Director Lindsay Posner finds something primal and truly disturbing in Arthur Miller’s play
The day’s rehearsal is about to commence. The actors sit or stand around chatting, telling anecdotes, prevaricating, pouring one last cup of coffee — anything to avoid the moment when they have to begin committing emotionally and psychologically to Arthur Miller’s text. Why, I ask myself, is A View from the Bridge proving so difficult to rehearse? This is not due to laziness on the part of the company, but an awareness that the play’s action unfolds as relentlessly and remorselessly as any Greek tragedy; demanding intensities of emotional and psychological expression which crash through conventional barriers and resonate in the world of myth. To have rehearsed Miller’s text and mined its complexities means to have come into contact with something primal and truly disturbing. Thank God for tea-breaks!
I reassure the actors that our imminent run-throughs and indeed performances in the theatre will be liberating and less draining than rehearsals. In a rehearsal one has to repeat, for only through repetition can the osmosis of a character and his or her physical and psychological journey be developed and fully realised. Through repetition comes freedom. The continual re-enactment of guilt towards wife and family, suppressed sexual desire for one’s niece, and the self-destructive betrayal of tribal law can become exhausting — even for the experienced Ken Stott, who plays Eddie Carbone. Dread of my words ‘one more time’ makes him long for a fag-break. Things will certainly become easier when we move into the theatre and the actors undergo their journeys only once a night — in front of a live audience whose attentive energy both crystallises their performances and feeds into adrenaline levels.
I write this during the latter stages of rehearsal, but the process began rather differently. The first day kicked off with a nervous read-through, when the actors received an initial sense of the play’s journey and the sound of Miller’s language and rhythms. The company chew over the words, intermittently committing to emotional moments in the drama. In the afternoon the designer Christopher Oram and myself show the set model box to the company, illustrating the physical dynamics of the street, the atmospheric Red Hook tenement block and the Carbones’ living room in which most of the action takes place. Costume chats come later when the actors have more of a sense of who they’re playing. I then deliver a lecture, placing the play in its historical context.
I tell them that in writing A View from the Bridge (1955) along with Death of a Salesman, All My Sons and The Crucible Miller produced four of the 20th century’s greatest post-war tragedies. All this in an age not conducive to tragic form. In a century that had experienced two world wars and the literal and symbolic reductiveness of the Holocaust, a focus on one man’s death seemed presumptuous. Absurdism in art seemed the natural product of the concentration camps — despair elevated to philosophy and aesthetic form. Miller resisted the notion of absurdism, of values being subverted by irony. The function of art, he insisted, was not to sanction a view of man as victim but to constitute a resistant force. What he wished to do was create modern tragedies; providing a moral framework and injecting meaning into experience. To his mind Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg had pointed the way, creating bourgeois tragedies which reflected a shifting social and political world. Miller wanted to go further, and find in the common man a tragic sensibility — in the case of A View from the Bridge Eddie Carbone. We are drawn to Eddie Carbone as we are to Oedipus or Lear, because of the absolute nature of his commitment. With Eddie as the focus, I tell them, Miller wrote a play about the nature of informing — in this case what drives a man to inform on his wife’s relatives to the Immigration Bureau. This was inspired in part by Miller’s response to his long-time friend Elia Kazan naming names during the McCarthy hearings. A View from the Bridge is also about incest — Eddie’s unspoken desire for his niece Catherine. Miller’s father’s sometimes unhealthy intimacy with his sister, and the playwright’s affair with Marilyn Monroe — a woman 11 years his junior — no doubt helped him explore the dilemmas facing an older man in thrall to a younger woman.
We then leave the world of academia and plunge into the nitty gritty of examining the text. The following ten days are spent around the table studying the psychological intent, the meaning of Miller’s language, and the intentions of his stage-directions. It is crucial to establish a consensus of understanding in the company, to ensure everyone is acting in the same play. The actors then spend the next few weeks on their feet, rehearsing a few pages at a time, receiving directorial notes from me and then repeating the same few pages and moving slowly until we have worked through the entire play in this fashion. This process is then repeated, with hours sometimes being spent on one moment — for example the kiss between Eddie and Rodolpho. We discuss its dramatic purpose and representation: should it be violent? Sexual? Mutual? How passive should Rodolpho appear? Should he resist? Why does Eddie kiss him?
Much time today is spent deciding whether or not to use blood for Eddie’s stabbing at the play’s end. The arguments run as follows: surely if the dramatic moment is rendered powerfully and truthfully enough the audience will not question the absence of blood. However, the use of blood would surely make the moment truly shocking? Having established this, wouldn’t pints of blood be needed to make a stabbing realistic? No, surely a small amount of blood dripping from the knife when pulled out would suspend disbelief? Practically, how do we avoid blood ruining actor’s costumes? Cost-implications! As yet the artistic and economic arguments concerning the use of blood remain unresolved.
Once the details of dramatic action take on a developed physical form and precision of focus, I begin to hone the language rhythms of the text. All good plays have their own internal music, and until this is properly realised the argument of the play will lack clarity. Curiously, we discover that some of the language reflects Miller’s Jewish Brooklyn roots rather than those of the Italian community.
Beatrice: ‘All right, I’m sorry; I wish I’d drop dead before I told them to come. In the ground I wish I was.’
We have now reached the run-through stage of rehearsals, and next week we enter the theatre. Here’s hoping.
A View from the Bridge previews at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 23 January. Box office: 0870 060 6623; www.aviewfromthebridge.co.uk