and New York with great triumph.
In the past—and here I’m thinking of the The Inspector Calls which was presented a number of years back at the Taper—such productions only served in providing a greater height for the plunge of disappointment.
Not so this time.
Miller’s tale has probably never found a more honest and more profound telling than this production which the Center Theatre Group has brought to L.A.
The story is the one Miller was told so long ago.
Eddie (Frederick Weller) is a hard working longshoreman of Sicilian descent who lives with his wife Beatrice (Andrus Nichols) and Catherine (Catherine Combs) his niece by way of his dead sister-in-law. But Eddie is part of a mob-run racket, whereby illegal immigrants are smuggled in from Italy to work on the docks.
While these men are loading and unloading the ships, Italian-Americans already working the docks are paid to house them.
Eddie shelters two such men, Marco (Alex Esola) a family man desperate to send money back to his wife and children, and Rodolpho (Dave Register) the younger of the two who just wants to escape the poverty of the Old World for the promise of the new.
Perhaps as a nod of appreciation to the lawyer who told him the story originally, Miller employs the lawyer Alfieri (Thomas Jay Ryan) as the work’s framing device and narrator.
Like most of Miller’s plays, this one deals with the price of illusion; the price of maintaining it and the cost of denying the truth.
In A View From the Bridge it is Eddie who is maintaining the illusion of his happy home, while denying the truth of his feelings for his young niece, both of which are challenged by the relationship that develops between her and Rodolpho.
Miller thought in terms both epic and mythic, and of their expression in the modern world.
You can get a sense of that struggle in reading the two versions Miller wrote of this piece.
The one-act the more mythic, the two-act, the more grounded in the reality of the day.
Van Hove has opted for the first and has created a near perfect clarity for Miller’s voice to be heard.
In concert with Jan Versweyveld his scenic and lighting designer, Van Hove has unburdened the play of all impediments between actors and the material, between the stage and the audience.
Unlike Eddie, Van Hove wants to strip away the illusion, even to the point of placing parts of the audience on stage in full view never allowing for the suspension of belief.
In stripping away all artifices Van Hove is trying to amplify the truths which can find camouflage beneath stage dressing and performances.
In a production that feels almost operatic in presentation, Van Hove and his excellent cast have succeeded in obtaining an intimacy in expression seldom experienced in theatre today, with the audience made aware, in a very forceful fashion, that they are watching themselves watching themselves.
In some ways, Van Hove has harkened back to the ancient stage of Greece, but in doing so has not forgotten he is speaking to an audience of today and not of history.
The lawyer Alfieri, as the chorus Miller intended him to be, paces the stage constantly, the voice of the Gods, but like a wolf held at bay.
When allowed on stage, the lawyer is used in highlighting that we do not live our lives as puppets of fate or the playthings of the Gods. Our fate is in our character; our destiny is not concealed by Delphic ramblings, but revealed in the simple truth “actions have consequences.”
“The truth shall make you free,” John 8:32 reads.
But that is wrong.
We are free.
It is the lies we accept that become the chains we bear.
We become like the long-caged animal, who only feels secure when behind those bars that deny it freedom.
Van Hove takes pains to shows us how in his language of denial, Eddie’s very words become his bars.
Salvation is in truth. Whether it involves Spartans poisoning the wells, the Bay of Tonkin, WMD’s, Fox News or the passions within an individual’s heart, when truth is banished, the pathway is opened to suffering and blood.
In the play’s closing moments Van Hove brings this point to the forefront.
In ancient Greece there would be the catharsis at the conclusion of a play, the cleansing of the audience of its sins.
Here there is no cleansing of washing away the sin.
Van Hove, instead, bathes his cast in the blood of their sins, in the blood of our sins.
It is a rare moment of staggering honesty not often seen on stage.
It is a rare moment of staggering honesty not often seen anywhere.
**In Featured Image: Catherine Combs, Frederick Weller and Andrus Nichols (Photo by Jan Versweyveld)**
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A View From the Bridge
plays through October 16, 2016
Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center
135 N. Grand Avenue
Downtown L.A. 90012
Performance Days and Times:
• Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
• Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. • Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
• No Monday performances.
Exceptions: Added 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, October 13.; No 6:30 p.m.
performance on Sunday, October 16.
Online Tickets At: