What links London’s latest hit musical An American in Paris, a revival of Incident in Vichy – an Arthur Miller drama not seen in this country for 50 years – and the centenary of the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, who continues to enchant more than 70 years after she perished in the Holocaust?
The clue is in the titles of the theatre pieces. Arthur Miller’s Incident in Vichy concerns the fate of 10 men detained in Vichy, France, at the height of World War II in 1942, when Vichy became notoriously synonymous with the French government of Marshal Pétain that collaborated with the Nazis. An American in Paris, freshly adapted from the much-loved Gershwin movie musical, is reimagined with a story set in the City of Light in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the war. The heroine is a young Jewish ballerina safely hidden by Parisians, while her parents have disappeared in wartime Provence. And the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, escaping Nazi Germany to take refuge in the South of France, was herself arrested in Villefranche in September 1943 aged just 26 – within a month she had been murdered on arrival in Auschwitz.
Set in the detention room of a Vichy police station in 1942, Miller’s drama explores the ways paranoia among those detained by the Nazis could descend so easily into guilt and fear, making it all too easy for the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Ten men wait to be called. At first, the strained and nervous discussion is about why they might be there (a random pick up, routine check on their papers), but it soon emerges that some (or most) are Jews who have fled German-occupied northern France for the southern, ‘unoccupied’ Free Zone.
How strangely Miller’s first great hit resonates with today, in ways no one could have predicted. This beautifully measured play opens with shots of laidback family life in a typical American small town where everyone knows one another. Comfortably-off factory owner Joe Keller’s backyard is a focal point, where he and the neighbouring doctor are reading the papers. “What’s today’s calamity?” jokes David Horovitch’s amiable Joe. Cue gales of ironic audience laughter, with the US election so raw.
For a play that unfolds like a Greek tragedy, it’s surprising how much laughter is built into these opening scenes. But that’s the point: drama, and especially tragedy, is an interruption of routine.
“My first attempt at a play, rather inevitably,” Arthur Miller once wrote, “had been about industrial action and a father and his two sons, the most autobiographical work I would ever write.”
You may not have heard of Miller’s play No Villain. It was his first, written when he was just 21, and submitted for the $250 Hopgood Award in drama at the University of Michigan, where he was studying in 1936. As the prize was worth about a quarter of the average family income at the time, it was extremely valuable to the Miller family, who had become impoverished during the Great Depression of the early-30s in the USA.
This month BBC Radio has joined in the celebrations of Arthur Miller’s centenary (he was born 17 October 1915) with a terrific season of dramas and documentaries exploring his life and work on Radio 3, 4 and 4 Extra – including the broadcast world premiere of The Hook, which had its world premiere on the stage earlier this year, as reported in Jewish Renaissance. Read on for all the necessary details, and if you miss/have missed any of the programmes, they will be available on BBC iPlayer for a month after broadcast.
In the mid 1940’s Miller was captivated by the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn that contained so many docks and landing piers. He was fascinated by the close community of longshoremen (dockers) and their precarious life of casual day hire, unsafe working practices and exploitation by corrupt Union officials in thrall to the Mafia. Intrigued by the death of Pete Panto, a longshoreman who vanished after confronting Union corruption, Miller wrote “a play for the screen”, believing that cinema could be a more democratic way of playing his story to the community he was writing about.
Director Gregory Doran is in no doubt that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the greatest American play of the 20th Century, addressing not only the heartbreaking conflicts within a family, but also bigger issues of national values and uncritical acceptance of the American Dream.
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful – or more iconoclastic – production of Arthur Miller’s shattering meditation on family relationships gone bad and immigrants trying to make good in 1950s New York. But director Ivo van Hove comes close.