The Sins of the Sons

THEATER

by Marshall Cohen

The Price

by Arthur Miller
(Morosco Theater, New York)
(Viking Press, $4.75)

In a theatrical climate created by Brecht and Artaud, Miller’s dramaturgy is bound to seem naive and tepid, deficient in intellectual cogency and sensory excitement alike. It is repetitious as well. His new play, The Price, is another drama of guilt and responsibility, trust and betrayal, success and failure. And these themes are embodied, as they have been in The Man Who Had All the Luck and All My Sons, in Death of a Salesman and After the Fall, in the story of a father and two sons — the father a man in difficulties, the sons men of differing temperaments and moral psychologies. (The problem of the older man who sins with a younger woman, first announced in The Crucible and later re-enacted by the Arthur Miller figure and the Marilyn Monroe figure in After the Fall, is avoided in the present work.) If the themes are repetitious, the techniques are familiar: piecemeal revelations of the past, manipulated climaxes, heavily underscored symbolism. It is no surprise, then, to find familiar actors and the same old patrons. Arthur Kennedy, who created Biff Loman and who often returns from Hollywood to appear in Miller’s works, is again playing one of the brothers. And the audience, liberal, middle-aged, affluent, is, for the most part, the one that wept over Willy Loman and found in John Proctor the very type of a political hero. Miller’s audience is nostalgic, loyal, and — this is now the highest kind of praise for a Broadway play, especially for a play performed without intermission — grateful not to be bored.

Yet The Price is a moderately effective play, and it does not support the charge that Miller is simply repeating himself. His usual solemnity is relieved by an unsuspected vein of Jewish humor, his Ibsenian dramatic techniques are given a promising elaboration, and the play proceeds on moral and psychological assumptions quite different from those that governed his earliest efforts. The “attention-must-be-finally-paid-to-such-a-person” indignation of Death of a Salesman and the strident manichaeism of The Crucible no longer characterize his work. In After the Fall Miller’s surrogate, Quentin, recalls those earlier works, and days, as gone beyond recall: “The world so wonderfully threatened by injustices I was born to correct! It seemed so fine! Remember — when there were good and bad people?” In that prelapsarian state of innocence Miller believed that “bad people” (like Elia Kazan) ratted to congressional committees and Salem courts while “good people” (like Arthur Miller and John Proctor) refused to cooperate. Indeed, he felt strongly enough about the matter to break off his brilliantly successful collaboration with Kazan, and Jed Harris was called upon to direct The Crucible.

By the time After the Fall appeared, these attitudes were considerably altered. In that play, Quentin admits to feeling relief when one Communist friend he is committed to defending conveniently commits suicide, and he records the actions and motives of Kazan’s surrogate without condemning them. Miller underlined his new attitude by having Kazan himself direct the play. In The Price Miller seeks to avoid both the self-righteousness of The Crucible and the self-laceration of After the Fall. The play is an attempt at disinterested moral analysis, which he is unfortunately unable to sustain.

Victor and Walter Franz, the middle-aged sons of The Price, responded in sharply different ways to the collapse of their millionaire father’s business. Victor abandoned his studies to remain at home and lend support while Walter, not so gifted as Victor, turned his back on the family and plunged headlong after success. Miller suggests that there are two incompatible moral attitudes at work here, and in American society generally. One must choose between them — and pay a price. The price Victor pays is a blighted career and some gratuitous heckling from his wife; Walter’s is a broken marriage, a nervous breakdown, and offspring who are “investigating” the guitar while Victor’s son is off on a scholarship at M.I.T. This analysis is plainly of the pulp-magazine variety and an imperceptive slur on the younger generation to boot. But a more serious difficulty with the play must be mentioned.

If Victor and Walter are to represent the old morality and the new, if we are to concern ourselves with the price exacted by the life of duty as against the life of personal advantage, then we must, of course, believe that Victor has acted as duty requires. At the very climax of the play, however, in a revelation as illprepared as the production of Larry Keller’s letter in All My Sons, and as unconvincing as the scene of Biff Loman’s disillusionment with his father in Death of a Salesman, we are given to understand that this is not, in fact, the case. The Franzes’ father was not a ruined man, and Victor was in a position to know it. There was no moral dilemma after all, only a psychological trap. Our interest shifts from the price Victor pays for doing his duty to the source of the illusion that he had one. And this shift exacts a price of its own. Miller has time for only a few ambiguous hints about his true subject, the psychology of the Franz family. It is a nice question — very much in the spirit of the play — whether Miller’s delay in coming to the point should be regarded as an unfortunate miscalculation or a cleverly disguised form of avoidance behavior. But this question carries us beyond the bounds of dramatic criticism.

The play is set in the present, and its entire action unfolds in the attic of a Manhattan brownstone where Victor and Walter, long separated, meet to dispose of their parents’ furniture — to settle their family affairs. Victor has no taste for bargaining, and before Walter arrives he has agreed on a “sacrifice” price with the furniture dealer. Walter, when his busy schedule finally permits him to appear, feels no obligation to abide by the agreedupon terms and proposes an entirely new arrangement. It is far less advantageous to the dealer and requires Victor to treat his legitimate inheritance, at least for tax purposes, as a gift from Walter. In the end Victor rejects Walter’s suggested course of action and abides by the original agreement. In settling the price of the furniture with Gregory Soloman, the brothers have obviously re-enacted their earlier dealings with their father, and the action we see before our eyes suggests that the Franz father may have been in control all along, giving each of the sons what he most deeply wanted. For Gregory Soloman, the furniture dealer, is very much in control of the negotiation, and as the curtain falls he is seated in the father’s chair, laughing contentedly. Miller had a splendid idea here — the symbolic re-enactment of past events might well have put us in a position to understand the past — but the occasionally brilliant surface of his play does remarkably little to illuminate the obscurity at its center.

It is Miller’s visual practice to disguise his obviously Jewish characters as average Americans and to pass the corruptions of their English off as poetic turns of phrase. In Gregory Soloman he has finally given us a Yiddish-American character straight, and this canny, benevolent, resourceful ninety-year-old furniture dealer with a discharge from the British Navy is one of the best things he has ever done. Harold Gary scores an easy triumph in the part, but the rest of the cast, Pat Hingle, Arthur Kennedy, and Kate Reid, all excellent actors, can’t give much life to Miller’s cardboard cutouts. Boris Aronson’s overstuffed attic makes visible the oppressive weight of unredeemed time.