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“A Satisfactory Realism”–Why High School Students Embrace A View from the Bridge
Report by Mike Kaufhold
Heh? Ya know what I mean?
Hey Beatrice. HEY BEATRICE!
In my high school’s corridors, I’m seldom greeted with a conventional, “Morning Mr. K,” or “H’ya doin’ Mr. K”? More often than not, many students simply let out with a pretty fair Brooklynese variation of one of the above clipped expressions of Eddie Carbone from A View from the Bridge. And each time this happens, my day is a little bit brighter because I know that Arthur Miller’s works live on.
Though I’ve included all or part of at least eight of Miller’s writings in my American literature classes over the nineteen years I’ve taught high school English, A View from the Bridge, and to a slightly lesser degree, The Crucible, remain unchallenged as the most popular selections as judged each year by the teen-aged readers. There are solid reasons for this phenomenon.
Setting the background for View for young readers requires little or no hype, only a few facts from Miller’s engaging biography–Timebends. After all, who in the canon of American writers has led a more extraordinarily interesting life? Timebends contains a wealth of anecdotes, which plumb the depths of Miller’s investment in his creative works. Long before Act One of View when Alfieri recounts to the audience that in this Red Hook neighborhood, “Al Capone [learned] his trade on these pavements, and Frankie Yale was cut precisely in half by a machine gun . . . “(4), we know from Timebends that Miller lived and worked in the “dangerous and mysterious world at the water’s edge”(149). Particularly taken in by the heroic efforts of a young dock worker named Pete Panto, who attempted a revolt against the mob-controlled unions and haunted by a story of lawyer-friend Vinny Longhi, Miller seemed to know subconsciously a play was unfolding before him. Disgusted with the iron control of the hiring bosses on the docks, and beckoned by the belief that “Europe was where the thinking was going on . . . and America was suspiciously becoming unreal” (155), Miller embarked on a trip to Italy with Longhi. Absorbing the culture with a keen eye and ear, Miller was exposed to an even greater depravity of the common worker than he had witnessed in Red Hook. The hopelessness he witnessed is echoed in Marco and Rudolpho’s accounts of Sicily throughout the play. Now steeped in Italian culture and having survived a tension-filled chance meeting with famed gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano in Sicily, as well as other adventures, Miller was able to admit that “Italy was giving me the courage for the play that was forming in my head” (164). For students who have been subjected to a steady diet of Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, and The Sopranos, not to mention the classic Godfather sagas, the link to underworld intrigue is an irresistible hook.
“A satisfactory realism”
Initially, it may be the language of the play that grabs young readers like Coleridge’s ancient mariner. A reaction by one of this semester’s junior year students is typical: “I don’t usually like to read plays, but this one really hit home for me. I liked the way [the characters] talked, and I was interested during the whole story. I would like to see this play in a theater.” To allow them to appreciate more of an actual theater experience, my students read along with a recording of the 1965 Ulu Grosbard off-Broadway run starring Robert Duvall as Eddie and Jon Voight as Rudolpho. (Caedmon TRS 317) This production Miller singled out as a performance that ” . . . magically captured the play’s spirit” (Timebends 373). In his essay “About Theater Language,” Miller delineates the difference between conventional realism and poetic or prose realism. A play leaps from the conventional to the poetic when it captures “the language of family relations . . . the inclusion of a larger world beyond” (81-82). The language of View is certainly “conventional” in a sense that it’s the way a Brooklyn dock worker in that neighborhood would talk. Referring to Marco, Eddie allows, “Yeah, he’s a strong guy, that guy. Their father was a regular giant, supposed to be” (33). Spoken by Duvall, these lines resonate with realism. However, what Miller refers to as a “larger world” and the “poetic” in his essay is the interplay between Eddie and his family, and between Eddie and society as a whole. Thus, if we are to become entwined with the characters, we should note that the language may have “a surface of everyday realism, but its action is overtly stylized rather than natural” (“About Theater Language” 95). Early in Act One, a passage powerfully read by Duvall “overtly stylizes” Eddie’s protective reaction to seeing Catherine’s new skirt: “Now don’t aggravate me Katie, you are walkin’ wavy! I don’t like the looks they’re givin’ you at the candy store. And with them new high heels on the sidewalk–clack, clack, clack. The heads are turnin’ like windmills”(7). Eddie’s tone, combined with the stage note that Catherine is “almost in tears because he disapproves” (7) foreshadows the depth of the emotional attachment we will discover between these two characters, an attachment that will, indeed, eventually bring on the “larger world beyond.”
Later in Act One when Rudolpho shares his plan for his message service and his blue motorcycle, Jon Voight’s reading seems to reflect what Miller labels in Timebends as that ” . . . fruity, mangled Sicilian-English bravura, with its secretive, marvelously modulated hints and untrammeled emotions” (153). Voight extends the language into the poetic by not only sounding like a young Sicilian immigrant, but also by capturing the deep-rooted nature of Rudolpho’s entrepreneurial skills, as well as his admirable work ethic. When Rodolpho explains: ” . . . a man who rides on a great machine, this man is responsible, this man exists. He will be given messages” (26), he gives us reason to believe in his sincere intentions with Catherine and to thus reject Eddie’s unfounded dismissal of him as “a hit-and-run guy” (37). It is at this point in the play that for many young readers A View from the Bridge becomes as much Catherine and Rodolpho’s story as Eddie’s. If I’ve noticed one thing over the years about young readers, it is that they seem to verify the theory that a story is not complete until the reader brings his or her own experience to it. And when Miller claims that if a play is to achieve a “satisfactory realism,” the story must contain “a certain amplitude of sound . . . and reflect a deeply felt culture”(“About Theater Language” 95), we find that A View from the Bridge succeeds on both counts.
When Familiar Worlds Are Shattered
In discussing The Crucible in Arthur Miller and Company, director Howard Davies suggests that “one possible approach to the play is to see it as a rebellion of youth against age”(93). Certainly, young and older readers alike can appreciate the accusatory power that the young girls of Salem Village enjoy, albeit for a brief but turbulent period. But there is little to admire about their motives and/or their intentions. In A View from the Bridge, Catherine and Rodolpho give us two characters who, to be sure, also represent a rebellion of youth versus age, but who are likable and who triumph in the face of tragic circumstances. The more we are exposed to Eddie’s petty suspicions of Rodolpho, the more we can celebrate the words of Dr. Stockmann from Miller’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People: “It’s a necessity for me to see young, lively, happy people, free people burning with a desire to do something”(25). And while Eddie wrestles with the “trouble that would not go away” (29), young readers tend to gloat in his insecurities and his false sense of self-importance.
The power of A View from the Bridge for young readers seems to lie in the recognition of the need for a different kind of “bridge”–an understanding that will bridge the generation gap. The intolerance shown by Eddie in his macho stance against Rodolpho is seen more as a lack of acceptance of anyone who is “different” than a sincere concern of a father-figure for the welfare of his ward. In the eyes of youth, Rodolpho provides us with a well-rounded character that, ironically, possesses one of the qualities that Eddie most admires–he can “scramble.” Rodolpho has done manual labor, has worked in the fields, can cook, sew, and sing, and even holds his own in an impromptu boxing lesson with Eddie. And while Beatrice is entirely accepting of Rodolpho, younger readers do not identify with her unflagging obedience to Eddie’s decrees, especially her reluctance to attend the wedding.
Furthermore, Beatrice’s rebuke to Catherine, “What ever happened we all done it . . . ” (82), tends to ring a bit hollow to younger readers, who do not necessarily share her assertion of this collective guilt. In Act One, Catherine is “astonished” and “strangely moved” when Beatrice points out that she must stop throwing herself at Eddie like “when [she] was twelve years old” (40). And when the stage notes suggest that it is “as though a familiar world has shattered”(41), we begin to set ourselves for the inevitable explosion. Catherine’s world is, indeed, obliterated in Act Two with Eddie’s kiss of betrayal. By rejecting her choice of a life mate and turning his back on his entire extended family, Eddie has betrayed not only Catherine’s sense of unconditional familial love, he has also distorted her wider understanding of communal love.
Most students agree that the passion that drives Eddie to his taboo kiss is driven more by his homophobic dread of Rodolpho as a “son-in-law” than by any genuine feelings of desire for Catherine. Readers also note that Eddie is described as “unsteady, drunk” (61) as he enters the apartment. What Eddie seems to represent more than anything else at this point is what critic Steven Centola recognizes as “the ideal father myth” (57). Similar to All My Sons‘ Chris Keller and Death of a Salesman‘s Biff Loman’s recognition of this phenomenon, Catherine now understands Eddie’s “absurd conception of himself as above the law and his society” (Centola 57). And while it is well documented that typically many teenagers can communicate more freely with grandparents than with parents, younger readers at this point in the play look for a voice of truth. Enter the grandfatherly Greek chorus provided by Alfieri: “I’m warning you [Eddie]–the law is nature. The law is only a word for what has a right to happen” (65). This is a law that the youthful Rodolpho instinctively knows–a “law” that he teaches to a willing pupil–Catherine. In turn, they both triumph over Eddie’s betrayal.
In 1991 when Arthur Miller visited Millersville University to receive an award for excellence in the humanities, I wanted to do something out of the ordinary to somehow call attention to the fact that high school students appreciate and understand the impact he has made in American letters. I made arrangements to hang a large banner on a fence along a main street that Miller’s limousine would pass as it entered the town. The banner read: “Dove Pete Panto?” Later, that day, I was able to greet the playwright in a receiving line. While shaking hands with him, I asked him if he had seen the banner. “You did that?” he asked warmly. In the lingering second we stood there, a kind of knowing twinkle appeared in his eye. I’ve always been glad I put up that banner.
Bigsby, Christopher. ed. Arthur Miller and Company. London: Methuen, 1990.
Centola, Steven R. “All My Sons.” Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977.
Miller, Arthur. A View From the Bridge. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
__________. “About Theater Language.” In The Last Yankee. New York: Penguin, 1994.
__________. Arthur Miller’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People. New York: Penguin, 1979.
__________. Timebends. New York: Grove, 1987.
From: Vol. 3 May 2001 p. 9-11
Teaching Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
By David V. Garey
In the fall of my junior year in high school, the Drama Club held auditions for its production of Death of a Salesman. My English teacher at that time, Mrs. Katz, after listening to my portrayal of Juror Eight, in our class reading of Twelve Angry Men, encouraged me to audition. After she assured me that I would not have to sing or dance, I expressed a mild interest. She handed me a copy of the script. When I got home that afternoon I locked myself in my room and began reading. It was one of the most moving works that I had read. I determined that I was destined to play Biff. After days of reading and re-reading excerpts from the play, the moment for my audition arrived. I gave it my all in front of the drama teacher, Mr. Dubin. The next day, the cast list was posted on his door. I won the role of Bernard. I was crushed.
Despite the trauma of having to wear horn-rimmed glasses and a geeky cardigan sweater at my high-school debut, Death of a Salesman remains one of my favorite plays. The script from high school remains on my bookshelf and I have continued to pick it up at times to read scenes to myself aloud. More importantly, however, is my revenge, which has been more than sweet. A few years ago, I was hired to teach English in the same high school I attended. My classroom is next to, of all teachers, Mr. Dubin’s. As Death of a Salesman is required reading for the curriculum we both teach, I now have the pleasure of playing the role of Biff as often as I like, next door to the man who denied me the pleasure of doing it in the first place. It gets better. Last year, he and I were sitting in the faculty room when he said, “I heard you reading the other day. You really did a great job with Biff’s lines. I imagine the kids really got into it.” I smiled and thanked him. Turning away, I caught myself muttering, “What an anemic.”
Maybe it is my passion for the play that lures my students into it. I don’t know. All I can say is that when June rolls around every year, and I ask my students which of the literary works affected them the most, the majority usually replies Death of a Salesman. When I ask them to explain why, they usually respond that they learned more about themselves from the remaining hours of Willy Loman’s life than anything from most of the other characters that they have studied. To me, this is the greatest compliment a student can give to a novel or play.
I begin my unit on Death of a Salesman with the most compelling element of the play–its premise. My students are fascinated once I tell them that we are going to watch a man, whom we know is going to die, contend with the shadows of his past as he navigates his way through his last twenty-four hours of life. Before I distribute the books, start the video, or even mention the title of the play, I direct my students to freewrite, for ten minutes, from the perspective of someone who knows he or she is about to die. They are to write out the thoughts that they think would pass through their minds at that time. Afterwards, as we discuss their writing, my students invariably begin to express their regrets before they have even happened. I then write the title of the play on the board and explain that Death of a Salesman is about, among other things, regrets and how we can overcome accumulating them.
When we begin reading the play, most students are immediately drawn into Willy’s glorification of the past. They talk freely about how their parents and grandparents always refer to the “good old days” or “how things used to be.” In general, they say that they find most of the stories boring, that they are obviously exaggerated. I then ask a few students to tell me their favorite childhood tales. This year, Barbara, a young lady who always speaks up in class, happily recounted the details of the playdates she used to have with Mary, one of the other girls in the class. In the course of reminiscing, she embarrassed Mary a few times by divulging the secrets of Mary’s elementary school crushes. We all laughed and shared similar stories. Eventually we began to explore the significance of our discussion. We acknowledged the value of the present, for it will one day be the past.
As our study of the play progresses, most students begin to detest Willy because of the way he treats people. They jump a bit when he snaps at Linda. They feel bad for Bernard. They want to see Charley knock him out. Above all, the children are appalled by Willy’s extramarital affair, especially given the care and dedication with which Linda provides him. This leads to an engaging discussion on personal values. Most students, especially the young men, exclaim that they would never end up like Willy. I remember Jonathan talking about his alcoholic uncle, about his volatile temper and abusive speech. Willy bore too much of a resemblance to Jonathan’s uncle for him to feel anything but loathing for him. At this point, I ask students to reflect on their behavior, on the actions that they have taken against their parents, siblings, peers, and teachers. We discuss fighting, betrayal, cheating, and disrespect. They come to realize that no one is innocent, least of all each of them. We talk about compassion, and that we might regret our behavior today in the future. I often encourage students at this point to make amends to those that they have hurt. They see Willy as a man who has never honestly evaluated his actions and is now haunted by the demons of his past as a result. They grow increasingly uneasy as his denial slowly pushes him into a corner from which he will not be able to escape.
The dysfunctional home life of the Loman family is another element to which some of my students unfortunately relate. Reading Death of a Salesman has been a cathartic experience for a few of them. A student last year, Melissa, suddenly exclaimed during the fight at the end of the play, “Holy crap! We’ve got to stop for a minute. I feel like I’m at home.” It was Brian this year, though, that I will never forget. Apparently, his father had just left him and his mother two weeks prior to Christmas without any warning. After Christmas break, Brian volunteered to read Biff. I spoke to him privately about his decision, yet he remained determined to play the role. His performance was outstanding. After we had completed our study of the play, Brian came to me one day after school to thank me. He said it felt great to yell without catching hell afterwards. I think he, as well as a few other students, learned about the importance of venting their feelings.
Miller’s portrayal of the relationship between fathers and sons is perhaps one of the most powerful and haunting aspects of the play. The boys in class, especially those that are athletes, relate deeply to the unrealistic expectations that Willy places on Biff. When we talk about the Ebbet’s field game or Willy’s exclamation, “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman!” the boys just somberly nod. They empathize with the need to crawl out from under the load that has been placed on them by their dads. Another group of boys, as well as some girls, relate to Happy’s search for approval. They are the kids that never seem to measure up to the accomplishments of their older siblings. When considering Happy’s self-delusion, especially at the end of the play, students recognize the dangers of comparing their abilities to those of others. At that point, I sometimes assign an exercise in which students must write a monologue that is set at Willy’s grave five years after the end of the play. They are to portray either Biff or Happy. The results are usually predictable–Happy remains a “philandering bum” in one way or another and Biff has somehow managed to start his ranch out West. Either way, it is rewarding to see students become aware of the shadows from which they must emerge and, in some cases, see them take a few steps towards that end.
As we approach our final assessment of the play, we explore Willy Loman as a tragic hero. This class discussion usually focuses on Willy’s tragic flaw–his lack of self-honesty. My students begin to see in Willy, as well as his sons and wife, the dangers of not being honest with themselves about their abilities and dreams. I teach this play to students who will be graduating from high school in eighteen months and I’ve seen many young men and women view this play as a sort of awakening, that it is time for them to become more realistic about their aspirations. This year, for the first time, I had two students, both on the football team, write in their character analyses of Biff that they both saw the need to look beyond high-school sports. Bernard’s pointed comment, that Biff never trained himself for anything, struck home.
The most valuable lesson that Death of a Salesman teaches kids, though, is to go on living, no matter what happens. Suicide and the seriousness of depression are subjects that need be discussed in high school frequently. Willy’s suicide troubles my students. No matter how much I prepare them for the play’s tragic ending, most of them are shocked when he drives off in the end. They were hopeful that someone, somehow, might intervene, or that Willy’s sense of false hope, in the end, will prevail. They want to see Willy come to his senses; they mourn when they realize that he is too far gone. When I hit “stop” on the VCR and turn on the lights, my students are usually silent for a few moments.
As some begin to speak, they express just how disturbing Willy’s suicide is to them.
Teaching Death of a Salesman has afforded me many opportunities to reach out to teens in a meaningful way. As we study the play, I get to see kids reflect on their past, evaluate their behavior in the present, and plan a little more realistically for their future. By the time we are done, I notice a stronger sense of purpose in some students. In others, I see a sense of relief. They have come to realize that they are not alone in their struggles. No matter how I look at it when we are done, I think of Happy’s final lines, “Willy Loman did not die in vain.” From the impact that I have seen him have on my students, I would heartily agree.
From: Vol. 7 June 2003 p. 5-7