"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’– Operatic Bathos

I have recently written about Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Price – all of which are dark tragedies, fraught with moral and ethical dilemmas dealt with within the confines of family and the backdrop of The Depression and WWII.  In all three it is self-deception which causes or contributes to tragedy.  Frank (All My Sons) can never face the fact that it is because of his malingering and cowardice that 21 airmen have died.  Willy Loman is so self-centered that he cannot see his growing irrelevance; nor can he see how his behavior encourages just those qualities of deceit, distorted ethics, and impossible ambition that he has experienced.  Victor (The Price) deceives himself about his dependence on his aged father and cares for him to the detriment of his own life and that of his wife.

A View from the Bridge, while also centered around a moral failing – Eddie’s betrayal of Rodolpho, the illegal Sicilian he at first helps then rejects as an unfitting and calculating suitor for his adopted daughter.  Eddie not only betrays his adopted daughter, but his wife and as importantly the Sicilian community which has always welcomed and protected immigrants from their impoverished motherland.

There is where the similarity between Miller’s more mature tragedies and this play ends.  View is pure melodramatic opera and I think Miller’s idea of what a Sicilian family should act like.  Everyone is on an emotional hair-trigger, yelling and screaming at each other.  You can see the spaghetti and meatballs on the stove and Eddie and his longshoreman buddies hanging around in wife-beaters.  That’s bad enough, but when we see why Eddie is so reluctant to let his 18 year-old adopted daughter marry Rodolpho – he desires her sexually, and is jealous of the attractive young man who courts her, we have to chuckle.  Not only is Eddie the stereotypical Sicilian father patrolling his daughter’s bedroom with a shotgun, he is the one who wants to get into that bedroom and in bed with her.

It gets worse.  Eddie makes constant reference to Rodolpho’s ‘feminine’ behavior – he sings, can make women’s clothes, is blond (a Sicilian uber-fantasy), and is too fragile to heft the crates of Scotch that ‘fell off the truck’.  There is something wrong with him, Eddie confides to Alfieri, the lawyer who acts as the Chorus for the play.  Not only is Eddie the stereotypical Italian father locking his daughter away from the outside world in a bolted, dark chamber; not only does he want to sleep with her; and not only does he suspect Rodolopho of gold-digging (marry and American for citizenship), he hates him because he thinks he’s gay.

It gets even worse.  In one of the climactic scenes - a confrontation with Rodolpho after Eddie has turned in the illegals and La Migra has come to get all the ‘submarines’ – Eddie gives him a big French kiss.  He says he wants to show his daughter what Rodolpho really is – gay – but of course only displays his own desperate desire for the Sicilian.

Not over yet….there has to be bloodshed, vengeance, and a display of Sicilian honor.  Eddie rants and raves about respect and honor even though he is the dishonoring one, and vows to avenge the sullying of his good name when Rodolpho’s brother spits at him as he is being led away.  Rodolpho, who might evade prosecution if he marries the daughter who has loved him all along, refuses this easy way out and in a fight with Eddie, kills him. 

So, Eddie is dead and everyone is happy except his wife who depends on his weekly paycheck.  Other than that, she could care less, for he is a dumb brute who has also stopped sleeping with her.  The submarines who have been betrayed go to the slammer, so there is no Shakespearean comedy ending where no one is hurt, everyone is forgiven, and all live happily ever after.  Rodolpho is now free to marry Eddie’s daughter, but after this grand guignol probably has second thoughts.  Surely with his Adonis blond looks and talents he can seduce any number of gullible American girls with slightly less twisted fathers; and who knows what other crazed relative is in the armoires of Eddie’s family.

After having reread all of Miller’s plays, it is clear he has one masterpiece – Death of a Salesman.  It is intricate, insightful about the nature of family relationships, classically tragic (an overreaching hero brought down by a tragic flaw), and truly sad without being either melodramatic or operatic.  All My Sons is as powerful and compelling to read, but it is the act of treachery and deceit that is featured rather than the corrosive effect it has on the entire family.  The Price dramatically illuminates what must be a common occurrence – children taking care of aged parents for selfish reasons.  The Crucible is a nice parable about the McCarthy Era, but not a great play, often revived because of political interest rather than dramatic depth. 

Of all that I have read, View from the Bridge is the most inept, dealing with stereotypes, operatic excess, and ham-handed treatment of subjects which in other hands have been unforgettable.  Hamlet, after all, was driven by incestuous feelings for his mother expressed in his frustrated rage against his girlfriend, Ophelia.  Othello is Mr. Jealous and Leontes not far behind.  Is-he-gay-or-isn’t-he-and-let’s-find-out is handled beautifully by Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  And my favorite – Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) has incestuous feelings for her fictitious son!!.

I have started to read O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and in only one act, I have seen more eloquence, efficient language, irony and humor dealing with family oddities than in all of Miller.  I need to finish the play and continue on to the rest of O’Neill’s work which for some reason I have neglected in the past few years; but it will be a pleasure after View from the Bridge.

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