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Arthur Miller versus Elia Kazan, revisited

December 26, 2009 |  9:00 am


Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” starring Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber in a production  heading into previews in New York

next week, was written in the roiling depths of the Cold War. Director Gregory Mosher, working for the first time on Broadway after 17 years, thinks about how many young people have grown up since the Soviet Union

vanished. He says he hopes they will be drawn to Miller’s play, in part, by the casting. Johansson will inhabit the role of 17-year-old Catherine Carbone. Schreiber plays Eddie Carbone, her uncle.

Eddie’s jealousy of a young illegal immigrant Catherine falls in love with leads him to inform on him to the police, a betrayal whose political implications would have been recognizable to audiences familiar with the moods and themes of the Cold War.

Yet the play has fared well in the post-Cold War period. It drew audiences to the last production in New York in 1998, and London saw a "View" earlier this year. Mosher steeped himself in the history, especially the complex relationship of the two men whose relationship wove through its back-story.

This is what he calls “the interesting ping-pong match between Miller and [Elia] Kazan.”

Examining the back-and-forth between the two men, Miller, the playwright, and Kazan, the director, is like studying the interacting strands of DNA. Mosher speaks of both men with warmth, though he knew Miller better.

The dialogue between them developed amid what Miller called the “ideological war” stemming from divisions between the left and the right, and  divisions within the left.

By 1951, Miller had completed “The Hook,” a script based on Miller’s explorations of the Red Hook waterfront in Brooklyn, where “View from the Bridge” would take place. Miller and Kazan traveled to Los Angeles to talk with Columbia Chief Harry Cohn about making the film. Accounts of this episode differ, but there is general agreement that a boss in the Hollywood unions named Roy Brewer, who had strong ties to the anti-Communist right and the FBI, pressured Miller and Kazan to recast waterfront mobsters in "The Hook" as Communists. Miller quickly rejected it, getting accused of being un-American for not letting the film become a cultural instrument of Cold War rivalry.

In the next years, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) continued its investigation of artists and film people. After torturous self-questioning, Kazan chose to name names to the committee. Miller refused.

Kazan wrote in his autobiography of his warrior pleasure at withstanding his “enemies,” who judged him for giving names to the HUAC. He and Miller would never be friends in the same way again.

“On the Waterfront” dug into the same waterfront world as Miller’s “Hook.” Did writer Budd Schulberg draw from “The Hook” for “On the Waterfront”? It’s a matter of dispute. But it is clear that Schulberg had long immersed himself on the subject on his own and vigorously denied he took anything from Miller’s work. Schulberg worked closely on the screenplay with Kazan. Schulberg had also cooperated with HUAC.

Kazan’s account states that the film gave both men a chance to explore the waterfront story as a justification for his having listed names for the HUAC.

“On the Waterfront” was completed in 1954, and “View from the Bridge” was written in stages between 1955 and 1956. Both have informing, naming names to powerful authorities, as pivotal events, but with an essential difference. “On the Waterfront,” features Terry Malloy, the young longshoreman played by Marlon Brando, bringing down the corrupt bosses by testifying to a waterfront commission. The informer is a hero.

In “View,” the informer, Eddie Carbone, acts on his personal compulsion toward his 17-year-old niece, Catherine. He desperately tries to sustain his control over her and his world. He informs against the immigrant with whom she’s fallen in love. He’s a villain. Still, critics have praised actors like Robert Duvall and Michael Gambon for finding the humanity in him.

People have long taken “View from the Bridge” as one of Miller’s answers to Kazan, the clearer one being “The Crucible,” Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials. Richard Schickel, in his 2005 biography, “Elia Kazan,” says that "View" has long been seen as a “metaphor about betrayal and its consequences,” though the play isn’t directly political. 

Mosher says he didn’t have political history in mind when he decided to stage “View.” Still, he says he’s moved by how “the play shows that Miller grew in his conception of informing, that he became more compassionate. He focuses less on the victim of the informant than on the consequences that informing has for the one who does it, on the informer."

To read an account of the new production appearing in Sunday's Arts & Books section, click here.

 -- Allan M. Jalon

Photo: Miller, in 1950. Credit: Esther Handler