Arthur Miller’s THE PRICE: A Conversation with Scholar Dr. Susan Abbotson

Posted on: April 6th, 2017 by Leah Reddy

On March 11, 2017, Dr. Susan Abbotson spoke about Arthur Miller’s The Price with teaching artist Leah Reddy as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series. An edited transcript follows.

© The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos

Leah Reddy: Welcome Dr. Abbotson. I’d like to start by placing this play in the context of Arthur Miller’s life. How do his life experiences intersect with the plot and themes of The Price?
Susan Abbotson: It’s a play that Miller literally carried around in his briefcase for a long time. He actually started writing it in the early fifties and he had this huge manuscript that he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with and eventually he decided it was too big for one play. He split it into two plays. Believe it or not, the other play that came out of this was After the Fall, which he completed, first, in 1964. In After the Fall you have Quentin’s family, the same issue with the two brothers: one that goes off and one that stays home. That part is played out there as well as how the parents become estranged after the husband loses his money. You have that element in After the Fall. He slipped these details in slightly differently, and obviously he plays the characters in different ways. What I think sparked Miller’s decision to go back to some of the outtakes of After the Fall was that his father died in 1966 and that made him think to come back to writing this play in which the father becomes more central. In The Price the father has died 16 years earlier but he writes this play in the year following his father's death and it opens in 1968. It spoke about what he was feeling at that time.

When The Price came out, it got mixed reviews. But it did well, and ran over 400 performances on Broadway. There were some of those more begrudging critics who really weren’t his fans like Robert Brustein, and John Simon, who excoriated him and said, “It’s mediocre. It’s second rate Miller. Miller’s not that great anyway. It’s old-fashioned. It has nothing to do with the times.” Miller was quite hurt by them. He actually argued back that it had everything to do with the times. When you think about America in the 1960s, Vietnam was a big issue. Even though Miller never mentions Vietnam in the play, The Price was partially a response to that. What he saw was the way in which we tend to disassociate ourselves from the past and recreate the past in a way that feels more comforting. Miller was always anti-war. He campaigned against going into Vietnam. He saw America as having blinded itself to its past. The fact that America had probably, even though seeing herself as the innocent in the Vietnam War, may have actually initiated the conflict through her earlier meddling in the region. America through the ‘50s had that fierce anti-Communist streak that made people very paranoid, and fearful of potential communist rule in Vietnam. Miller felt as though he was trying to channel some of that tendency for revisionist history into the play, although he only ever talked about it being like Vietnam much later. At the time, I think it was more of a reaction against what he saw going in at the theatre. He had huge hits in the ‘40s and ‘50s with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman and The Crucible--although that wasn’t a hit for a few years. It was a bit of a sleeper until people felt comfortable with it. He had something of a hiatus and he had come back with After the Fall and Incident at Vichy. Both were written to open the Lincoln Center in 1964, and both were somewhat problematic, but both were, especially After the Fall, experimental. Miller comes back to basics with this play, a very realistic play, which is partly why critics felt it was going back to old Miller. But he really wanted to write what he felt was a well-made play of the kind he didn’t feel was going on, on Broadway. He felt that, with absurdism growing incredibly popular at that time, people were losing track of the simple fact of causality. In absurdism, nothing means anything, it’s full of non-sequiturs and behavior is just happening and you shrug and you sit and wait for Godot because maybe he will come along, eventually. He wanted to write a play where he tried to say cause and effect happens, that things we do in the past will come back to bite us. One of his favorite expressions was talking about the birds coming home to roost. The other night I was trying to count how many times he actually wrote that into essays and I was up to about six. “The birds come home to roost” for Miller was what you’ve done in the past is part of who you are, and you with have to embrace it and fully accept who you are. To try to resist it, or to put those blinkers on, pretend it never happened, to re-spin it to look it make look like you’re the hero and they’re the bad guy--then you’re not really leading an honest life, and you’ll never live as fully as you could.

LR: Your answer gives us a lot of the context of writing the play, but there’s an element of Miller’s own biography that was in the backstory of these characters and I was wondering if you could address that. 
SA: Indeed. What fascinates me about Miller is that you could see elements of his own autobiography in practically every play he wrote and yet he always denied that they were anything to do with his own personal life.  I think that’s because he felt in a way they weren’t. He took elements of his personal life and used them to make his characters feel more authentic but they spin out from who they were originally based on. Clearly, in Miller’s background, his father had literally come over from Poland with a tag around his neck. He was the last of his family to emigrate. At six-years-old, he came to America and was put to work right away, never went to school, worked hard in the clothing industry, built up his own company. His father had a company where they employed 800 people: The Miltex Women’s Clothing Company. Of course, he had everything invested in stock, so when the crash came along, he lost all his liquidity, the business went bankrupt and he struggled to pay people back because he felt he was bound to do that. At that time, Miller was an impressionable teenager looking at catalogues for college while his older brother Kermit, who was considered at that time the brains of the family and clearly someone with a lot of chutzpah. Kermit was at NYU doing really well and he basically dropped out of college to help the father. He tried to help keep the business solvent, whereas Miller, on the other hand, said, “I need to get out here. I need to go to college.” He managed to get himself a job working at an auto parts warehouse to earn enough money to basically take himself out of New York, out to Michigan to just sort of shed the family in a way. In many ways, Victor and Walter were Kermit and Arthur Miller to some degree but different, just as the father in The Price is different from how the father was. Miller has the figure of his mother and father in several of the plays.

After the Fall is another play when parents feature, and we do have the mother very much railing against the father bitterly for losing all the money. I don’t know if Miller’s mother actually threw up on Miller’s father, but she really was very viciously upset by it even though they stayed together. Jewish couples— in the 1930s -- were not going to get a divorce. You stayed together, you stuck it out. But she made a lot of speeches about “I gave up my career for you.” Not even a career as pianist but as a teacher. “I gave up my career as a teacher to marry you and this is what you gave me.” Miller’s mother was a very good musician, not a harpist, but a pianist. There are lots of autobiographical bits in the background in the play. Miller said he actually met an old furniture dealer just like Gregory Solomon. A lot of his plays have someone he’s met who he then evolved into a character, but they become unique to the play itself. At the end of the day the play is not autobiographical, it’s just using some figures from Miller’s personal history to become more authentic.

LR: I’m struck by how the play centers around a seminal event in Miller’s personal life: he was 14-years-old when the stock market crash happened, and he moved from a lovely apartment overlooking Central Park to a wooden frame house sort of out in the middle of nowhere in Brooklyn. He’s a very impressionable age. That major shift in his world is underneath a lot of the questions he asks underneath these plays.
SA: He said that the two events that affected him were the Depression, and what that did to the American psyche, and the Holocaust. The knowledge of the Holocaust, I think, informs other plays, not so much The Price. There is a great line in The Price when Victor’s talking about how it’s not so different now in the ‘60s. This is something the Miller saw himself. What people were saying during Vietnam wasn’t so different from what people were saying about the Spanish Civil War. What was happening in the ‘30s with the spirit of despair and revolution was the same thing that was happening in the ‘60s and he felt that maybe there were some lessons that could be learned from the ‘30s. He never saw the ‘30s as this rose-tinted, everyone-pull-together time. He knew there was struggling and suffering when the system failed, and you hear echoes about it in some of his speeches, especially what Walter says about what it was like back in the ‘30s. It’s behind a lot of Miller’s suspicions, I think, of the systems, especially of the capitalist system. It is prone to failure. It is prone to leaving people out on the edges.

Miller was a die-hard socialist who believed there was a way, if we really dug deep into American democracy, could have a more equitable society. It’s not that Miller was necessarily anti-capitalist, he just felt that certain people took capitalism a little too far. That was dangerous. You have a responsibility to yourself but you also have a responsibility to other people in society. The true goal is to try and find the balance. You have Victor and Walter here desperately trying to find that balance and they never quite meet. Don’t you want them to hug? Walter is holding out his hands and they nearly do but then Victor stands back. They can’t quite find that meeting place where the balance between the self and the other is. I don’t know if watching this play you felt drawn to sympathize with Victor or with Walter. Miller really doesn’t want you to be able to make that decision. You should be somewhat on the sidelines. He felt the both of them brought something to the table, the giant table that’s at the back of the set. By the way, in the original production the giant table was in fact Arthur Miller’s family dining room table which had been inherited by one of his aunts. The scenic director was obsessed with getting great furniture and had actually had Miller take him over to his Aunt Kate’s (who had inherited the piece) so that he could buy the table to put on the set.

LR: That actually reminds me that the furniture dealer was also inspired by Boris Aronson, the set designer.
SA: A Russian immigrant, yes, who had worked with Miller on a bunch of his plays. He tended to work with Boris Aronson a lot, there was also Jo Mielziner for some of the earlier plays. But Boris, he really enjoyed going around with him, obsessing about getting the right furniture and talking about the way different furniture pieces looked and felt, and Solomon channels that a little bit.

LR: And the vocal patterns as well.
SA: Absolutely.

LR: For Roundabout regulars, Aronson was the original set designer for Cabaret and he was the one who put the giant mirror in so that audiences can see themselves as they came in. He is influential particularly in Roundabout’s history but all of theatre’s history.
SA: Oh yes, definitely one of the greats.

Photo by Joan Marcus

LR: Let’s talk about the character of Esther. What do you think is going on with Esther and maybe more broadly the women in some of Miller’s work?
SA: I’m going to be in Boston for a conference in May and one panel is going to be on Miller and women. It’s a hot topic at the moment because people are looking at these characters, and the fact is that they’re interesting to play. They attract great actresses. I think Jessica Hecht was wonderful as Esther. I love her interpretation and I know she’s played other Miller characters. She was in After the Fall. She played Louise who is interesting because in the original big manuscript Louise, who is the first wife of Quentin, is based on Miller’s first wife Mary Slattery with whom he raised his first two children. There’re elements of Esther in Louise. Women in Miller’s plays, especially in the ‘40s and ‘50s, even into the ‘60s, show a certain kind of dependence on the men in their lives that I think was more of the time period. It would have felt inauthentic to him to write a woman who was totally independent.

I think that some of his later female characters, from ‘80s on, become more independent, possibly because of his 40 year marriage to the wonderful Inge Morath, a photographer, who was very independent and had this lovely career alongside Miller’s own. I think with his first wife Mary, part of what pulled them apart was that he had this great career and Mary was this homebody, raising kids. I think he recognized that there were a lot of women in America in the ‘40s and the ‘50s who really did have very powerful longings and I think we get that sense with Esther. She’s frustrated. What other options does she have? Her relationship with her husband is very like Linda and Willy Loman. Victor on many levels is like another Willy Loman; the guy who settles for doing something that perhaps isn’t quite his real nature because he thinks that it’s the right thing to do. Linda, like Esther, has this deep love for her husband, but frustration that she’s not getting what she wants out of life because she can’t get him to get what he wants. I don’t think Miller writes women as doormats, I think he writes them as very three-dimensional, interesting characters, but women definitely are held back by the societies in which they are living to some degree.

LR: What strikes me is that the characters in The Price are all at a transition point in the sense that they’re redefining their careers, and with her son gone Esther can’t figure out how to redefine herself now that she lost her primary activity.
SA: One of the things I was paying attention to, as we watched the play, is this wonderful armchair. The armchair is the one the Dad sat in for all those years while counting his money on the side, presumably. Throughout the play, I’m sure you noticed that at different times of the play different actors sit on that chair. If you look at what’s happening at the time they do it, it’s interesting. It’s this game being played. There’s that wonderful opening we had where there’s a spotlight on various iconic items that are on the set. It started off on the chair, then it moved to the mother’s harp, which is nicely set at the back here. For a while we had this moment with the chair with the footstool and the radio, like a little family with two kids on each side, the two sons in a way. Then the spotlight, moved over there to the Victrola and we have it on this loveseat as well. The characters move in between these four iconic items and their relationship to these items gives you a sense of their changing dynamic. They are all changing. They’re trying to decide which of these iconic items they identify with and the only one who really discovers what he is Gregory Solomon. He sits on that armchair laughing, and drawing it all together in a way, because he’s understood what it’s all about.

In the original Broadway production they had a few difficulties casting-wise. The director Ulu Grosbard had worked with Miller before and they were fine, but for some reason the actors and the director were not hitting it off. They were having a lot of arguments, things weren’t quite working out and in the end the original Walter, Jack Warden, quit. He just couldn’t find his way into the play. Arthur Kennedy took over his role and then the actors kept arguing. Grosbard left just before the show opened and Miller had to take over as a director. The actors were basically saying, “We really don’t know how to play the roles.” They didn’t feel like they were getting enough direction from Grosbard, so they asked Miller, “What are we supposed to do?” He basically simplified it into two questions for each of the actors. He said, “First of all, what is the price? What is the price that your character has paid? The second: What are you looking for? What is it you have got for that price you have paid? What is it that you are looking for?” That apparently allowed the actors to feel their way into their roles. They’re all searching and looking for what is it they got. And they’re not sure if what they got is what they wanted, which I think is pretty human. A lot of us feel like that, especially when we get into our 50s.

LR: Would you say this play is realism? I know Miller always said that he thought he was writing poetry and hiding it from the audience.
SA: The play actually began as a poem. Chris Bigsby found a poem in Miller’s collection about two brothers and a father. Miller quite frequently wrote plays, such as The Crucible, A View From the Bridge, in verse and then translated them into prose. Miller was always called a realistic playwright--but what is realism? All his plays have this beautiful layer of symbolism. People call him realistic, I think, in the style of Henrik Ibsen who is one of the writers by whom he was very influenced, but those middle plays of Ibsen are realism in that they deal with real characters and real situations and address real social problems, but they’re full of symbolism. They are crafted in such a way that one wonders, is that truly real? Is that real life? I think you can say the same for this play. We can believe that these characters exist. They are psychologically real to us and I think the situation seems authentic and it addresses real issues certainly, but there is this beautiful symbolism, with the certain icons on the set. Some of that was done here by the director. Some of it was done by Miller’s notes. It’s realism but wears this imagistic heft that I think makes it more interesting. I also think it’s what makes his plays stay relevant.

Audience Question #1: I found myself vacillating between Walter as the hero and Victor as the hero and I’d be curious: In what ways do you empathize with Walter? And in what days do you empathize with Victor?
SA:  Miller always said we need both Walters and Victors in this world.  As Walter points out, he saved people’s lives. Walter has maybe realized that he’s heading down the wrong path. A very selfish path for a very long time and he’s reached a point where he recognized that and he’s trying to fix it. I think we can start to sympathize with him. I think his reaching out to his brother, however awkward and tacky it is, it is genuine. We can also admire the fact that he has gone out and done stuff, whereas Victor has contributed to society in a different way but has perhaps held himself back in fears of his own inadequacy. It’s very clear that he and Esther are very close and a loving couple and they have a very successful son, which is deliberately in contrast to Walter with his divorced wife and estranged children — clearly not a close-knit family. Walter has some things that he’s gained; Victor has some things. Both have lost something too. Walter has the line in the play when he says, “We’re like two halves.” Both have things to sympathize with, both have annoying habits too that you’d like to shake out of them.

Audience Member #2: Bob Brustein really didn’t seem to appreciate very much about Arthur Miller and I wonder if you could discuss Bob Brustein a bit, what do you think t he misses about Arthur Miller that you, with all your experience, really appreciate?
SA: Bob Brustein basically run down all of the big name dramatists at the time. He went after Williams and Miller. I think a lot of it was to make a name for himself. You take pot shots at the big guys if you want to get yourself in the news and he got himself a nice Harper’s cover story. I’m not sure why he didn’t like Miller other than it’s good to not like what has been fashionable if you are trying to ride the crest of the next wave of fashion. I find Miller’s plays incredibly good theatre. I have seen so many productions of Miller’s plays. Sometimes I think, do I really have to go and see this production of The Crucible? And then I go and I get blown away. Part of it is that I think they’re so well-written they can take on, like Shakespeare, so many interpretations and be done in different ways. I think that’s what makes them very attractive to actors and directors and producers. But audiences too, never fail to respond. I loved hearing the laughter in this play. A lot of people think of Miller as this serious voice of America, which was a label given to him by some critics, not one he took one willingly himself. But Miller’s plays are filled with comedy, even in the tragedies like Death of a Salesman, they can be played with some very funny scenes. Miller’s writing delivers in the theatre. I think it’s good theatrical writing. I see a lot of modern plays--which I enjoy for the moment--but in the end, they don’t quite stay with me like Miller’s plays usually do.

Audience Member #3: In the end Solomon sits in the chair. I know you had said he sits there and laughs not just because of the record. What is he realizing?
SA: Life. Belief. He’s realizing that he made mistakes in the past. He even forgot one of his wives. But life goes on. He embraces the fact that his daughter committed suicide. My goodness, as a parent, I can’t imagine anything more awful than that for a parent to have to deal with. He deals with it. He takes a deep breath, he eats a hard-boiled egg, he spits it out a little. The egg! It’s so symbolic of life. He’s a life force. He’s nearly 90 years old and he’s going to start again. Yes, he’s laughing because he’s full of life and belief and he’s trying to teach these youngsters about that, but they’re too wrapped up in their own guilt maybe to see it. He realizes that you have to embrace that guilt and go past it, which is something that runs through a lot of Miller’s work.

Audience Member #4: Could you tell us a little more about how long it took to write The Price and whether he did a lot of revising of it, or whether or not he was happy with it?
SA: Yes, he was happy with it. Some of the later plays he revised and wasn’t sure how to get to where he wanted. His play Broken Glass, he actually had produced with three different endings. He kept changing the endings. With The Price it was a long gestation period. It started with an idea, some seeds from family experiences. Then he split into it into two plays, took out those elements which he turned into After the Fall. And then after his father’s death he focused in on the two brothers and their different visions of what that meant and how they responded and reacted to the influence of the father in their lives. He wrote what we saw fairly quickly and he was happy with it. It was more like Death of a Salesman which he apparently wrote in three weeks—he just rattled that one off and loved it, and he didn’t have to change a line. I don’t think he felt like he needed to do a lot of revision on this one.

Audience Member #5: One of the surprises that came out at the end of the play was that the father had $4,000. But what happened to that money? Was it saved?
SA: Within the play Walter says the father gave it to Walter to invest for him. What then subsequently happened to that investment is not actually stated in the play. It’s clear that Victor never got any money, so maybe he left it to the local synagogue? I don’t know. That is a hole in the plot. The money, what happened to it? Did Walter take it? Maybe that’s why he feels so guilty. When the father died, Walter was in charge of the portfolio, presumably. Perhaps he just took that money, and perhaps that’s why he’s so eager to give money to Victor. I think those offers he gives Victor do seem a little suspicious. It’s clear that he feels guilty about something and maybe he took the dad’s money and he just can’t say it.

Audience Member #6: I don’t understand why some of the characters think that the cop is a failure. He had a steady job, he provided for his family, he looked out for his father. Why is this guy considered a failure?
SA: For the same reason Willy Loman thinks he’s a failure—because there was something different that he wanted to do that he didn’t do. Because he lives in a society that doesn’t value what he’s done. He has worked hard. He has raised a great kid. He has a loving wife. Yes, he should be happy. That’s the American Dream, which Miller liked to critique. Too many people have what Victor has and they are not happy. Maybe because it’s not enough for his wife. She wants more and so maybe he feels like she’s pushing him the whole time. It is a tension between honestly viewing oneself and what one thinks society wants you to do or believe. It comes back to that question that Miller asked the actors: what do you want? What exactly is it that Victor wants? And I think if you ask the character that question, I’m not sure he can answer it, and that’s his problem. If he could answer that question then maybe he can embrace his life just like Quentin does in the end of After the Fall.  He embraces the idiot child and Holga, and moves forward. Quentin embraces his own failings in a way, and that allows him then to move on and believe in himself. You’re right, Victor should be happy as he is, but he isn’t.

LR: That gives me an opening to a question I’d like to ask. You’re British. How is the American Dream viewed from that perspective? How do you understand Miller’s obsession with the American Dream?
SA: Miller gravitated towards England in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the ‘90s, he premiered his plays in England rather than in America because he didn’t feel he could get a fair shot in America with American critics. British critics were, he felt, far kinder and got what he was doing. The Arthur Miller Centre is at East Anglia University not in America. When he was having his landmark 80th  and 85th birthdays, they did huge celebrations in England for him. In England, all students in the A-levels study Arthur Miller. He’s an iconic writer in England. I came to America to study because I was so fascinated with American literature as a whole. When I got here, I couldn’t decide which aspect I was drawn to. For a while I thought I was going to write about Holocaust drama, but then I actually went to see a play by August Wilson, Fences, and in the program I read a a comment about how Fences is really the African-American version of Death of a Salesman--and I thought, no it’s not. Yes, it has a father and two sons and a father who has an adulterous affair and I think that’s about it. Then I started looking deeper and I thought Arthur Miller and August Wilson actually were very similar in very different ways, and I ended up writing my doctoral thesis on the comparative study of August Wilson and Arthur Miller. I found it fascinating. What I found was that at the core, both of them have this humanistic belief—the belief in the potential of people to be better.

In so many of Miller’s plays he has characters say, “You can be better, you can do better.” Miller was attached to the Bill of Rights, American democracy, and that’s what he saw as the true American Dream. He fought for that. That’s why his plays were so critical about what he saw as the faults of America. He wanted to try and steer America back on the right track of the potential of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to understand that the pursuit of happiness doesn’t necessarily equate to the pursuit of success. You can be happy with less. The happiest person for instance in Death of a Salesman is Charley. He’s got a son who’s doing great, he’s got a wife and kids. He’s comfortable, but he’s not a big business man. He lives next to Willy so he can’t be making that much money, but he’s happy with what he has. Often times the ideal in those plays is slightly off to the side, it’s not the central character necessarily. In this play, it’s Gregory Solomon. In Death of a Salesman, it’s Charley.

Audience Member #7: Victor is only 50 and he seems to think his life is over and done. It seems like the play has Solomon in it to show him that it isn’t over. If you look at this guy he’s 89 and he’s going to start again. It seems Solomon was showing him the way but Victor never really managed to grab it. 
SA: Victor does go on with his life with his wife and he’s got $1,150 in his pocket. He’s got some extra money. He can buy her a nice fur coat. I don’t think he’s ever going to be happy with his life because there are certain elements of his past that he can’t embrace. He’s created his version of what happened and that has created who he is now. It’s the cause and effect. He’s not probably going to be able to break out of it. He can’t quite embrace his brother and he can’t get the message. You’re right, Solomon is beating him over the head with it and he’s just missing it.

Audience Member #8: Did the University of Michigan have any influence on Miller?
SA: He actually originally enrolled as a journalist major. He went out there because partly it was relatively cheap and he felt it was within his means, and he knew that Michigan had at that time, and still does have, annual writing awards. I think that when he originally got there he thought that he would do nonfiction, but he ending up writing plays and winning awards for plays. He went there partly because he knew he could afford it, partly because of the awards, partly because it was away from the family and it had a reputation of being a radical campus. When he first got there he signed up for The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper. He was sent to rallies, reported on union issues, and speakers coming to the campus and this is where he really developed his socialism. That’s what brought him to Mary Slattery, his first wife. He had listened to some of the soapbox guys on street corners back in New York, and he was intrigued, but it was really Michigan that allowed him to really developed those beliefs. He and Mary went to a lot of rallies, they signed pledges. When he graduated from Michigan he was offered a very lucrative position to go write for the movies, but he turned it down and said, “No, I’m going to back to New York and write for the theatre.”

His friend Norman Rosten said, “Come on, come on—we’ll get you in with the Federal Theatre and we can write together, we can write something meaningful.” He wrote very leftist radio dramas, which were spouted back at him by HUAC during the Red Trials. Some of the stuff he had written then was quoted back as a way to try to prove he was a Communist in spirit. He, like most American intellectual leftists of the period, was drawn to Communism, but also repelled by it once they saw how restrictive it was, especially Russian communism.

Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

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2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price

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