Everything Apart From Coloured Leg Warmers

Friday, November 03, 2006

another McCarthyism essay

Does Arthur Miller fail in his indictment of American political policy to intervene in the lives of citizens regarding their choices? Base your answer on Eddie’s betrayal of Rodolpho, considering Eddie as a representative of the law.

Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, first performed in 1955, is the conclusion of a trilogy of plays (the others are Death of a Salesman and The Crucible) in which Miller expresses his feelings on the complex American political and social scene in the turbulent early Cold War period. In A View from the Bridge Miller uses his protagonist, the illiterate longshoreman Eddie Carbone, as a symbol of the culture of reporting one’s friends and close acquaintances (in this case, family) to the law: a particularly chilling facet of life in an America dominated by the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican who exploited the fear created by the conviction of Alger Hiss (a senior State Department official exposed as a spy for the USSR) to lead an unscientific and frequently unlawful anticommunist witch-hunt.

The play operates on two principal levels: a drama about sexuality and sexual jealousy; and a political drama about the evils of McCarthyism. It is true that some knowledge of McCarthyism is required for the reader to appreciate this level; I do not regard this as a failure on Miller’s part, as he was obviously aiming at the theatregoing public of his time who were well-acquainted with political cultural works such as Miller’s other plays, Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront, and a few years later, Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove. Eddie Carbone is at the forefront of both storylines. It is interesting to compare the plots of the three versions of the play: in the original, poorly received American version, a one-act play, the sexual drama is emphasized and Eddie dies at Catherine’s feet; in the London version, the two-act text that Miller chose to preserve, the sexual drama is played down and he dies in Beatrice’s arms; and finally, in the Paris stage version that some critics regarded as the finest, Eddie commits suicide. In my view the final scenario presents the most convincing critique of McCarthyism, as Eddie himself is shown to be repulsed by his own deeds. Yet it is the official, London stage version that is in question here, and it is in this version that the play must be explored.

Miller’s representation of the evils of McCarthyism is Eddie’s betrayal of his wife’s cousins Marco and Rodolpho, illegal immigrants from Sicily. Just as many Americans reported their acquaintances as communists, Eddie reports his two kinsmen to the Immigration Bureau: largely due to his sexual jealousy, as his niece Catherine (who he is attracted to) is in love with and betrothed to his wife’s cousin Rodolpho. Eddie is killed by Marco, and this act is shown by Miller to be an act of righteous vengeance. Eddie is simple-minded, irrational and eventually unethical in his actions: in Miller’s view, the typical qualities exhibited by those Americans who told on their friends.

Miller’s allegory is neither an unqualified success nor a total failure. Throughout the play, the culture of reporting is clearly seen as contemptible and indeed evil. The early illustrative example of Vinny Bolsano, a man exiled by society for reporting his relatives to the Bureau, is the first sign of this. Bolsano is portrayed as someone who deserved his bitter fate: importantly, Eddie too shares in the contempt for Bolsano’s actions. To Miller’s 1955 audience, it would have been clear enough that the culture of reporting to the Immigration Bureau represented the culture of reporting to the Tydings Committee (a Senate committee greatly influenced by McCarthy) and the House Un-American Activities Committee (a committee that McCarthy was not directly linked to but that was certainly McCarthyist in outlook).

Eddie’s character and actions are reprehensible in several ways, at least in theory. He betrays two members of his wife’s family who are apparently righteous men who have, objectively, done Eddie no personal harm. His incestuous feelings for Catherine lead him to become violent, unpredictable and unstable. The incest is thrown in the attempt to make Eddie an even more flawed character, but Miller fails here on a fairly obvious point: although Eddie and Catherine have a father/daughter relationship that make his feelings incestuous even though they are not related by blood, Rodolpho and Catherine too are fairly close relations, and blood relations at that: a fact that Miller chooses to ignore. Yet objectively speaking it is obvious that Eddie has committed foolish and heinous crimes.

Miller’s failure is that his depiction of Eddie does not allow the audience to despise him and his deeds fully. For Eddie is, throughout the play, doing what he sees is right; his betrayal may on its own be an evil action, it is not the action of an irredeemably evil human being. And his feelings for Catherine are most certainly feelings he did not want; indeed they are an attraction that he fights against, albeit unsuccessfully. It is also easy to see why he dislikes Rodolpho; Rodolpho represents everything except what Eddie values in a man. Miller fails to make the audience side decisively against Eddie.

My final criticism is that the choice of allegory itself is rather ineffective. Whereas the analogy of the Salem Witch Trials, used by Miller in The Crucible, were a highly relevant example of irrational persecution that fit well with McCarthyism, the issue of immigration is a very different matter. Persecuting citizens regarding their ideological views is not comparable to the entirely justifiable policy of securing one’s borders and formalizing immigration that is practised by every country on Earth. To consider Eddie’s betrayal as truly representative of the diabolical culture of McCarthyism is to regard the movement of people as something that should be completely free and unregulated: a notion manifest in its idiocy and indeed lunacy.

Miller strives to bring out the theme of McCarthyism in the play. He succeeds up to a point, in that the play’s protagonist unfairly reports his relatives in much the same way as many Americans reported theirs in the 1950s. But in the end, it is almost natural for the audience to sympathize with and even side with Eddie. It shouldn’t be.


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