|It is incredible to think that 19 years separate Arthur Miller’s fabulous tragi-comedy The Price from Death Of A Salesman, his earlier excavation of the shattered American dream. The plays could be companion pieces, a two-pronged assault on the worship of the market economy that has taken to calling itself neo-conservatism.
Set in a condemned New York apartment in 1968, it sees upright cop Victor Franz, his wife Esther and his brother Walter wrestle with the ghosts of the 1929 Wall Street crash which, the story goes, ruined the brothers’ formerly wealthy father. Forced by the imminent demolition of the building to undertake the sale of his dead parents’ furniture, Victor calls in Gregory Sol omon, an 89-year-old appraiser with an eye for fine antiques and much else.
As an insight into the terrible personal and familial consequences of an economics which is, typically, discussed in clinically abstract terms, the play has strong echoes of Death Of A Salesman. Where it differs, however, is in the role of its protagonist.
Where, in the earlier play, the salesman Willy Loman can be seen disappearing down the drain of sink-or-swim capitalism, Solomon is no more of a victim than anyone else. Rather he is an observer and commentator, a Russian-Jewish migrant who, for all his years in the US, remains an outsider. His penetrating wit is not so much the detonator of the Franz family’s cataclysm as the explicatory soundtrack to their inev itable descent into agonising truth.
The subtle power of Miller’s writing set the standard for younger American playwrights such as David Mamet, whose brilliant critique of Reaganite social Darwinism, Glengarry Glen Ross, owes a detectable debt to The Price. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that Miller’s play continues to feel so modern.
There is more to the drama’s continuing relevance than ever-present economic anxiety, however. It is the time- lessness of the character of Solomon which, above all, establishes the piece’s status as a classic.
In this production by director Sean Holmes and designer Anthony Lamble (whose extraordinary set is the very essence of decayed grandeur), Warren Mitchell plays the part of the appraiser with an unforgettable combination of wisdom, eccentricity and comic chutzpah. Part New York-Jewish comedian, part Greek chorus, he shuffles around like a disappointed god who has given up on an unheeding humanity.
The Franzes (played beautifully by Larry Lamb, Nancy Crane and Brian Protheroe) become embroiled in an unwinnable, painfully revelatory argument about money, their family history and the modern American definition of success. The cost, as the old man knows, is the spiritual loss suffered by a society that knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
There is another price implied in the title. A promising scientist in his youth, Victor sacrificed his career to stay with his father after the Crash, taking whatever menial work he could find to maintain his old man’s dignity. Walter’s success as a doctor and entrepreneur (doing well in the nursing homes business) combines explosively with his apparent contempt for Victor’s “failure”.
These are great emotional and social themes, given wonderful structure by Miller’s genius and the sharp focus of this top-of-the-range West End presentation. Only a few American dramas, such as Miller’s own The Crucible (which comes to the same theatre early next month), could be said to surpass this excellent play.
There are currently no comments about this article