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Genre et identité dans le théâtre anglophone

Nicole Vigouroux-Frey

Partie II. États-Unis

The Theatre of Arthur Miller: A Man’s World?

Susan Blattès

Texte intégral

  • 1 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, New York, Grove Press, 1987, p. 408.
  • 2 Ibidem, p. 15.

1Many of Arthur Miller’s plays undoubtedly provide us with a critical perspective on American society and its values. This is especially true of his work during the fifties when he was involved in several confrontations with the authorities, the most well-known of which is his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. However, there were other cases in which he refused to compromise over aesthetic and ethical aspects of his work, leading him to write in his autobiography Timebends: “History bends; the ease with which I could in the sixties, understand the fear and frustration of the dissident in the Sovietized world was the result, in some great part, of my experience before the Un-American Activities Committee in the fifties”1 Despite references to his Marxist sympathies during the thirties and early forties, the main thrust of Miller’s criticism is essentially moral, a word he uses frequently in the autobiography. His condemnation of the excesses of capitalism or materialism is ultimately the result of a moral rejection: “At the time it was beyond me to rationalize my feelings, but I knew that the Depression was only incidently a matter of money. Rather it was a moral catastrophe, a violent revelation of the hypocrisies behind the facade of American society. And that is why facts, for those who turned left – now as then – could mean so little. Nothing is as visionary and as blinding as moral indignation”2.

  • 3 Quoted in Bigsby, C.W.E., A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, Vol. II, Ca (...)
  • 4 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, op. cit, p. 588.

2It is probably Miller’s sense of moral outrage which leads him to focus more on the victims of injustice, rather than on the way the system allows injustice to flourish. Hence his preference for the down-trodden individual, who is often not really aware of what is happening to him. However humble, the hero is nevertheless given a social function so that his actions have implications for society at large. This is in keeping with Miller’s view of the way individuals interact in society and also explains why he stopped writing for the theatre for nine years: “From where I stood, the country was going exactly one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction. I didn’t feel I had anything to say to these people. I really felt that I might as well be living in Zambia. I had absolutely no connection with these people anymore”3. Likewise, he sees the Second World War through the effects it has on individuals in society, commenting ironically that the War brought about a solution to the “unemployment-consumption problem”4 raised by the Depression.

  • 5 Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire, in A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays, Harmon (...)

3Having noted Miller’s clear-sighted view of his country and fellow Americans, the contemporary spectator or reader may seek Miller’s perspective on other issues. What was his position on civil rights or the place of women in society, for example? This question is legitimate since the period in which Miller denounces intolerance and materialism also saw the beginnings of the civil rights movement and the reassessment of women’s place in society. The civil rights question requires discussion of Miller’s status as the son of a Jewish immigrant (his father emigrated from Poland at the end of the nineteenth century) and can be more effectively considered by studying some of the later plays. Miller’s attitude to women is more easily accessible in the early plays through the playwright’s focus on the family, but this attitude is not unequivocal. There is no character comparable to Tennessee Williams’s Blanche Dubois in these plays5. None of his women characters have her complexity or hold centre stage to the extent the heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire does. This paper will try to determine how and why Miller’s plays reinforce the impression that his dramatic world is a world of men.

  • 6 Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961.
  • 7 Miller, Arthur, The Crucible, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968.
  • 8 Miller, Arthur, A View from the Bridge, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961.
  • 9 Quotations will be taken from the Penguin editions of all three plays.

4In order to discuss this question we will look at the major plays of the post-war period, leaving out All My Sons which is more closely related to the war. We will start with Death of a Salesman6 (henceforward referred to as Salesman), which was first performed in 1949. Our study will continue with The Crucible7 (1953) and then we will conclude with A View from the Bridge8 (henceforward referred to as View)9. Although Miller actually began work on his “Italian play” before writing The Crucible, the play in its one-act form was only performed in 1955. We will be studying the revised two-act version first performed in London in 1956. As we have already mentioned, Miller only resumed writing for the theatre in 1964. Miller’s focus in the three plays will be examined through study of the different roles and functions of the characters, leading us to consider the contribution of the characters to the dramatic developments and how the different themes emerge.

Death of a Salesman

5Simple reference to the number of male and female characters can be misleading. Although five of the fourteen characters are women, three of them appear once only briefly and have little to say. Only Linda Loman, Willy’s wife, and the Woman, Willy’s former mistress have a significant role to play and in both cases this is connected to Willy’s life. As far as the men characters are concerned, we could draw up the following list in descending order of importance: Willy Loman, his elder son Biff, his younger son Happy, his brother Ben, Charley his friend and neighbour, Bernard his neighbour’s son, his boss Howard. From this list we can see that only two of the minor male characters are not directly linked to Willy’s personal or professional life.

6It is not just the choice of characters that reinforces Willy’s position. Miller has chosen to set most of the action in the family home, thereby theoretically allowing the wife and mother figure more scope for intervention. However, Linda’s position is undermined in a number of ways, as we can see if we try to pin down her character. We can notice firstly that Miller limits her importance by restricting her sphere of action. This is partly due to the play’s structure which includes the present action and also the past, as relived through Willy’s mind. However this feature of the play does not fully explain why Linda remains a far less interesting character. Very little information is available to us. Contrary to Willy, Linda’s past, her family or where she comes from is not referred to in the dialogue. For all intents and purposes, it is as though she only came into existence after becoming Willy’s wife. She is never shown outside the home or in conversation with anyone outside the family. Her activity on stage reinforces her role as housewife: we see her darning stockings or doing the laundry.

7If the playwright’s lack of attention to the character accounts for some of our difficulty in defining her, it is also important to underline how Linda, as a character, accumulates many contradictions. To some extent, she is a pale imitation of Willy, sharing his longings and ideals, as we are told in the opening stage directions. Most of the time she repeats Willy’s opinions and avoids disagreeing with him and in an effort to protect him against disillusionment. The play makes it difficult for us to see her loyalty in a positive way however. Firstly, she sees the truth about his planned suicide, knows he is no longer receiving a salary, but says nothing about this to Willy. At the same time as she seems to be sheltering Willy from the harsh facts of the real world, by avoiding discussion of unpleasant subjects, she puts pressure on Willy, perhaps unwittingly, by constantly reminding him of bills to be paid and appliances to be bought or repaired. In one long sequence (apart from the Requiem), she is given the opportunity to express her feelings. This occurs towards the end of Act I (p. 42-48) and shows Linda in discussion with her sons. Willy is off-stage. Not surprisingly, the subject under discussion is Willy. In her remarks, Linda is made to express a point of view that we are probably inclined to share, that Willy is a victim of a system which exploits individuals and then discards them when they are no longer useful or productive. The fact that Linda gets to voice what is one of the major ideas in the play reinforces her prestige, but this prestige is immediately questioned by her suggestion to Biff that he should help preserve his father’s belief (illusion) that “there’s still a possibility for better things” (p. 42). She is obviously right about Willy’s situation and right in her assessment of her sons’ contribution to Willy’s distress, but her solution -further lies and illusions – only pushes Willy more quickly towards his death. Linda is granted some lucidity but not enough.

8Limited lucidity has two advantages for the playwright’s purposes. It allows Linda to act as the emotional focus of the play, by echoing the audience’s feelings especially in the Requiem. If Biff obviously has the correct interpretation of his father’s life, the emotional arguments are all on Linda’s side. In this final scene of the play, she functions as a surrogate Willy, defending the imaginary world against Biff’s realistic view. By allowing Linda only partial insight into the truth, Miller can concentrate on Biff’s gradual and more complete understanding. For reasons which we will elucidate in a moment, Miller prefers to focus on the confrontation between father and son.

9Since Linda is never allowed to become involved in this confrontation because she is so closely linked to Willy’s position, the spectator must look elsewhere to find a character with whom a contrast is possible. The only other character who can be compared to Linda in terms of her status and function in the play is the nameless Woman. This comparison enhances Linda’s position as the lawful wife perhaps, but the play insists on the fact that the Woman is “quite proper-looking” (p. 29) and it is not always clear whether Willy is talking to her or to his wife (p. 29). In fact, the Woman has no real identity and exists simply as focal point of the tension between Willy and Biff. Linda’s ignorance means that the adultery issue is not addressed from her point of view, but is only seen as part of the wider conflict between father and son. Let us remember that the event that first opens up the rift between them is Biff’s discovery of the Woman in Willy’s hotel room in Boston. For Biff, the revelation of his father’s fallibity is inevitably linked to the betrayal of his mother. He tends to idealize his mother hereafter, taking her side as a way of attacking his father. “Stop making excuses for him! He always, always wiped the floor with you. Never had an ounce of respect for you” (p. 43). However since Linda knows nothing about this incident, she is hurt rather than flattered by Biff’s interventions. Biff’s idealization of his mother is inevitably affected by the fact he sees her as a victim of his father’s infidelity. We may also question Happy’s idealization of his mother, since he seems to have little respect for other women. Likewise Willy’s attitude to Linda is tainted by his guilt. At times, her action and words serve to remind him of his failure to live up to his ideals. Even when she agrees with him he takes her remarks as interference in the schemes he is discussing with his sons (p. 50-51). Finally we are left with the impression that the play is not concerned with Linda’s isolation, difficulties or disillusions. The specific problems faced by a woman in such a situation are not central to the play.

10If we have difficulty building up a coherent picture of Linda and the other women characters, it is much easier to “read” the character of Willy Loman. Several reasons can be put forward to explain this. The most obvious and powerful influence at work is the incorporation of Willy’s memories of the past into the action. Whether he is reliving the pleasant memories of time spent with his sons when Biff’s future seemed assured, or reliving the scene in the hotel room when Biff stopped seeing him as some kind of god, these scenes all reinforce our sense of the play’s subjectivity. The play, afer all, was to have been called “The Inside of His Head”. It is not surprising that Willy’s memories tell us more about him and his obsessions than about the other characters (Linda, Biff, Happy, Ben and the Woman) who are conjured up in his memories. The past that emerges and blends into the present is Willy’s past.

11Besides the past that is relived through his recollections, there is another more distant past: that of Willy’s childhood evoked in his remembered discussions with his older brother Ben. The figure of Ben already has an “aura of far places about him” (p. 34) so that their discussion of their father seems to belong to a mythical past: “Father was a very great and a very wild-hearted man. We would start in Boston, and he’d toss the whole family into the wagon, and then he’d drive the team right across the country; through Ohio and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states” (p. 38). Although Ben’s description seems to have more in common with the frontier myth than with any realistic description of the past, it is in fact in keeping with many other such references in the play, including Willy’s somewhat improbable description of hunting in Brooklyn (p. 39). The connection between an idealistic vision of the past and Willy’s present position is at the centre of our discussion of a “man’s world”. We can start from Willy’s claim that he is following the example of his father. This remark is taken from the discussion with Ben, in Act I, which contains many clues to understanding the themes of the play. In response to Ben’s account of their father’s way of life, quoted above, Willy remarks: “That’s just the way I’m bringing them up, Ben – ragged, well-liked, all-round” (p. 38). Amongst the objections that could be made to this claim, two are particularly relevant to our argument. We may wonder how Willy intends adapting the frontier model to an urban environment. Secondly, we may question his tendency to overplay his own role in his sons’ education while minimizing their mother’s influence. Our answer to the second question actually helps us answer the first.

12Throughout the play Willy and the other characters insist on the father-son relationship. Although he is allowed to express doubts (to Ben) about the type of education he is giving, it is never suggested that Linda could also have a role. Nor is Willy the only character to believe that it is the father who prepares his son’s future. Willy is surrounded by fathers who have successfully brought up their sons or at least have set them good examples, beginning with his own brother Ben, who followed their father to Alaska. Charley’s son, Bernard, despised by the Loman men for his lack of athletic ability, becomes a successful lawyer. Howard, Willy’s boss, has taken over from his father at the head of the company. No mothers are ever mentioned or seen.

  • 10 This is discussed in Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, New York, Norton, 1963.
  • 11 Richard Wattenberg gives many examples in his bibliography accompanying “Sophie Treadwell and the (...)
  • 12 Fiedler, Leslie, Love and Death in the American Novel, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1960, p. 182.

13When we connect this over-emphasis on fatherhood with the frontier myth, the process of distortion becomes clear. During the pioneer era, women had an important role to play as Betty Friedan and other have argued10. However, the frontier myth developed through cultural representations of the period which gradually excluded women11. In his book Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler describes how, as the frontier disappeared, it came to stand for freedom and adventure, a place for men, opposed to the constraints of the town and civilization associated with women. Speaking of Fenimore Cooper, Fiedler speaks of “a place where mothers do not come”12. What we can see in Salesman is also perhaps another distortion of this myth.

14The point of the frontier, of course, is not just to experience freedom and adventure but also to succeed. Willy, Charley and Howard’s father have all been living their lives according to the principles of the American Dream, which demands of fathers that they help their sons along the road to success. In the modern world, success can be achieved in different ways, but should bring both material advantage and social recognition. In its frontier form, success required both physical and mental skills. Ben combines the physical strength of the pioneer with the ruthless determination of the businessman. Charley, Bernard and Howard achieve success on the basis of their mental skills. Both Willy and Biff are more gifted physically than intellectually. Willy fails to exploit his gifts by pursuing a career for which his abilities did not really suit him. Biff, on the verge of a sports career which could have allowed him to use his physical prowess to achieve success, fails because of his flawed relationship with his father and then heads out west, exchanging one failed dream for another.

  • 13 Robinson, James, “Both His Sons: Arthur Miller’s The Price and Jewish Assimilation” in Maufort, Ma (...)
  • 14 Idem.

15In a recent study13, James Robinson has argued that the focus on father-son relationships in Miller’s plays can be explained by examining the conflict within Miller between “his Jewish and American heritages”. Whilst much of the study is actually devoted to The Price (1968), his insistance on Miller’s view that the father figure in his plays “incorporated both power and some kind of moral law which he had either broken or had fallen prey to”14 is of interest to our study. Robinson explains that The Price can be read as a struggle between the Jewish patriachal tradition, represented by one brother (Victor) and the pursuit of the material values of modern American values, represented by the other brother (Walter). In the case of Salesman, we have a character, Willy, who actually tries to reconcile both positions. In fact, Willy uses his paternal authority to try to back up his case for pursuing a particular line of conduct. (Charley provides a counter-example in the play.) The events of the play highlight the difficulty of defending values and maintaining authority at the same time. Once Willy loses his image of paternal infallibity, in Biff’s eyes, his ideology also becomes suspect to his son. Paternal authority, however, is not restricted to the Jewish tradition. On the contrary, it actually seems tied up with the American Dream which is transmitted from father to son over the generations. Women do not really have a major role to play within this tradition, as can be seen in many plays by playwrights from very different backgrounds, such as Sam Shepard or August Wilson.

The Crucible

16Unlike Salesman, The Crucible offers a wide selection of women’s roles. Of the twenty characters who appear in the play, ten are women and these include two of the play’s most important roles: Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor. In fact, the organization of the characters in this play is very different, since they are grouped according to their dramatic function, which itself is linked to gender almost systematically. Each group contains both important and secondary characters. The first group we are introduced to is the group of girls who instigate the action. Abigail Williams and Mary Warren are the leading characters in this group of five. This group stands in contrast with the group of five older women who are accused by the former of witchcraft. We will see that there are important differences between these two groups of women characters which explain why they are in conflict. Two women in this group receive more attention than the others: Elizabeth Proctor and Rebecca Nurse. The last group of local characters is that formed by the women’s husbands. This group is led by John Proctor, husband of Elizabeth, lover of Abigail, so already a link between the three groups.

17It is not surprising that the fourth group is composed of men characters to make the play symmetrical. It is this group we will look at first in the light of our argument that Arthur Miller is essentially concerned with a man’s world. Unlike the other groups which remain fairly small, this group actually gains elements as the play progresses, since there are defections from other groups as well as new arrivals. The dramatic function of this group is also enhanced by the fact that it contains both locals and outsiders. This is the group that includes the most powerful figures in the play who represent authority. It is through study of this group that we can follow fluctuations in the balance of power between men and women, locals and outsiders, the law and the individual.

18Women characters start the play in a fairly strong position. In the case of the girls, they are set against the ineffectual Reverend Parris. Not only is he easily outwitted, being forced to seek outside help to control what is going on in his own household, but he is made to seem morally weak by appearing more concerned with his reputation in the community than with his daughter’s well-being. Miller also improves the girls’ status in other ways. Abigail’s ruthlessness is partially explained, if not justified, by what she experienced in her childhood: “I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night” (p. 27). It is Abigail who denounces the hypocrisy of the local community: “I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretense Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men!” (p. 30). At this early stage in the play we have no real reason to distrust or disbelieve Abigail since her only victim is the self-centred and gullible Parris, even if her justification of adultery is not completely convincing.

19The superiority of the women characters continues into the second act with the confrontation between John and Elizabeth Proctor. Not only is her moral superiority established through her condemnation of her husband’s adulterous relationship with Abigail, but she also instructs him on how to be a good citizen: “Let you go to Ezekiel Cheever – he knows you well. And tell him what she said to you last week in her uncle’s house” (p. 54). Proctor himself indirectly underlines his wife’s power when he declares: “I cannot speak but I am doubted, every moment judged for lies, as though I come into a court when I come into this house!” (p. 55). This remark also reveals how private and public morality overlap in the play, with the action moving from the private sphere of the home into the public sphere of the courtroom. Miller suggests a rather ironical parallel between the virtuous Elizabeth and the adulterous Abigail: they both sit in judgement on others.

20Not content with submitting Proctor to criticism from his wife, Act II also shows Proctor humiliated by his servant, Mary Warren. She stands up to him and refuses to be treated badly: “I’ll not stand whipping any more!” (p. 58). Mary surely has a point here and the spectator feels some sympathy for her. The fact that the girls who are accusing the older women are over-worked servant girls partly explains their resentment, furthermore their involvement in the court procedure gives them a taste of power. Mary draws attention to their new-found status in the community: “I hope you’ll not be so sarcastical no more – four judges and the King’s deputy sat to dinner with us but an hour ago. I... would have you speak civilly to me, from this out” (p. 59). This scene quite clearly opposes the physical power of men to the power of the word used by the women. For the moment, it is the latter which seems more effective.

21However, the power wielded by the women does not ultimately serve their cause. This is firstly because their victims are other women, beginning with the most vulnerable (the black slave, Tituba), but gradually including respected members of the community, thereby forfeiting audience sympathy. This is clear from the end of Act II when Elizabeth is arrested. Secondly, instead of appearing to be heroically defending their dignity against oppression, the girls become instruments in the hands of the authorities. The shift in power can be seen in the increased importance of the two outsider figures of authority: Judge Hathorne and Deputy-Governor Danforth in Act III. Theatrically, the climax of the play is the end of Act III when Abigail demonstrates her powers of persuasion, but the play has already changed focus. Proctor’s attempts to balance private and public integrity, Hale’s struggle with his conscience and the authorities’ determination to protect their positions at all costs are now at the centre. Both Elizabeth and Abigail lose status. By lying to the court about her husband’s conduct with Abigail, Elizabeth appears more humble and even ends up taking the blame herself: “I have read my heart this three month, John. I have sins of my own to count. It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery” (p. 119). As for Abigail, after her performance in the courtroom, she does not reappear on stage. We are told that she has run away after stealing Parris’s money. The figure who ridiculed the hypocrisy and gullibility of Salem is now seen as a petty thief. We are left with the impression that Elizabeth and Abigail are used to illustrate Proctor’s dilemma. Proctor’s status gradually improves and he ends the play very much the hero.

22The first part of the play tends to suggest that the people of Salem actually share responsibility for what happens in their community. The introductory remarks emphasize this, without suggesting that these people were particularly evil or perverted: “It is not hard to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought upon them by deep and darkling forces” (p. 16). The villagers are therefore both the victims and the perpetrators of repression. This moral ambiguity gradually disappears as the victims and the villains become more easily identifiable. By the end of the play the representatives of the law actually bring about anarchy in order to protect social order. Hale describes the situation the authorities have created: “Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots’ cry will end his life...” (p. 114). This remark also reveals another aspect of the change in focus: innocent men are portrayed as the victims of evil women. Hale is obviously oversimplifying the situation, perhaps for rhetorical effect, since there are innocent women in the play: Elizabeth and Rebecca Nurse to name but two. However, by focussing on the efforts of two men to break the cycle of repression (Proctor and Hale), the play gives this opinion some credit.

23The removal of moral ambiguities and the focus on individuals rather than the group both serve Miller’s purpose of showing the importance of individual resistance to injustice. It is also theatrically effective to pit the “ordinary” Proctor or the “rebel” Hale against powerful figures of authority. These decisions are consistent with Miller’s preference for tragedy. Why, however, must he choose a tragic hero rather than heroine? Ultimately, it is not the example of the saintly Rebecca Nurse which will carry weight in Salem but that of John Proctor. Both Elizabeth and Rebecca Nurse refuse to confess to witchcraft for reasons of personal conscience, Proctor’s refusal to hand over a written confession is motivated not by questions of the salvation of his soul, but by his sense of commitment to his community. He refuses to betray his fellow citizens. In his words we find again the idea which is central to Salesman that it is the man, more precisely the father who, by transmitting values to his sons, actually shapes the community: “I have three children – how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?” (p. 124). Just as it was men who set up the system of repression, it takes men to bring it down. Women in this play may make sacrifices for their souls or for their families, but not for their community and this is why their influence is limited. The influence of men, on the other hand, crosses over the boundary between private and public life.

A View from the Bridge

24A View from the Bridge shares some of the features of the two previous plays. Like Salesman, it explores the role of the husband and father in the family, like The Crucible, it studies the responsibilty of the individual to his community. We will have to examine the way these two roles are connected to see if women have a bigger place in this play. One of the most important differences between View and Salesman is that Eddie Carbone, instead of having a son is given a daughter. Catherine is not his biological daughter, of course, but he and Beatrice have brought her up (she is Beatrice’s niece). The presence of Catherine means that the family relationships are explored differently. It is tension within the Carbone family which directly sets off the cycle of events leading to Eddie’s death. The choice of the home as setting is, therefore, particularly appropriate. Eddie’s professional life is not directly responsible for what happens.

25The play starts out as a straightforward domestic drama opposing an over-protective father and his teenage daughter who seems to want to escape from his excessive interference in her life. The situation is made very clear in the opening sequence with a disapproving Eddie making disparaging remarks about Catherine’s clothes and the way she walks. Contrary to Linda in Salesman, Beatrice does not take her husband’s side in the quarrels with their children. Eddie, however, seems to have little respect for his wife’s opinions, arguing that her role as housewife disqualifies her: “You lived in a house all your life, what do you know about it? You never worked in our life” (p. 21). This argument will be used systematically by Eddie to counter the objections of Beatrice and Catherine even though he is partly responsible for their lack of contact with the outside world.

26On one level, Eddie’s contradictory attitude to Catherine is due to his desire both to protect her from the world and help her to succeed in the world. When he speaks of his ambitions for her, it is not sufficient to argue that he is simply deluding himself about his motives. In general, his attitudes and behaviour can be seen as typical of first or second generation immigrants hoping to succeed in America and place Eddie in the same situation as other working class believers in the American Dream: “I want you to be with different kind of people. I want you to be in a nice office. Maybe a lawyer’s office someplace in New York in one of them nice buildings. I mean if you’re gonna get outa here then get out; don’t go practically in the same neighbourhood” (p. 19). It is also possible to connect this statement to Willy Loman’s ambitions for his sons. Eddie, like Willy, has not achieved success himself, but places his hopes in the next generation. Likewise, both fathers finally do more harm than good in their misguided attempts to influence their children.

27However, in View, Eddie comes up against much stronger opposition at home than Willy. This is mainly due to the character of Beatrice. We notice that she takes Catherine’s side from the beginning and that her arguments, at first rejected, ultimately prove to be effective. One example is particularly telling. Eddie appears to be in a strong position as he explains to his wife and “daughter” how they are to behave during the stay of Beatrice’s cousins, who are illegal immigrants. His position is enhanced by his knowledge of the procedure used to bring illegal immigrants into the country. He does not insist on his superior knowledge, however, but on his feelings of moral superiority. Not realizing that he will be made to pay for this position, Eddie declares that helping members of one’s family is an “honour”. For the audience, Eddie’s authority is linked to his sense of honour. It is surely not by chance that Beatrice uses the word “honour” to make him change his mind about Catherine getting a job: “they picked her out of the whole class, it’s an honour for her” (p. 20). Are we then inclined to support Beatrice instead of Eddie? The answer to this question is not quite so simple as Miller has made her a more complex character than Linda Loman.

28There are several ways in which this complexity asserts itself. She is endowed wih the ability to see into Eddie’s behaviour and understand his motives. Study of a few pages from the second part of Act I will show the importance of what she says. As Eddie shows increasing disapproval of Catherine’s involvement with Rodolpho, Beatrice’s diagnosis is clear: “Ah, go on, you’re just jealous” (p. 34). It is not just Eddie’s present behaviour which is under scrutiny, Eddie has been behaving strangely for some time and this has nothing to do with the presence of the two cousins. Although she does not say explicitly that his loss of interest in her sexually is due to his attraction to Catherine, the juxtaposition of this scene with the next one makes this obvious. Realizing that he stands to lose Catherine to Rodolpho, Eddie sets out to discredit the Italian immigrant by telling her he is only interested in marriage to secure American citizenship. His efforts have no effect on Catherine. The stage directions refer to Eddie’s “eroded command” (p. 42) and Eddie leaves Beatrice to convince Catherine that she should be suspicious of Rodolpho. Beatrice’s interests are different and she admits as much to her niece in a frank exchange which explains her position: “That’s why I was so happy you were going to go out and get work, you wouldn’t be here so much, you’d be a little more independent. I mean it. It’s wonderful for a whole family to love each other, but you’re in the same house with a grown man” (p. 44). We may disapprove of the way she pushes her seventeen year old niece into marriage, but at least Miller has given us some insight into her point of view. Beatrice’s understanding of Eddie is given further credibility through the use of the narrator figure, Alfieri, the lawyer. He makes exactly the same point as Beatrice later in Act I: “We all love somebody, the wife, the kids – every man got somebody that he loves, her? But sometimes... there’s too much. You know? There’s too much, and it goes where it mustn’t” (p. 48). Beatrice’s version of the situation provides an alternative to Eddie’s. Her failings and strong points stand in opposition to his.

29The character of Catherine is not examined in anything like as much detail. The word “baby” is used several times to describe her and even though she manages, with the help of Beatrice, to stand up to Eddie, her newly-won independence is soon given up to Rodolpho and she quickly finds herself back in the role of the helpless child: “I don’t know anything, teach me, Rodolpho, hold me” (p. 63). Although Miller is concerned with letting Beatrice express her distress, he does not seem to be interested in studying Catherine’s reactions to finding herself the object of her adopted father’s desire. She is only allowed to express reactions of anger or disappointment, with the result that her childlike awe and wholehearted admiration of Eddie disappears and is replaced by an equally unequivocal contempt at the end. Both attitudes end up being discredited since both are excessive. It is as though Miller’s interest in the character is limited to the brief moment when she switches allegiance from Eddie to Rodolpho. Once it is clear she will not change her mind and give him up, Eddie turns his attention to Rodolpho and the play changes focus too.

30The character of Rodolpho is obviously important for the plot and his arrival coincides with Catherine’s first real step into the adult world. In Eddie’s eyes he is a rival for Catherine’s attention. It is hard to imagine a character more different from Eddie. Marco is described in the stage directions, but it is the characters on stage who comment on Rodolpho’s appearance. If Catherine’s comments show she finds his blond hair attractive, this is a feature which especially troubles Eddie: “And with that wacky hair; he’s like a chorus girl or sump’m” (p. 35). Eddie insists on several aspects of Rodolpho’s appearance which suggest femininity. He is slightly built and has a high-pitched voice. Eddie tells Alfieri: “This ain’t no tenor. I mean if you came in the house and you didn’t know who was singin’, you wouldn’t be lookin’ for him you be lookin’ for her” (p. 47). Later on Eddie lists Rodolpho’s accomplishments sarcastically: “It’s wonderful. He sings, he cooks, he could make dresses...” (p. 55). In case the audience misses the sarcasm, there follows an explicit comparison between Eddie and his younger rival: “I can’t cook, I can’t sing, I can’t make dresses, so I’m on the waterfront”, followed by an invitation to Marco to go to a boxing match. Eddie seems anxious to prove to Catherine he is physically superior to Rodolpho, more manly and, therefore, by implication, a better partner. Eddie is not content to proclaim his strength, he wants to demonstrate it. He does this firstly by hitting Rodolpho as he pretends to be giving a boxing lesson. This first attempt fails and Catherine starts dancing with Rodolpho as if she was not impressed by brute strength. The second attempt goes further. Eddie, having found Catherine and Rodolpho alone together, seizes Catherine in a fit of sexual jealousy and kisses her. He then tries to humiliate Rodolpho by physically overpowering him and then kissing him. Eddie’s efforts all go unrewarded. He cannot shame Rodolpho into defeat because the latter does not share his views about what a man should be and do.

31We may wonder why Miller chose to pit the aggresively male Eddie against the more sexually ambiguous Rodolpho. Possibly, Catherine is attracted by the very qualities that distinguish him from her “father”, but this is not explored in the play. Other interpretations may well provide some explanation for Eddie’s hostility. Since Rodolpho is so different, Eddie does not know how to deal with him and this leads to further frustration. It also perhaps gives Eddie some reason for distrusting him. Rodolpho’s behaviour strikes Eddie as frivolous. He spends his money on records and clothes. While this is no proof of a lack of sincerity, it is not typical in this community where men work hard to provide for their families. In any case, the audience might have some sympathy for Eddie’s lack of confidence in someone who seems to have no respect for the work ethic. Rodolpho, unlike Eddie, seems to have little concern for what others think of him. In short, Rodolpho’s role in the play is limited to the private sphere and he is essentially an outsider in the community. His fate does not have any significance for anyone outside the family. If Eddie had betrayed only Rodolpho to the authorities, his act would have been a simple act of personal revenge with limited consequences since the younger man could have become an American citizen by marrying Catherine anyway.

32Miller seems to want to make Eddie’s confusion and anger credible, by deliberately reinforcing Rodolpho’s unconventional aspects. There is an outside chance that Eddie was right to distrust him. Despite his failings, Eddie should not be seen as a monster or we will reject him. However, Miller also seems to be unwilling to let him off the hook too easily. We are to feel sympathy for him, but we must also condemn his actions. Marco, on the other hand, makes an ideal innocent victim. What other function does he serve in the play? Marco is actually very similar to Eddie in a number of ways. He is closer to Eddie in age, appearance, and more importantly, in behaviour. Marco is a husband and father who has come to America to be a better provider for his family. Eddie makes no secret of the fact that he both understands and admires Marco’s conduct. If Rodolpho seems effeminate to Eddie, “Marco goes around like a man; nobody kids Marco” (p. 35). The parallels between Eddie and Marco are very obvious. Both are seen explaining their grievances to Alfieri, the lawyer, in similar terms. For Eddie, Rodolpho is a thief: “I take the blankets off my bed for him, and he takes and puts his dirty filthy hands on her like a goddam thief!” (p. 49) while Marco complains about Eddie: “He robbed my children, he mocks my work” (p. 79). By the end of the play it is Marco who is in control of the situation. His words and deeds carry weight, not Rodopho’s. No compromise is possible between Eddie and Marco. Either Eddie apologizes and loses his reputation or Marco denies the truth to protect Eddie’s reputation. Neither solution is morally acceptable. We should also remember that there are two other innocent victims: two other immigrants staying upstairs who are arrested with Marco and Rodolpho. Eddie’s conduct has repercussions on the lives of several families.

33Miller sets himself the task of finding suitable punishment for Eddie while somehow salvaging his dignity. In the end, neither Rodolpho’s apology, nor the pleas from Beatrice and Catherine have any effect on Eddie, because they offer only a private solution. Eddie dies therefore defending his good name in the arms of his wife. In the final sequence of the play, he is the given a eulogy by Alfieri who praises Eddie’s refusal to settle for half. According to the lawyer: “he allowed himself to be wholly known” (p. 85), but he never admits the truth to himself. In this play we are left with the impression that a man’s good name is actually more important than the truth. As in Salesman, it is the hero whose suffering ultimately holds our attention, because it is double: both private and public.


  • 15 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, op. cit., p. 419.

34In the three plays we have studied, Miller is anxious to show how private behaviour and public conduct interact. This explains why the home and family life are at the centre of all three plays. Although the wives and children are present and suffer as a direct consequence of the heroes’ actions, the plays do not really focus on them. There are a number of reasons to explain this. Firstly, we can note that in all three plays it is an action carried out by the hero which sets the play in motion. In all cases this is an act of sexual betrayal, even if Eddie, in View, does not actually commit adultery. The theme of sexual betrayal could have been used by Miller to study the failed partnership in some detail, however, he does not do so. The three wives are not given much attention as individuals since they are primarily used to develop the audience’s emotional identification with the hero. Nevertheless, it is possible to detect a change in Miller’s portrayal of the wife character in particular and women characters in general over the years from the writing of Salesman to the reworking of View. Miller writes in Timebends that he made View into a full-length play: “by opening up the viewpoint of Beatrice”15. It is certainly true that Beatrice is a much more assertive character than either Linda Loman or Elizabeth Proctor, however she does not manage to influence her husband’s conduct. Likewise the introduction of a more ambivalent woman character, Abigail, into The Crucible, does not ultimately detract from focus on Proctor, since she is quickly discredited and removed. There is little outlet for the private grief of the three wives.

35The dominant emotion in the plays is not grief but guilt, sexual guilt, that experienced by the three heroes, whether they acknowledge it or not. The action in the plays is the result of their attempts to deal with this guilt. It is important to stress the fact that the heroes’ actions have far-reaching consequences, so that it is not just their wives who are affected. Betrayal of their wives leads them to become caught up in a struggle against much stronger forces. Willy takes on the mechanisms of a capitalist society in his search for success. Proctor is pitted against the combined forces of religion and the law. Eddie has the law, family, friends and neighbours against him.

  • 16 Ibidem, p. 342.
  • 17 Idem.

36Although the three are guilty at one level of betraying their wives and children, to a certain extent they are redeemed by their determination not to be destroyed by this guilt. They continue asserting their belief in certain values and die defending these values. Hence Willy dies to help Biff succeed in life, Proctor dies to protect his good name and Eddie dies to avoid being labelled an informer. We are expected to admire this behaviour whether or not we agree with their objectives. We admire their resistance not because they are necessarily right, but because of the effect their resistance has on others. Miller makes this point about The Crucible but it can also be applied to the other plays: “There were moments when an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling”16. He then goes on to speak about how tragedy affects the audience: “they must have had their therapeutic effect by raising to conscious awareness the clan’s capacity for brutal and unredeemed violence so that it could be sublimated and contained by new institutions”17. It is only the men characters who are given the potential to affect the outside world by their conduct since, it is through their failings that society’s values can be tested. In other words, there is a shift from private to public morality. The downfall of the three individuals does not undermine society, it reinforces it. Their action takes on a collective significance for the community. This is of course in keeping with tragedy which ultimately serves to make social bonds stronger. It is fitting that Miller, still under the influence of the role of the artist as it was in the thirties, should choose this form. However, by choosing ordinary men as his heroes, and linking their tragic flaws to sexual betrayal, Miller’s plays also tackle domestic issues. Whereas the plays allow the men characters to make the transition from domestic drama to tragedy, the women characters are confined to the private sphere. They are only seen reacting to subjects of immediate concern to them. Their conduct has no effect on the outside world, and they do not seem to act with this aim in mind.

  • 18 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, op. cit., p. 326.

37To some extent, Miller is simply reflecting American society as it was at the time with most women assuming the traditional roles of wife and mother. We may, however, speculate that Miller’s tendency to focus on male characters, which persisted long after social change opened up new perspectives for large numbers of women, may also be due to his attempts to come to terms with his own experiences. A play like View can tell us something about Miller, something he only became aware of himself much later. In his autobigraphy, Timebends, Miller writes of his reactions to watching Robert Duvall in the role of Eddie in 1965: “As I watched Duvall, the most unimaginable of incarnations came through to me from his Eddie Carbone – I suddenly saw my father’s adoration of my sister, and through his emotion my own. When I wrote the play, I was moving through psychological country strange to me, ugly and forbidding. Yet something in me kept to the challenge to push on until a part of the truth of my nature unfolded itself in a scene, a word, a thought dropping onto my paper”18. Instead of describing Miller’s theatre as a man’s world, it would perhaps be closer to the truth to describe it as a man’s view of the world.


Works Cited

Bigsby, C.W.E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, Vol. II. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. Harmondworth: Penguin, 1960.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

The Crucible. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

A View from the Bridge. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

Timebends. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Robinson, James A. “Both His Sons: Arthur Miller’s The Price and Jewish Assimilation” in Marc Maufort (ed.), Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama. New York: Peter Lang, 1995, 121-139.


1 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, New York, Grove Press, 1987, p. 408.

2 Ibidem, p. 15.

3 Quoted in Bigsby, C.W.E., A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, Vol. II, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1984, p. 207.

4 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, op. cit, p. 588.

5 Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire, in A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1962.

6 Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961.

7 Miller, Arthur, The Crucible, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968.

8 Miller, Arthur, A View from the Bridge, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961.

9 Quotations will be taken from the Penguin editions of all three plays.

10 This is discussed in Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, New York, Norton, 1963.

11 Richard Wattenberg gives many examples in his bibliography accompanying “Sophie Treadwell and the Frontier Myth: Western Motifs in Machinal and Hope for a Harvest” in Maufort, Marc (ed.), Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theater and Drama, New York, Peter Lang, 1995, p. 339-350.

12 Fiedler, Leslie, Love and Death in the American Novel, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1960, p. 182.

13 Robinson, James, “Both His Sons: Arthur Miller’s The Price and Jewish Assimilation” in Maufort, Marc (ed.), Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theater and Drama, op. cit, p. 124.

14 Idem.

15 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, op. cit., p. 419.

16 Ibidem, p. 342.

17 Idem.

18 Miller, Arthur, Timebends, op. cit., p. 326.

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