When Daniela Farinacci and I announced that Arthur Miller’s masterpiece A View from the Bridge would be part of MTC’s 2019 Season, I found myself making a grand statement. It was something like, ‘there are many great writers of drama, and there are even more talented writers of comedy…but for my money, when it comes to the truly great writers of tragedy you can count them on the fingers of one hand: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare and Arthur Miller.’ It sounds like a very bold statement to make but I’d like to share some of the reasons why I think it’s the case.
There are many great modern plays with tragic elements in them. Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal and Sarah Kane’s Blasted to rattle off a few. However, there is something that is universal in all of Miller’s work, something singular and specific in the kind of trouble that he doles out to his central characters, something ancient and utterly irreducible that sets his work apart from his modern contemporaries.
Like the ancient writers, Miller’s plays throw human frailty into stark relief with the indifferent cosmos. There is a sense of unbearable infinity about them, between the earthly and the divine that resonate in a similar way to the Greek works. His characters sit comfortably alongside the biggest names in tragedy like Oedipus, Hecuba, Hamlet and Lear. Patsy Rodenburg, [British voice coach, author, and theatre director] who visited the actors studio I teach at, recently described the process like this: ‘The great tragedians get the best people, capable of the greatest good and then they throw them up into the great mincemeat grinder in the sky.’ And this most certainly is what Miller does with Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Kate Keller in All My Sons, John Proctor in The Crucible and Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge.
Tragedy is the highest form of drama and the most demanding. It demands a lot from its audiences but it’s worth it; for those willing to dive deep, the rewards are beyond measure. I have spent the past six years directing the tragedies of Arthur Miller and every time I do it feels as though the playwright joins the actors in the room, and encourages them to stand tall with their shoulders back, to open their eyes and to stare, gimlet-eyed into the pitiless gaze of the ancient gods. It’s a humbling and exhilarating experience.
As Christina Smith (Costume and Set Design), Niklas Pajanti (Lighting Design), Kelly Ryall (Composer and Sound Design) and I begin the rich and challenging process of generating a design environment for this elemental and deeply human play, I am confirmed in my belief that A View from the Bridge is Miller’s finest work.
It rekindles all the familial warmth in All My Sons, the chaos and volatility of community hysteria in The Crucible, and the subterranean wilful blindness of Death of a Salesman, and then it doubles down, tightens and contracts on each of them while also adding an excruciating sense of momentum and merciless inevitability that can only be rivalled by the ancient Greeks. He does all of this with an efficiency that makes the psychological projections, period metaphor and ethical challenges of his earlier work feel almost tricksy. A View from the Bridge is Miller’s Lear, clear-eyed, devastatingly tender and brutally efficient. It is a modern tragic masterpiece, by a dramatist at the very top of his game.
Red Hook stands on the waterfront right underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Commuter traffic goes over this bridge night and day, right now even, and yet, right under this bridge, and hundreds like it, human tragedies rage like wildfire with no less ferocity than the flames that claimed the sons and daughters of Ancient Troy. Tragedy is not just for kings, you see, it stalks us all.
‘Sometimes,’ as the character Alfieri says, ‘God mixes up the people,’ and sometimes we love someone too much and sometimes that love can go the wrong way and nothing, and I mean nothing on this good earth will stop its deadly course.
A View from the Bridge is one of the most human plays you will ever see. It is also timeless, as ancient as fire, as modern as the breath you just took. It embraces the trembling frailty in us all…and like all the great tragedies, it consoles us in the knowledge that, ‘those who learn must suffer, and that pain…that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, and against our will, wisdom comes to us through the awful grace of God.’
That last quote was from Aeschylus, our first great tragedian, a favourite playwright of the most recent truly great tragedian, Arthur Miller.
I am terrifically excited to be working with MTC on this master script and look forward to sharing more of my deep appreciation of this exquisite and heartfelt modern tragedy with you.
A View from the Bridge plays at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from 9 March—18 April.